Insights from an impressive female CEO

Carol Leaman challenges, supports and inspires
By Karen Gorsline
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/21/2017

Carol Leaman is not your run-of-the-mill CEO. How many of us have sold a business to Google and then turned down a job there? How many of us have grown and sold three tech companies and then leapt into a fourth startup? Below are three insights based on her shared experience.

A new perspective

HR and learning and development can be seen as reactive. Even though there may be a large budget commitment to supporting learning, line-of-business leaders often do not see it impacting employee performance and results. A shift in reliance from “one-and-done” training to building knowledge relevant to performance directly focuses on supporting business results.

Learners want learning that is fast, fun and personalized to their needs. Technology that uses brain science can build knowledge through micro-learning to support retention, gamification and personalization to increase engagement, and link measurement of what is known and not known to business results.

An entrepreneur’s perspective

In a startup, employees do not expect much structure, but as the company grows, employees have an expectation of formal structure, programs and processes.

While some formalization is useful, it has to be approached in a way that supports the desired culture. For example, some perks, such as fancy premises or pool tables, are mistaken as culture — but they are temporary. Culture is when people come to work every day and have fun, enjoy the other people, and feel they have accomplished something meaningful. Every hiring decision can have a ripple effect on culture.

A woman who knows herself

Starting up and building companies is not for the faint of heart. It requires courage, passion, confidence and a broad set of capabilities. For a woman in technology-based startup businesses, it can be even more difficult. With notable exceptions, women are still not represented in science and technology in terms of educational enrolments, proportion of the workforce in industries, or in leadership roles. 

The stereotype of a technology entrepreneur is male. Women who do not match this expected whiz-kid profile may have trouble raising capital sufficient for a big initial market presence. The results aren’t pretty: a slower build, increased risk for those starting up, and the need for a track record to support investment.

Passion is supported by self-knowledge — knowing what you can do, what you love to do, and what type of environment gives you satisfaction. Passion makes it possible to commit to courses of action that involve risk because they have a higher likelihood of overall satisfaction. Leaman made that difficult tradeoff when not  accepting a job at Google. In spite of the difficulties and risks, she has grown another company that is one of North America’s fastest-growing companies.

The experience of Leaman: challenges leaders to re-examine how learning happens and how best to support knowledge building in their organization; helps entrepreneurs better understand that HR approaches evolve as their company grows; and inspires women to rely on their courage, passion, confidence and capabilities.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught human resources planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized human resources function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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