Andrew O’Shaughnessy of Poppulo

    We Spoke to Andrew O’Shaughnessy of Poppulo on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    As a part of our series, “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Founder and CEO of Poppulo.

    Andrew is an innovator with a passionate belief in the power of communications to transform how people work. He founded Poppulo with a vision to radically change how companies engage with their people, and today Poppulo is the employee communications platform of choice for leading global organizations.

    Over 900 companies in more than 100 countries communicate with over 25 million employees every day through Poppulo. Last year, Andrew was shortlisted for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2020, and Poppulo has been awarded a Top 10 rating in the Great Places to Work for the past five years.

    Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

    My background is in computer science and mathematics and I have pioneered innovation and development in the IT sector in Ireland since the mid-1990s. As an entrepreneur I’ve always had a passionate belief in the power of communications to transform how people work.

    This has been ingrained in me since I was a young graduate in the 1980s and about to take over my family’s textile business, which had for decades been amazingly successful, exporting globally and supplying fabric to the great fashion capitals and haute couture houses of the world, including Channel, Gucci and Yves St Laurent.

    But, just as I was about to take over, the company closed down, due to a combination of factors, one of which was the closed culture that existed, where there was a disconnect between employees and management.

    It was very old-school: management told employees what to do and that’s what they did. There wasn’t a culture of collaboration that could have enabled more adaptability to meet the challenges of the time: recession and cheaper imports. Good people lost their jobs and a great company that produced world-class products shuttered.

    That hard lesson lit a drive inside me to one day build a company of my own that would be a global leader with a great culture based on strong values and open, honest two-way communication.

    I founded Newsweaver, which in its early years was an Email Marketing company, but in 2012 we pivoted to employee communications when I saw an opportunity to become a global leader in this emerging market.

    In 2017, Newsweaver evolved to Poppulo, derived from the Latin for ‘people’, reflecting our belief that the success of any company depends on its people: how it inspires, engages, and connects with them, to create a great employee experience and a great place to work. Every year since then we’ve ranked in the Top 10 Great Places to Work and have been awarded special recognition for listening to our employees.

    Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

    This isn’t a laugh-out-loud funny mistake, and indeed no mistake is funny, but looking back at it now I can smile and it certainly involves an error in terms of timing, which is critical in business.

    In 1996 I founded a start-up in Ireland called e-search. Although I couldn’t have known it at the time, it was in effect a forerunner to LinkedIn, which was founded seven years later by Reid Hoffman.

    E-search enabled your profile to be searched and found by Name, Job, University, School etc registrants also entered their areas of interest and allowed for permission-based advertising that the recipient controlled. No site world-wide provided this at the time in 1996, when I had 100,000 subscribers in Ireland and was gearing up to scale globally..

    The mistake was timing, a combination of E-search being ahead of its time, being too early to get the funding needed to scale because of this, and being torpedoed by a dotcom bust in 2001, which killed off routes to finance.

    None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

    There are many people to whom I am grateful for their support and encouragement over the years — for many and different reasons — but the standout person is my wife Trish. Because even when times were very tough and there was yet another seemingly insurmountable challenge or difficulty, she never once even hinted at ‘should you call it a day’.

    She was always supportive of me to do what I wanted to do, even though it impacted negatively on her and the family at times. Had she questioned if it was time to call it a day, that would have been the end of it because I couldn’t have ignored that. But she never even hinted it, which meant that I felt I was on solid ground no matter how tough things got.

    That has always been a wonderful source of support and it made everything possible.

    Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

    That’s an interesting question because even though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, the reason I started my first company back in the 1990s was later mirrored in Poppulo’s purpose and mission. Let me explain. When I decided to go out on my own, to start my own company, I did so because I wanted to fulfill my potential, which I felt I hadn’t been able to do working for other companies. That’s what it meant for me personally. And years later when Poppulo’s predecessor Newsweaver pivoted from email marketing to employee communications, its core purpose was to make organizations great by releasing the power of their own people. In other words enabling them to fulfill their potential. That’s been a personal theme in my own life and it’s at the core of Poppulo’s purpose and mission.

    Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

    I have covered this in my answer to this later question :

    Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    Yes I did, back in the pre-Poppulo days after the financial crash in 2008. It was a very, very tough time and I had a huge amount of difficulties around finance and personnel and the product, so I considered selling the company. I had a buyer but they wouldn’t match the price I had set and there was no way I was going to sell for anything less, I wasn’t going to compromise on the value of the company I had built up. Even though I wanted to get out and give up, my own sense of self-worth, my self-respect and pride in what I had built, motivated me to keep going.

