We sat down with Tom Richardson, the Chief Executive Officer of education-tech firm Janison to talk about how they’re transforming the concept of education, and what he’s learned so far.
Since joining the company in 2015, Tom oversaw the company’s 2017 float on the Australian Stock Exchange, a full rebranding, a $5 million capital raising exercise, and an ongoing expansion of the business.
Tom brought decades of deep experience in – and passion for – education technology. Having founded and served as CEO of Latitude Learning Academy and Execast, his former roles include partnering at Deloitte, management consultancy at Bain International, and management at Arthur Andersen.
What first attracted you to the education/tech industry?
The initial attraction was a personal attraction and a life-long love of learning. The second was the market opportunity. The number of students in education is increasing: the number of students in universities has gone up 14% in the last ten or so years, so the actual growth in the market is big. In our space, when it comes to technology, it’s about the digitisation, that spend in education. It’s still really early days, but there’s such an immense market opportunity, so those factors made the opportunity really exciting.
What are some of the most exciting developments moving forward in this space?
The overarching piece is digitisation. The current business models surrounding education don’t stack up, long term. It costs too much, the population’s too spread out, people are using technology now. The old models aren’t responding to future needs. A huge transformation is underway, so for us, technology is a huge part of that. Having products that can support that digitisation really makes this an exciting place to be.
What are some of the key ideas or concepts you’ve learnt since becoming CEO?
I’ve learnt a lot, to be honest. People really want to know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and if it aligns with their personal values and what they want to get out of life. Purpose is a big one; getting the right people with the right attitude in the team and all levels of the business is key. I used to think that just having an awesome product is enough, but having the right purpose and the right people is, too. And it comes down to discipline and execution, which means very clear plans, very focussed performance management systems, and the results tend to look after themselves.
Are you learning things all the time, not just about the industry, but about the role, what it means to be a CEO?
Absolutely. The ‘people’ aspect of the role is the one which constantly stretches me and is the one I’m constantly learning about. The need to bring people on the journey and the need to communicate, and the frequency of it. When we look at our business, a key part of the people piece is getting diversity in opinion and background, and really encouraging that diversity. That’s an interesting challenge. You want people to be pulling you in the same direction, but you also want a real mix of people. Learning how to achieve that, there are lessons to be learnt every day. And that’s from the board-level down.
So, how have you made that happen?
For us, it’s the whole process of the ‘people agenda’, it’s making sure we hire the right people, to make sure we have the alignment around their values and what we want to achieve, the right attitude; ensuring we have the right communication models in place once they’re on board; the development opportunities and the way that we embrace the whole feedback exercise, performance management, what we call ‘retrospectives’, looking back at what we’ve done in the past. A constant process of individuals and teams looking in the mirror and working out what worked and what didn’t work and being open to having that conversation is how we’ve done it. There haven’t been any magic bullets, it’s been a very human process.
A technology-based industry that you’re in, but you still need that human element.
You’ve summed it up very nicely. I came out of professional services, where ‘people’ is all we had, and came to a software company where it was all about ‘product’. The lessons I’ve learnt have been that a product company only works through people.
It may sound simple, but it’s a big awareness for me.
In a competitive industry like this one, how does Janison stand out in the marketplace?
You need two things: a robust, strong offering that can work for government agencies, defence forces and banks and scale up to hundreds of thousands of people. But you need to make it flexible so it fits into different environments and integrates, can be changed and customised to fit the company or organisation. The lesson that we’ve learned here is that it’s not just a product thing; it’s a people thing. You need people that can operate and support really large organisations, they have to be very trusted and reliable and be able to provide a really good service. But they’ve got to be flexible and agile and willing to change, listen and adapt.
Has emotional intelligence, EQ, been a key factor in this, and how have you found the process of bringing it about in the organisation?
When you think about the people, you need emotional intelligence to get the best out of them. In our business, and in the business sector, generally, we’re going to think about all the people, so it’s not just employees, it’s the contractors, it’s the clients. It’s the partners, it’s the investors, so there’s a lot of stakeholders and people in the mix. The way to work with those individuals is absolutely key. And what we’re seeing more and more are stakeholders of such a variety; a variety of skills which cut across a multitude of platforms, with different experiences from different cultures. Our business is going through huge change and there are high expectations.
So, if you take all those people and you put pressure on them, that requires EQ to make it work. In this context, it’s EQ about yourself, and EQ about others. You might spend a day talking to 30 different people from different backgrounds, with different agendas and under pressure to achieve great things, you’ve got to really know who you are, and be open to others and be comfortable that everybody’s coming from a different place. At the same time, you’ve got to share that drive to get things done, achieve positive outcomes. So, it comes down to knowing yourself and being able to get things done, to persuade others, those are skills that are part of EQ and are just so, so important.
Have you found any challenges in promoting EQ in staff, and if you have, how did you overcome these?
The challenges are there, and it typically comes down to hiring. In the employee lifecycle, if it’s not tuned to the need for higher EQ, you run into trouble. And that’s in everything from how we hire people, what we look for, how we reward and recognise people, the values we have. One of our core values is ‘strive to improve’. That drive to always reflect, look back, learn, try to improve and do better is something we’ve used to overcome the challenge. You need to have that, and demonstrate that, and have consistent behaviour. We recognise it and make it quite public. One of the challenges was around communications about this and what we’ll do to bring about transparent communication. That’s been lessons learned: the frequency of it, the style of it, making sure everyone’s on the journey together. We’ve tried something called ‘The Road Ahead’, which is about giving people visibility about where we’re heading. We’re actually doing 360-degree feedback surveys, we do a retrospective every two weeks, where we ask how the team performed, and what we’ve learnt from each other. But we’re still working on it and trying to improve it.
So, having mentioned ‘the road ahead’, what does the future hold?
We’re sitting among an immense market opportunity. We’re poised in a very good position to take advantage of that. So, from that perspective, it’s a great starting point. ‘Growth’ is a keyword for us, ensuring that we attract more people to the purpose of what we’re trying to achieve – the transformation of learning – keep attracting the right people and growing the teams not just domestically, but internationally, adding to the richness and the fabric of the team. To keep investing in the product and working on it, and we have a four-stage process to work on our growth priorities.
That’s where I see us focussed, to grow in a really exciting market.
ushdhanak.com presents this ‘Meet a CEO’ series.
Ush Dhanak is a qualified and certified Executive Coach, Emotional Intelligence Coach, Neuro Leadership and Mediation coach. She has worked with a variety of corporate clients ranging from the Australia Federal Police, Smeg Australia, as well as clients in hospitality and dental. An expert in Emotional Intelligence and how to improve it, she can be found at the link above.