Episode 6: Frontline Forward

Grocery store workers. Retail associates. Contact center employees. Delivery drivers. We’ve always relied on frontline employees. But for many people, it took a pandemic to recognize just how important these employees are.

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Episode overview:

Sure, they’re in the spotlight right now. But is their recent rise in rank a flash in the pan? Moving forward, will they continue to shine? Or will their importance fade as things return to “normal”?

I sat down with Carol Leaman, a well-known and highly regarded business leader in the Canadian technology community, and founder and CEO of Axonify (who just happens to be my boss…), to discuss what’s in store for these essential employees and why the future of business is frontline forward.

Listen to our latest episode: Frontline Forward.

About the Guest(s)

Carol Leaman
Carol Leaman

Carol Leaman (BA, MAcc, FCPA) is an award-winning thought leader with an impressive track record of successfully leading tech companies. Not only is she a disruptor in the corporate learning space, but she’s also the brains behind the Axonify Microlearning Platform. Prior to Axonify, Carol was the CEO of PostRank Inc., a social engagement analytics platform she sold to Google. She was also the CEO at several other technology firms, including RSS Solutions and Fakespace Systems. Carol is a celebrated entrepreneur and trailblazer (Sarah Kirke Award 2010, Waterloo Region Entrepreneur Hall of Fame Intrepid Award 2011 and the Profit500 Award for Canada’s Leading Female Entrepreneur 2017) whose articles appear in leading learning, business and technology publications. She also sits on the boards of many organizations and advises a variety of Canadian high-tech firms.

About the Host(s)

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect
JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD Dillon became an expert on frontline training and enablement over two decades working in operations and talent development with dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. A respected author and speaker in the workplace learning community, JD also continues to apply his passion for helping frontline employees around the world do their best work every day in his role as Axonify's Chief Learning Architect.

Episode Transcript

Introduction  (00:00):

The 80% is brought to you by Axonify to learn how you can build training for your frontline workforce. That actually works. Visit

JD Dillon (00:11):

Episode six: Frontline Forward. Recorded on Friday, June 19, 2020.

The frontline workforce has surged into the public consciousness over the past four months during the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve always relied on the front line in both our personal and professional lives, but too often, the grocery store worker, retail associate, delivery driver and contact center agent among us went unnoticed and under supported.

Now they’re keeping our businesses and communities moving forward. As we continue to fight the pandemic and struggle to restore the global economy as businesses shift from reactive to proactive and begin to plan for the next normal, what will change on the front line? Will our heroes remain heroes? Will we recognize their efforts and improve their working experience long term? Or will we go back to the way things were before? Will the frontline fade back into anonymity? Today we’re sitting down with Carol Leaman to understand how organizations can do right by their frontline employees and make the necessary shifts in mindset and strategy to become frontline forward.

Carol is a well known and highly regarded business leader in the Canadian technology community. She has been named to the Waterloo region, entrepreneur hall of fame, and received the profit 500 award for Canada’s leading female entrepreneur. Carol’s latest venture Axonify was just named one of the 100 most promising technology pioneers of 2020 by the World Economic Forum, as well as one of the best places to work in Canada by Great Place to Work. She’s also my boss. There are two reasons why I want Carol to share her perspective. First, she clearly understands the importance of investing in our people in order to create a successful business. Second, Carol spends a lot of time speaking with CEO’s and CHRO’s of global companies about the importance of their frontline workforce, as someone who has committed her professional life to the frontline for over nine years now, she has a tremendous amount of insight into what it means to become frontline forward. Here’s my conversation with Carol Leaman.

Could you give us a quick introduction to who you are and how you got here?

Carol Leaman  (02:31):

Hi everybody. My name is Carol Leaman and I am the CEO and cofounder of Axonify. How did we get here? I am a serial entrepreneur. This is my fourth technology company in the last 20 years or so. This is one that, just totally, totally intrigued me eight years ago. Really thought there was a great market opportunity here that could change businesses for real. And we’ve been building it over the last eight years. I love it and hope to continue building it for many more years to come.

JD Dillon  (03:07):

The learning technology space is extremely crowded with tools that focus on a variety of industries and segments. What made you decide to focus on the frontline workforce?

Carol Leaman (03:17):

When we started this company, we identified a clear need in training, a frontline associate who got basically nothing, frankly, and still unfortunately to this day gets pretty much nothing. So it wasn’t an area of what we thought was enabling and supporting a massive segment of business employees that could in fact, through their performance every day really moved the needle on the business. We didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing, which was focused on corporate employees. Those that are salaried and low turnover, we wanted to address a massive market segment that we felt was really, really underserved.

