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Leadership Security software firm’s key to success: an open-door workplace

Absolute Software CEO Geoff Hayden, second from left, during a team meeting in Vancouver.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Who is an intrapreneur? Usually highly self-motivated, proactive and action-oriented people who are comfortable with taking the initiative, even within the boundaries of an organization, in pursuit of an innovative product or service. This is the last in a series of eight stories. Read earlier pieces about Telus, Hootsuite, Canadian Tire, Metrolinx, Loblaw, Duha Group and Oil Country Engineering Services.

For chief executive officer Geoff Haydon, intrapreneurialism is more than hazy management lingo. It has a precise dollar figure: $100-million.

That's the level of annual revenue he wants Vancouver tech company Absolute Software to rise above. And he wants to get there by pushing an open workplace culture and entrepreneurial spirit within the relatively older tech firm that was founded in 1993.

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"What I observed is that there's almost a mythical line that exists at $100-million where companies need to think and operate differently, in terms of achieving that next level of scale," Mr. Haydon said.

Even in the realm of business jargon, intrapreneurialism is a mouthful. In some companies, it means setting up a pseudo startup within a larger firm to try out a new line of business. With others, it can be an innovation lab created to spur new products or services.

For Absolute Software, it means an open-door workplace and less rigid internal hierarchy. In short, more openness for its 436 employees worldwide who are nevertheless in the business of lock-and-key data security.

Absolute Software sells a technology embedded directly in mobile digital devices, allowing organizations to secure passwords, access codes and other data even if a mobile device is lost, stolen or tampered with, Mr. Haydon explained.

"Our core business is selling this technology to enterprises," he said, and Absolute Software works directly with some of the largest digital manufacturers, from Dell to Samsung, who install the technology. Absolute is also in the process of looking for new consumer markets in which data security could be an option available on everyday digital devices.

The need to keep innovating is exhausting, given the myriad new viruses and malware out there. "What's unique about the security business is that the pace of innovation and the customer requirements are increasingly defined by the attack vectors that they're seeing," Mr. Haydon said.

The main problem is that databases are left highly vulnerable because of mobile devices carrying unprotected passwords. Worse still, many organizations' most private data increasingly resides not in a central database, but simply on the mobile devices themselves.

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This is where the $100-million dollar figure comes in.

Absolute's office culture must be open to allow new ideas for products and applications to percolate to the top, Mr. Haydon said, and that's necessary for the company to grow beyond $100-million in annual revenue. (It was $91-million at the end of fiscal 2014.)

Mr. Haydon has been at this threshold before. "I had experience with four different businesses that started with revenue of less than $100-million, that weren't dissimilar in terms of size and profile to Absolute," he said. Prior to joining Absolute Software in July of 2014, he had been chief operating officer in Asia for the U.S. data storage and digital security multinational EMC Corp. He had also been at other computer enterprises in his career.

One company didn't change and couldn't scale larger. Another tried to change too quickly, extinguishing what it did best. However, EMC "did an outstanding job of scaling."

The trick is to play up the strengths. "We're a relatively flat organization, so there isn't a lot of hierarchical room between me and people on the front line in any of the functions which I believe are important, just in terms of ensuring connectivity and transparency and communication," he said.

Practically speaking, this has led Mr. Haydon to create a new company intranet, launching this summer, to encourage a free flow of ideas; monthly board meetings made up of staff from sales to technology developers across the company, to entertain new products and strategy ideas; a mentoring program between senior employees and staff; and an open-door policy, encouraging employees to come talk directly to executives and vice versa.

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"The other thing that I've been focused on organizationally is really ensuring that each division of the company, whether it's a geographical, functional or product division, has a really clear charter and a set of objectives that are measurable," Mr. Haydon said.

But how can the company tell if hitting these objectives were directly the result of intrapreneurial tactics and openness?

Greater openness may seem hard to quantify, but there are different ways to measure its effectiveness, from employee surveys to hard sales figures and the number of ideas implemented, said Marc-David Seidel, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.

And these measurements have to be judged in the context of the company being in growth mode, as opposed to a new startup. Growth depends heavily on employees who are good at highly structured tasks, such as selling on a commission basis or publicizing a new product, and are often driven by the dollars-and-cents bottom line.

Creative types, those who develop new products, are a different breed. "In terms of actually creating the new idea, generally the people who are most effective at that are not monetarily driven," Dr. Seidel said.

Will Mitchell, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, compared this with the notion in philosophy of foxes and hedgehogs, which extends back to Greek philosophy. Foxes, naturally elusive, draw knowledge from numerous sources. They adapt and create. Hedgehogs, instead, are great at a specific, clearly defined task.

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The best way to evaluate whether a company, particularly a growth tech company which needs hedgehogs, has the most effective combination of both is to look at it from the customers' perspective, "which is always the right place to start," Dr. Mitchell said. "Existing customers want you to be responsive and keep coming up with refinements on existing products and new products," he said.

The trick is to have a culture in which employees understand this, that customers constantly want new things. And this requires foxes to dream up those things and hedgehogs to get them manufactured for customers, Dr. Mitchell said.

To perform this, employees are often going to want a flexible culture. "They are going to want one where they get the opportunity to take the lead on ideas," Dr. Mitchell said.

Which circles back to an open, less hierarchical office environment.

That's the idea of Absolute's brand of intrapreneurialism, Mr. Haydon said, to attach clear objectives to new tech ideas and get them to market. "Really a lot of what I've described to you is designed to do that," he said, and that's to create "a real sense of autonomy and ownership around whatever that task is."

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