Edmentum CEO Jamie Candee On The Importance Of Taking Risks

jamie candeeJamie Candee was named president and CEO of online learning program provider Edmentum last year, but she was no stranger to the company. Between 2005 and 2014 Candee held positions in nearly every department in the company, from human resources and product development to sales and marketing before joining Questar Assessment as its president and CEO in 2014.

Candee took a few minutes to speak with Chief Executive about the value of her past experience, what she looks for in leaders, the challenges and opportunities of being a female CEO in the tech industry and her advice to female executives and business leaders who aspire to become CEOs.

How the different hats she wore during her initial tenure now benefit her as CEO.

I think the single biggest impact in my first tour of duty when I was here and essentially worked through every part of the organization was I have a very unique perspective on the company because I have done all of the jobs. And so, I really understand what our teams are going through. I really have a good perspective of their initiatives, their challenges, culturally how the teams operate. So that gave me, coming in nine months to go after being gone nearly for four years, an opportunity to really jump in and get going at a much faster pace than most CEOs would have.

It’s such a great team, and we do a lot of great work across the U.S. and abroad as it relates to education technology programs. But there’s a lot of change happening in education and technology right now. And so, being able to jump in as fast as I could and did, I think, has really helped us put together a long-term plan and a clear vision and really evolving the culture as we work together.

“to be successful as a leader, it’s really understanding what motivates people, how to create a culture and an environment where they thrive.”

On the challenges and opportunities of being a female CEO in the tech industry, and her advice to share with female executives and business leaders who aspire to become CEOs.

If you look at women leading technology organizations, it’s less than 5%. We have a unique situation within education technology, because more women tend to go into education than men. And so, in EdTech specifically, you’ll see it’s not much. It’s maybe 10-15%, not more than 20%, I’m certain of that. There are more female leaders in C-suite positions in EdTech simply because they probably originally went into education and worked their way up through education organizations. So we have, I think, a little bit higher ratio of females in C-suite.

But what I will say is that regardless if it’s EdTech or just technology, I think that men and women are both equally effective. I’ve had many, many great male CEO mentors in my career and I’ve had many great female mentors. I think one of the things that’s very consistent among women who end up in CEO positions is that they likely took a path similar to mine. Maybe not as diverse in terms of the teams and the groups that I ran, but they typically come up through a general management background. And so, they have a lot of insight into various parts of the organization. They’ve spent a lot more time in operations and in departments that really focus, like HR, on challenge and culture development.

And so, there’s a capacity and a desire to spend more time on culture, on challenge than I typically see in male CEOs. I think that’s both an advantage, obviously, and a disadvantage, because I wish everybody was doing that. But people asked me this all the time. And I haven’t just worked in technology or education technology. I’ve also worked in financial services and then banking for a portion of my career. And I’ve never really felt that glass ceiling. I think it’s because I refuse to accept the fact that I could not chase the career path and the dreams that I had. I think some of it is gender, but I also think that there is also generational issues that people deal with.

So growing up as a Gen-Xer, daughter of Baby Boomers, there’s this theory and vision that people had to find your first job and pay your dues and slowly work your way up, and maybe someday, if you’re lucky, you’ll be CEO. And I acted more like a Millennial earlier in my career where I just didn’t accept the notion that I’d have to spend 20 years working my way up. And I just started really aggressively pursuing opportunities to work in different parts of the organization. I volunteered for projects. I worked harder than most people around me. And I was constantly asking questions and curious around what we could do better as an organization.

And so, I’d really strongly recommend for anyone, not just women, but for anyone early on in your career with the desire to run a company is take risk. Because at that time frame in your career is the time to do it. And take on projects. Look at a job description and even if you only meet 50% of the job qualifications, go after it and try and get it. And that’s what I did my whole career. I took calculated risks. I volunteered for everything I possibly could. I exposed myself and felt insecure about job tasks that I took on almost on a regular basis. But that really helped me grow very, very quickly and is one of the reasons that I was able to become a CEO as young as I was the first time that I did it.

So I just really encourage people to not let anybody hold you back, not believe in any of the stereotypes. Diversity is absolutely critical to the success of companies, and I would encourage everyone to go after the career goals that you have regardless of what stereotype or cultural challenges you think exist within the company that you work for.

On how her leadership style has evolved over the years.

I started leading at a very, very young age. I was part of a financial services startup when I was just barely over 21. And I think over the course of two decades the lessons I’ve always had a very internal, intrinsic drive to succeed and build teams. And I love watching the power of human connection and the things that I can do for the world. So that’s always been an intrinsic motivator for me.

But I think over the two decades that I’ve been leading small teams and quite large teams, I think the single most important thing that has evolved with me has been my emotional maturity and how you understand human motivation, the way that people think about work and their lives, how people are motivated, what empowers people, how do you keep your talented employees engaged and retain them in the organization. And so, over time you start with natural leadership skill and a lot of drive and determination to be successful, but that’s only going to get you so far.

And when you become a CEO, particularly in the work that we do in serving education, the folks that work for us here at Edmentum and at the previous education company that I was running, there is an intrinsic motivation to really have social impact on the world. And you choose the career and profession of education because you want to make a difference. It’s certainly not for financial reasons. And so, when individuals decide to leave teaching careers and come over to our organization or another education company and start a new career, that intrinsic motivation and desire to do good for the world doesn’t leave them.

To be successful as a leader, it’s really understanding what motivates people, how to create a culture and an environment where they thrive. And I say this all the time, and I do truly mean it: you can have the best products in the world, you can have an amazing strategy, but if you don’t have people that rally around that vision, that strategy and actually do the work, you really don’t have a company.

So I always think about, and especially as I’ve evolved my career as a CEO, I always think about how do we create a culture of empowerment, of innovation, of engagement and motivation. And if we can do those things really well as a leadership team, employees will want to do really good work for us, and that will go on to both satisfy our customers and also exceed their expectations. And to me, that’s ultimately the formula that every business should use.

On the common traits that she looks for in leaders and managers

Number one, they have to be passionate about making a difference. They don’t necessarily have to be passionate about or have a previous career in education, but they have to be passionate about doing something really good for the world. And that intrinsic motivation to give back and do something meaningful is the first thing that I look for in leaders.

The second thing that I look for is an individual who is confident in their leadership skills so that they will empower others. So what I won’t hire is a group of micromanagers who lead very top down. I think that’s stifling for innovation and culture. And I think that the generations entering the workforce, Millennials and younger, have an expectation that the concept of work is very different today than it was, say, 20 years ago. And so, how we work is very different. And I need a leadership group that empowers that kind of working, that we focus on the outcomes and we focus on engagement and innovation, and we let our cultures evolve around those tenets. And so the competence level on a leader to really understand how to do that, to be empowering, not stifling, is the second.

And then the third is I look for leaders who are coachable and very self-aware. I don’t believe that I do everything perfectly, nor will I ever do everything perfectly. As a leader, I’m constantly learning and analyzing myself and reflecting on different situations and how I handle them and then trying to improve myself as I go. And so I do think that third piece is also very important in the people that I bring into the organization, is that they have the humility and the acceptance to know that they’re never going to be perfect and they’re constantly learning and growing as a leader.

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