Carey O’Connor Kolaja, Chief Executive Officer of AU10TIX
Carey O’Connor Kolaja is chief executive officer of AU10TIX, the global leader in automated identity intelligence and cyber fraud prevention. In this capacity, Carey is responsible for establishing and driving the overall business strategy and day-to-day operations, leading a team charged with enabling companies to onboard faster, prevent fraud, meet compliance mandates, and establish trust with their customers.
I had the opportunity to interview Carey recently. Here are some of the highlights of that interview:
Jill Griffin: First of all, lets talk about how to keep women in tech. There’s a lot of attrition for women leaving tech, is that correct?
Carey O’Connor Kolaja: Correct, we are seeing greater numbers of women leaving tech and in general leaving the traditional workforce than we have in previous years. While there has been a lot of attention on attracting women to tech, I’ve always believed that keeping them in tech is what is difficult. But I see this retention challenge across the spectrum. It used to be that on average an individual kept a job for 4.5 years, now the workforce is “reupping” every year and 80% of employees have a side hustle. So, yes, keeping women in tech is a challenge but, for me, it’s broader than gender; the focus should be on how do we keep the most experience and diversity in the technology workforce? Particularly in the identity management space because at the core we’re solving problems for all humans, and each of us has a uniquely diverse set of attributes.
Griffin: And what do you attribute that to?
Kolaja: Candidly, until recently, I lived a professional existence in which I didn’t see gender as a barrier. I grew up in the financial sector. I grew up in the technology sector. I was a big believer that there were no boundaries, that you created your own boundaries. I never conformed to the norm and seemed to excel. So, for a good part of my career, my gender didn’t register as an issue as I pursued my passions.
And then it was when I was at PayPal and we started a women in technology organization of 50 people which grew to over 2,500 by the time I left that I had a moment. I realized it was my duty and my responsibility to help other women who were not in a similar position as me; women who were impacted by gender dynamics in the workplace.
I realized I was very fortunate growing up. My family was very progressive. I was raised with very strong females in my life; I was encouraged to create a space to be heard, to have a voice, to listen and challenge criticism because if you couldn’t, you just weren’t going to have a role around at the dinner table.
So, while I do now see the problem, I also think that there’s a shift that is happening, and particularly in technology and identity spaces, toward inviting women to the proverbial table. When I first started my foray into technology, it was all about writing code, knowing different languages, very mathematical and very technical in nature. Yet, the world has transformed in the last 20 -25 years and technology is now very much about mashing up different types of software and hardware solutions in order to solve business problems and meet individual needs. It’s in mastering this art I see the shift as I think women are naturally more inclined to be integrated thinkers, to solve for problems in creative and unexpected ways, which is what the world needs right now.
As I’ve moved from not seeing the gender issue to wanting to be part of helping others overcome it and work through the challenges in the space, I have realized it just makes good business sense. Statistically, companies that have diverse management teams or have women at the table, have 16% higher revenue than companies that don’t.
Griffin: Okay, let’s talk about building a trusted environment as a leader. First of all, please give me your definition of trust.
Kolaja: Trust for me is when there is unquestionable belief in either an individual, a situation, or environment. Until recently building trust was perceived easy as we trust what we can see and therefore believe it is the truth. But that then poses a profound question of how do you build trust in relationships in a remote and distributed work environment? How do you build trusted relationships amidst the pandemic? This is a task we have all been faced with over the last nine months.
In my world, trust is paramount to our business; at the end of the day our job is to protect people’s identities in order to enable businesses to build a more inclusive and secure world. It’s not just in the fabric of our products and services, it’s in the fabric of the people and the fabric of how we lead and there’s a lot of tactics required to build an organization where there is inherent trust. Without trust, businesses can’t yield the returns that they expect as people who don’t feel trusted or empowered will not enjoy what they do or reach the highest potential.