JD Dillon (04:00):

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve seen to providing training and support to frontline employees over the years?

Carol Leaman (04:07):

The biggest obstacle we’ve had quite frankly, is that companies just simply don’t have a history of investing in the frontline employee. They have really put all of their focus and effort on roles that are lower turnover, salaried, more, what they would consider permanent.  You know, as we’ve been evangelizing the need and the benefit of enabling the frontline workforce, we’ve often encountered objections around “well, you know, they only stay with us for three months or six months. We train them, but then we need to train the next person. And it’s just this constant revolving door.” So there’s been this kind of belief system that’s developed over many decades that frontline folks just aren’t worth the investment. And that becomes the biggest objection. You know, we’ve been out there for eight years trying to change that mindset and, uh, happily, we’ve got some really, really well recognized global brands who’ve joined us on that journey and have really put their muscle behind, enabling that segment of their workforces because they share that belief that it well pays back if you do that.

JD Dillon (05:24):

And what kind of changes have you seen over the years with regards to how organizations think about supporting and investing in their frontline workforces?

Carol Leaman (05:33):

I think lots of things actually, particularly in the last five years have changed from a macro economic perspective, microeconomic perspective. And then right down to the level of the business that have meant there are different drivers of this change in mindset. So you have a segment of leaders in business who are quite forward thinking and transformational, and they come into roles where they think, okay, I’ve been hired because the business is struggling in some way, shape or form. And they believe in the power of people to change fundamentally how that business is doing. So they’ve got a transformational mindset and are looking for transformational tools to support their vision for the future. So we’ve certainly seen that as a driver.

Secondly, we see just the changing demographics of the workforce and they’re actually at the grassroots level, driving changes in approach to what they get from their employers regardless of role. And many of them are in frontline roles. So we see that the push coming from that and as well. And then, you know, I would say a third driver is that just the tightness of the workforce today, certainly up to COVID, there was a massive shortage in people who are skilled to forget about salary jobs, but any kind of job. So a lot of the folks who employ frontline have come to the realization that it takes a long time to hire them. And there is a massive benefit and keeping them as long as you possibly can. And so one of the elements of keeping them is giving them career opportunity, training them, making them feel engaged with the organization. One organization, I won’t mention, is a global brand said each new hire costs them $10,000. So if you can avoid hiring and rehiring, a thousand people multiply that by $10,000 a year, and you’ve got a massive, massive cost savings. And all it takes is a little bit of investment in those people to make them feel engaged with the organization.

JD Dillon (08:02):

We’ve now hit a familiar point in a lot of our stories recently, which is, and then the pandemic happened. So how have you seen the pandemic influencing the frontline conversation?

Carol Leaman (08:12):

It’s remarkable, to be honest, we have used the term frontline for a long time. Well, before the pandemic hit and the word frontline became prevalent everywhere, I, it really has accelerated, I think not just with corporate employers, but also with public generally about the importance of these people who serve the rest of us in so many things that we need and that are essential every single day. So it’s, it’s been a massive shift from the point of view of that recognition and the value and importance that people place on that role. It’s still, I do think impressions of the frontline are changing inside of organizations. We are seeing, I think, a renewed appreciation from a leadership perspective of what frontline is doing for their businesses, particularly those that have stayed open and have had to face the public and continue to generate revenue for those businesses while putting themselves at great risk.

We’ve all heard of organizations, increasing rates of pay for a period of time looking to offer certain benefits to the frontline workforce as a result of the pandemic. Now, the question is, is that going to continue? I do think that we’re starting to see that shift of, wow, these people are worthy of career growth and information. They want to learn just like everybody else. And it is in our best interests as an organization to foster that skill development and growth and connection to the organization because not only will they be better people and better performers for us, they will want to do those things voluntarily. And all of that will benefit us financially. So I do hope this is not a flash in the pan, and I’m starting to see conversations with customers now, willing to think a little bit more about, wow, we need to cross skill and upskill people. And not just assume they’re going to leave after three months or six months. And it’s just what happens. And therefore, we’re not going to do anything different. We’re starting to see that shift. And I do think hopefully that will turn into a title wave in the coming months and years.

JD Dillon (10:51):

This is an especially important conversation to have right now because organizations are starting to make the shift from reactive to proactive and plan how they’re going to operate in the next normal. So what does it mean to become frontline forward in the way that you approach your business?

Carol Leaman (11:09):

Frontline forward to me means many things, and I think it should mean many things to all of us. Organizations are largely globally composed of frontline workers. They are the biggest segment. They are the forward facing group within your organization. So when you’re thinking about training, you need to be thinking about frontline forward first, what do we give the largest segment of people that we invest in? And then they will lead your organizations forward into the new reality in the future and position your company in the best way possible

JD Dillon (11:50):

As a proven business leader with decades of experience and as someone who really understands how to build a great team and invest in your people, what do you say to executives who look at their front line as a cost center? And don’t recognize that value of investing in this audience, which frankly makes up 80% of the global workforce.

