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A Fireside Chat With Abaxent President Adonica Randall

By Wisconsin School of Business

March 3, 2021

M. Keith Weikel MBA Leadership Speaker Series

Strong management always stands out. For Adonica Randall, that means more than just mentorship. Drawing on her experience of nearly 35 years in technology and business, Randall views management as the ability to coach and bring out the best in others. “A coach assumes that ‘I see some things and together we’re going to work on optimizing you,’” she says.

Adonica Randall
Adonica Randall, submitted photo

Randall shared her expertise and thought leadership recently in a fireside chat with Binnu Palta Hill, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Wisconsin School of Business. The conversation was broadcast to a virtual audience of Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA students as part of WSB’s M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series.

President and chief problem solver of Abaxent, an MBE/WBE-certified technology solutions company, Randall has specialized in the development of business startups, new services, and process improvement across a variety of industries including health care, insurance, manufacturing, and construction. Prior to Abaxent, Randall held technical, sales, and management positions with General Motors, GE Medical Systems, and IBM, in addition to starting several professional services businesses.

Randall is well recognized as a thought leader who speaks widely on the future of underrepresented populations in STEM careers. Her notable service includes the Entrepreneur in Residence at Marquette University’s Opus College of Engineering, as Ambassador for Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WI), and as an African Heritage International board member.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:

Palta Hill: How did your childhood and upbringing shape your thinking, particularly in inclusion, as you set out to become a pioneer in the tech industry?

Randall: First of all, I didn’t set out to be a pioneer. Some people are aware that they’re doing that; I think I’m one of the folks that was unaware that that was happening. As a child, I had a matriarchy in my family. My grandmother came from Canada with her sister at thirteen and at fourteen years old, was basically the leader of the family, and she was capable of doing anything. I grew up not understanding that things were not maybe for me, or maybe I shouldn’t pursue them. So, I think the journey into technology was just one that was natural. It was never something that wasn’t for a girl or for a minority—that was never a question.

Palta Hill: You’ve shared with me that everything can be explained through Star Trek. What leadership principles did you see in Star Trek leaders that appealed to you or inspired you?

Randall: Science fiction is a world that can be very inclusive of all types of things. It generally is showing problems in society in a different way than how we actually experience them in the real world. I would say in terms of leadership principles, there’s your team—that’s the big one. Nobody is above the rules, that’s another one. It didn’t matter whether you were the leader or not, camaraderie and communication was key. And trust. Trust is a big one. Trust your teammates and communicate. Everybody knows what their role is. It’s not a matter of what your place is, it’s what your role is, and how that fits into the equation or the outcome—then you always get the outcome you anticipate.

Palta Hill: Let’s shift focus to your area of research. Research shows that frontline managers make up roughly 60% of a company’s management ranks, and they directly supervise about 80% of the total workforce. You’ve done a lot of work in this area. How do you ensure that your organization is leading from the front when much of the influence on engagement, culture, and productivity comes from there?

Randall: I think a lot of it has to do with the management style. I’ve worked for quite a few Fortune 1000 companies, as well as multiple small businesses. One factor in leading people is, you have to have a plan and that plan has to be communicated. People need to understand [the plan], how it’s beneficial to the company, and how it benefits the client. Because if we’re benefiting the client, then we’re benefiting the company. If we’re benefiting the company, then we’re benefiting those who work for the company. And then everybody wins. You’re always looking for that win-win scenario.

Palta Hill: You’ve done a lot of research on the “new workforce ready” population. What do organizations need to do in terms of hiring practices to make sure we are attractive to this population?

(Note: “New workforce ready” is a term Randall uses to describe job seekers from demographic groups that are in employment and life transitions. Contrary to the widely-held belief about a hiring shortage, she maintains employers need to reframe how they perceive these employees, and provide appropriate training to help them pivot into their new positions).

Randall: If you’re looking for abilities in a person, not their past historical skills, the ability to communicate is key. Most of the people who are servers in restaurants, they are excellent at that …The ability to present, the ability to problem solve, to think, to analyze. I’ve given orders to people where there are ten of us at a table and they don’t even write it down, they can go back and get that and come back out [with the order]. That’s somebody with a phenomenal mind, so you have got to start looking at things a little bit differently.

The way most business systems are set up, they’re still recruiting people like it’s 1975. If you have a gap in your résumé, you get kicked out. AI is extremely biased. It kicks out my vets, it kicks out my mommy trackers, it kicks out my returning citizens and people who may have been incarcerated … all three of these have major gaps in their résumés.

Everybody who’s got a job has been trained at some point in time. I don’t know why we still think we don’t have to do it because you’re hiring into a different pool of people. These folks are very loyal. They love the companies, and they do extremely well because they are motivated.

Watch the full talk hosted by the Wisconsin School of Business:

The M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series at the Wisconsin School of Business enables Wisconsin MBA students to interact with and learn from accomplished business leaders and alumni. Executives from both the private and public sectors are invited to campus to address students.

The series was established in 2004 with a gift by John J. Oros (BBA ‘71) and his wife, Anne Wackman. Today, the series continues as the M. Keith Weikel MBA Leadership Speaker Series thanks to a gift by M. Keith Weikel (PhD ‘66) and his wife, Barbara.