For business leader Aaron Hornlimann, founder and CEO of Elenium Automation, 2020 was a sink-or-swim year. For a quickly growing startup with a focus on automating airport technology, the prospect of long term closures and reduced air traffic could have sounded the death knell. Instead, Hornlimann led Elenium through some important business changes.
“We talk about it being a partial pivot,” says Hornlimann. “We didn’t actually change what we did, we just changed where we did it.” One key element is VYGR, a comprehensive suite of biometric products for airports including touchless check-in, automated boarding and virtual assistance. Hornlimann also saw the utility in applying Elenium’s tech beyond boarding terminals. “To take the technology that makes that experience as seamless as possible and try to implement it outside of an airport, be it a sporting stadium, a hospital or helping with aged care, we thought there was a lot of opportunity there,” says Hornlimann.
The success is apparent with Elenium attracting a further $10m investment in December 2021 and the recent addition of ANZ director Paula Dwyer to lead the board. Hornlimann’s direction in steering Elenium through the COVID upheaval is a worthy example for aspiring business leaders.
Staying the course
While the global outlook dimmed in 2020, Hornlimann’s first act of leadership was to steady the ship. “One of our airport customers was Hong Kong Airport,” says Hornlimann. “Hong Kong was one of the first major cities to lock down. When we saw that, we said ‘let’s hope for the best case, let’s plan for the worst’ and that was a message we started getting out to the team straight away because what I didn’t want to happen was for everyone to panic.”
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Despite Elenium’s expanded business offerings, Hornlimann’s overall message was one of adaptability, rather than changing tack entirely. “We can’t be reactionary,” Hornlimann says. “If we continuously try to pivot and pivot and pivot, the whole COVID situation is so dynamic that you’ll actually just end up burning energy. So being steady has been one of the key things we’ve focused on.”
Naturally, Hornlimann gets a lot of credit for Elenium’s pandemic success. Though the founder and CEO, his leadership is far from autocratic. “I like to listen to everyone and get everyone’s opinion, collect that information and then make a decision,” says Hornlimann. “I’ve been focusing a lot around how the founders in the business don’t always have to be in the centre of every decision. I think, irrespective of COVID, that’s been a real goal for me as a leader within the business; not actually having to be there for every single moment.”
Hornlimann’s leadership is ever-evolving. His direction is focused on internal up-skilling to foster a broad base of strength and talent, rather than recruiting. “It’s working to bring people up within the business, not necessarily just looking for external talent to fill up leadership roles,” Hornlimann says. “It’s a different type of leadership, trying to effectively source someone versus sitting down with people you identify as having talent and trying to bring them up to the point where you want to be. It’s not quite mentorship but there’s a bit of imparting of knowledge, and that knowledge is both what’s worked and what hasn’t worked and giving those lessons internally.”
Advice to leaders navigating upheaval
For business leaders looking to emulate Hornlimann’s COVID success, he has a few key pieces of advice:
Both personally and as a directive to employees, resilience is key. “Leadership, absolutely, is about resilience,” says Hornlimann. “It’s about imparting that resilience on the team and making sure that they feel that resilience and have the confidence that what we’re trying to do is the right thing and understand the logic behind it.”
Particularly for startups and businesses early on in the journey, it’s important to establish a corporate culture. “Define what type of organisation, what type of culture you want to have,” Hornlimann suggests. “Do you want to have one that fosters innovation? That means you’re going to have to allow for mistakes. If you’re going to put pressure on the team to deliver something quickly, not everything’s going to be perfect and fundamentally your team is made up of humans so you need to accept that and work with them on that rather than being somebody who barks orders.”
Not everything goes to plan, and that’s okay. Leadership is about owning it. “When you make a mistake, identify it and change it and don’t always be dogmatic about it,” says Hornlimann. “Just because you made a mistake and it was your mistake, don’t just try and hold it to the end to try and save face. Between myself and the chief operating officer of Elenium [Fred Melki], that’s one of the key philosophies we agreed to when we founded the business.”
Access our webinar ‘How to transform your business for the digital age’ for more insights from three founders who led their businesses through a digital transformation.
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