Carol Leaman (12:11):

Most possibly organizations, when they think about corporate employees, they are thinking only about the desk workers, the people who are salaried, and have low turnover. And you’re forgetting about these people and putting them in a different category, but they’re employed by your corporation. They are corporate employees. I think we need to start thinking about everybody in the business, not just those that sit at a desk in terms of how people think about this frontline forward is having that recognition that there is this massive, massive untapped segment of goodness that impacts your bottom line every single day and not in just a cost way. You’ve got a thousand people, 800 of them are selling your product are executing against fulfillment, doing things that are either customer facing or backend operations facing that have a very direct impact on your top line revenue. People forget that people don’t really take into account that they are actually having by far and away the biggest financial impact on your business for good and for the cost of anybody in the business.

And so why wouldn’t you invest in these people so that they can do a better job, be thinking about the organization more deeply, be exercising, good judgment, because they have the tools and the information at their fingertips that allows them to do a better job and not be guessing at things. And then don’t feel invested. Don’t feel connected to, I feel so strongly about this point of view that frontline workers are just a cost center. They’re just a necessary evil in the business because they do the work nobody else is willing to do. And it’s, it’s low value work. Retail associates either make or break your business. And like most human beings take a job because they actually want to do a good job. And it’s a total shame that they haven’t had the support and the investment over years to do the much better job for the organization that they’re capable of doing spending a few dollars a month, which is really all it takes to provide information.

That’s up to date changes on the fly as necessary, keeps them engaged, keeps them feeling like they’re a valued part of the organization and will keep them performing. And when you think about the ROI of a few dollars a month per associate with that retail associate, because they have really good up to date, current engaging information at their fingertips with that retail associate generates five more dollars of upsell revenue for you a month. If you invest in them for training, the answer is yes, they will ask the right questions. They will approach the customer appropriately. They will feel like they’re doing something good for their employer and their organization. And when you couch it in really those few dollars and cents, we’re talking pennies per hour per shift, it is a complete no brainer. And all it is is education and information in a way that they want to get it.

And the payback is enormous. So organizations need to stop thinking about the expense lines and start thinking about driving the top line much, much more significantly, because that’s really where the investment is going to pay dividends. How can the people listening who want to become frontline forward, build their business case, especially given the economic uncertainty we’re all now facing. If you don’t think differently about how to support and enable and keep these people longer term, you are going to be at a severe competitive disadvantage because there are people thinking about those very, very specific issues given COVID and the pandemic. A lot of organizations are under financial pressure through lack of revenue generation more than they’ve ever been before. So naturally the mind goes to cost reduction to be able to compensate for that. As we come out of this, the organizations that take a mindset of, we actually need to strategically invest in very core things to be in the best position for our own competitive advantage, you know, closing out this year and going into 2021 and beyond that’s really what people need to be thinking about.

And then looking for the tools and the techniques to enable that kind of vision, the world adjusted to being at home very quickly, because we had to people who have frontline workforces really need to maintain that mindset of you can change things rapidly. You don’t have to devolve to just the way things used to be. You need to be thinking forward, you need to keep your foot on the gas. You need to be thinking strategically and what are my opportunities to do things differently so that I can have that competitive advantage going forward. And, you know, again, going back to just a retail example, I can tell you that many, many retailers are not going to end up employing as many frontline workers as they historically had investing in the people that you want to keep so that they create a customer experience that allows you to recoup the revenue and potentially grow that revenue beyond what it ever was with fewer people means you need to keep those people longer and train them appropriately and keep them abreast of everything that changes daily.

JD Dillon (19:16):

What final thoughts would you like to share with people who really care about their frontline employees and just want to do better by them?

Carol Leaman (19:23):

I challenge everybody listening to be that transformational person who looks for those opportunities and brings them forward to influence the go forward. They’re out there. You just need to barely scratch the surface. And of course Axonify is a key one for the frontline workforce. It’s where we’ve always played is where we focus, is where we’re best at and where we can very demonstrably prove value quickly. Thanks, Carol. Thank you.

JD Dillon (19:59):

A big thank you to Carol Leaman for sharing her story and insights into what it means to be frontline forward, to listen to more frontline forward stories. You can subscribe to The 80% on your favorite podcast app. You can also find all of our episodes online at axonify. com/podcast.

I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for another story about how organizations are helping frontline employees make a difference in their organizations and communities. Until then be kind to the frontline.

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