Driving change and driving transformation requires people to believe in that individual who’s leading them forward. To achieve this, I’m very much an advocate of radical transparency. In my day-to-day interactions I live by a simple principle: nothing needs to be taken offline—unless it’s personal or about performance, anything goes. Creating a workforce and a culture where people can respectfully debate issues, to resolve conflict, to stand for what they believe without being judged is how you build a high performing, trusting team. To do this you need to be an empathetic and vulnerable leader.
People want their leader to be relatable. Particularly now with COVID, while none of us would have wished this to have happened, for the first time in society, we’re all experiencing the same thing and share common situations and circumstances. Achieving business performance while motivating and inspiring requires each of us to identify with each other and I can only hope that this becomes a unifying moment for all of us, especially leaders, and there is greatness and change that comes out of this horrific pandemic.
Griffin: Well, that’s a very good point that I’ve heard nobody else make. Some of the clients that I am involved in are better run than pre-Covid and their numbers are better. They figured out how to reduce cost and keep customer value at parity.
Kolaja: There is so much truth in the saying that constraints drive innovation. Organizations have to be agile and morph with the business demands. This requires people to be okay letting go of title and okay being uncomfortable to take on different roles and in different capacities. The need to be an agile leader and to be an agile employee has never been more prominent as it is today. Each business is under a set of constraints and it is only when the business is trying to survive do the constraints become so real that individual drivers of success fall way to organizational unity.
Griffin: I agree and it begs for that cross training because everybody’s got to wear multiple hats.
Kolaja: Yes, that’s exactly it. And I think that gets back to your first question about how you keep more women in technology. I don’t think it’s just about technology. The challenge is across all sectors where people who are able to wear a lot of different hats and to check ego at the door and really focus on the business problem at hand are the ones that are going to be successful.
Griffin: I think that’s one of the advantages that women have sometimes. It is the ability to crossover and harvests relationships up and down the org chart and across the continuum.
Kolaja: There’s always this debate of what’s nature and what’s nurture and, innately, women are known to be connectors, to crossover. In a world where solving problems is about connecting ideas, technologies, solutions and people, this becomes a natural advantage for women.
Griffin: Yes, and I think it is incredibly important. Kindness, today, is also so important. What other attributes do you believe are critical to being who we are?
Kolaja: As I said earlier, it is important to be vulnerable. The days of separating the worlds in which you live; your work life, your personal life, are gone. We are all being challenged to live a blended existence and it’s making us all more human, and more vulnerable and it’s uncomfortable. People have to get comfortable being uncomfortable, that is the only way forward.
For my team and those I mentor, I ask them to challenge conventional wisdom. I no longer believe we’re defined by our rise up the corporate ladder, but that our value is defined by our impact. Whether it’s the impact to the business, to the people you lead, or to the world’s societal issues. Everybody needs to decide what they want to do and who they are. I know this sounds cliche, but the rest does follow because you’re at your best when you’re doing the things you love.
The last thing I’ll add, which is contrary to what most people would say and it’s something a mentor shared with me, is that you have to wake up every morning plotting to make your job obsolete. If you really believe that leadership, regardless of gender, is about making others better as a result of your presence, and making things last in your absence, you’ve got to figure out how to work yourself out of a job, creating space for others to rise and occupy.
Griffin: That is a very profound statement. That takes courage to implement and ultimately, what it means is you just rise to a higher calls and a higher calling in my mind.
Kolaja: I agree. I operate with the belief that you have to do less to be more; you have to learn to let go. Particularly when you’re in the midst of transformational initiatives, whether it’s in my previous two companies or where I am now that you actually can’t do more until you let things go. And so you’ve got to create space to take on new challenges, to solve new problems and to create space you have to be able to say no, because none of us can do everything; but together we can make the impossible, possible.
Griffin: Yes, totally agree with that and this has been fabulous. I really appreciate your time. I’ve learned a lot during this conversation.
I help women (and men) maximize their leadership potential, moving from middle management to executive management and ultimately into the corporate board room.
I am an