Aron Ain is approaching his 10th anniversary as CEO of Kronos, and shares what got him to where he is now, the challenges of digital transformation and how his company maintains such a high retention rate for its 4,500 employees.
Ever heard of Kronites?
Your first guess might be that they’re part of the new Star Wars movie. But if you’re dealing with employee management on a regular basis, you might know the right answer: Kronites are the people who keep Kronos, a worldwide workforce management cloud solution company, running.
At the helm of Kronos is Aron Ain, the CEO of the $1 billion enterprise that has tripled its profitability since 2005 and has 20 million to 35 million users every day. It has moved from zero cloud customers in 2005 to some 16,000 customers in 2015.
While it certainly sounds impressive, Ain says he keeps it in perspective by reminding himself that “we’re not working in the ER (emergency room).”
That’s a lesson he says he learned in his early days as CEO.
“Since I’d always reported to someone else, early on I looked for permission too often before moving forward with a decision. The lightbulb went off when I understood that there was no one to ask and that the decision lies with me to act and move the company forward,” he says. “None of the decisions were life or death.”
That doesn’t mean that Ain and his Kronites aren’t pushing the envelope. With customers in more than 100 countries, the company knows the competition is growing and it can’t afford to rest on its laurels.
For Ain, who has worked in nearly every functional department since he started in 1979, the toughest challenge comes “when it’s clear that something isn’t working,” he says.
He says that he’s learned that as a leader he must identify issues or programs “falling off the track fast” and then quickly rectify the problem.” You have to lead and take action as most problems do not work themselves out. Not doing something puts the company, its customers, and employees at risk, so as a CEO you have to be action-oriented. There’s really no other way,” he says.
Another key part of his job is making sure he’s got the right people in place who believe in the company and its mission, especially when it comes to driving change.
“You have to communicate in an open, clear, and transparent manner. Team members can tell when you are being straight with them,” he says, while admitting that it isn’t always easy to get everyone to adopt such transparency.
“It takes lots of reinforcement, leading by example, and encouraging the behaviors that support this kind of environment. When you get this right, the outcomes are magical and almost any challenge can be solved,” he says. “I love it when I see a leader or a team operating at full potential where trust and transparency are key components. It does not get much better than this.”
Kronos has been recognized several times by the Boston Globe as a top place to work. The award is based on confidential employee surveys that look at things like management, pay and engagement.
Ain says its “no accident” that 84% of Kronites say they are engaged at work, with 90% stating they are confident in the company’s future. “Our corporate culture and employee engagement are strategic weapons for Kronos, and we invest in our culture just as we would any other strategic company initiative,” he says.
With a “hyper-focus” on the manager-employee relationship, a global leadership program has been launched called “Courage to Lead,” aimed at ensuring leaders are inspiring employees to live by “Kronos values,” Ain says.
Still, steering such a large international operation – even one with a strong culture – can present challenges, especially when dealing with start-ups that seem to spring up overnight. Ain says the company tries to remain agile by empowering employees scattered across the globe “to make critical decisions in their area of expertise” and the company “trusts all Kronites to accept this way of doing business.”
“We limit the number of decisions that are escalated to management and the senior team by encouraging decisions at the lowest level possible. This allows us to stay nimble,” he adds.
At the same time, the company relies on active customers to help “create a vision for our products into the future” and invests “aggressively” in R&D – to the tune of $500 million over the past five years, he says.
While Kronos has been a driving force for decades in automating workforce management, it continues to invest in innovation, whether it’s finding new solutions in the cloud, mobile employee engagement technologies or analytics aimed at helping managers make more informed decisions, he says.
“For our own employees we’ve always embraced new technologies to give Kronites the tools they need to succeed. Digital technology in all forms empowers our people to do their jobs and do them well from anywhere in the world,” he says.
While Ain says the company pushes Kronites to be innovative and rewards their innovation and new ideas, he acknowledges there are some other ingredients to success.
“Of course we insist on being humble and a bit paranoid,” he says. “We know that at any time a start-up could surface with new technology that threatens our own.”