    That was a pivotal moment for me in my career because when I knew that I wasn’t going to sell, even though I was very unhappy and wanted to get out but there was no way out, I said ‘ Right, I have to face these challenges, deal with the thorny issues’’. So I started meeting them head-on, doing what needed to be done. That’s an attitude and mindset that has sustained me through every challenge since then: if you keep doing the right thing, good things will happen.

    It’s a personal drive — if something is wrong, fix it, and it’s always been how we do things at Poppulo: keep meeting the challenge, keep doing the right thing. Face up to difficulties and don’t ignore them. Do the right thing when times are tough and the right things happen eventually.

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

    In a sentence: It’s to be calm, to be clear and open, and to be highly visible.

    When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

    The best way to boost morale, to inspire, motivate and engage people is to give them hope.

    You paint a picture of a future brighter than what people are experiencing right now. You tell them that we’re going to get through this and how we’re going to do it. You might not know all the steps that you will need to take to get beyond the uncertain times, or a crisis, and don’t be afraid of admitting that.

    But you must let people know that these are the first steps that we’re going to take and we will continue to communicate the path to a brighter future as we go along.

    People need to know and need to be told what the picture is and that crises and economic downturns pass. They prefer to hear bad news directly rather than being kept in the dark.

    They need to know and hear that there is a plan, these are the steps we need to take to get to a better place, and this is how we’re going to get there.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    All successful relationships revolve around one word: trust. Whether it’s your team or your customers, if there isn’t trust there’s nothing. End of story. And trust is completely dependent on honesty and openness, so the only way to communicate difficult news is to be open and honest, no matter how difficult it might be at the time.

    If you’ve bad news to tell a customer you’ve got to be up front and get it out there. Be open and honest about what has happened, why it happened, what you’re going to do to fix it, and what steps you’re going to take to minimize the chances of it happening again.

    As far as I’m concerned, that is sacrosanct because if you do anything else you break that trust and you fracture or destroy the relationship. It’s as simple as that. And in my experience, people don’t judge you by what has gone wrong, they judge you by how you handle it.

    Even if a customer is unhappy or angry to hear bad news at the time, they always appreciate honesty and openness and then you move on to fixing the problem and maintaining a good relationship.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    The future has rarely been so unpredictable as it has been over the past year so it’s been extremely difficult to plan with any certainty.

    So what you do in that situation is scenario planning across a range from ‘Best Case to Worst Case’ and points in between. You might develop three or four different scenarios and plan accordingly. What you need to plan for and do in Scenario 1, 2, 3 and 4, so you’ve thought it through in advance.

    But the key thing here is how you know when you’ve got to move from Plan A to Plan B, what are the triggers that mean you’ve got to make those changes for a different scenario, that it’s time to move and move fast. The answer to that is that you’ve got to watch every indicator like a hawk to know that things are changing and it’s time to move to Plan B or C, and move fast.

    How you communicate this with your people is critical. As I said, they need to be given the confidence and reassurance that you have a plan, and that this is shared and they know what’s happening. But that doesn’t mean that you should share the Worst Case Scenario unless it gets to a stage that it looks like it could become a reality. Just because it’s essential that you plan for it doesn’t mean you should share it and create unnecessary fear, panic and sink morale to the floor.

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    Yes there is a Number 1 principle and that’s honesty. If you’re honest with people they will trust you. People are so resilient and they will go along with you, but only if they trust you, and there’s no way they will if they think you’re not being honest with them.

    Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

    The first mistake many companies make during difficult times is not communicating with their people, or communicating poorly or infrequently.

    It’s not only counterproductive, it can inhibit a company’s ability to get through whatever it is going through and it can irreparably damage trust and morale.

    People need to know what’s going on, how they’re going to be affected by changing circumstances; it’s a very basic human need and it’s also human nature to fill communication voids with rumor and speculation, which is not helpful, to say the least.

    The second mistake is when companies cut back during tough times, which they have to do. But you should cut your capacity, not your capability. Yet cutting capability is often what happens when the pressure is on to cut numbers.

    When you simply cut numbers you’re taking capabilities out of the business — capabilities that will be difficult to replace again when the period of difficulty has passed, setting you back even further for some time.

    If you’ve got 20 people and they’re all doing the same thing you can cut capacity, you might be able to half it. But if you’ve got two people who are crucial because they’ve got a certain capability to do things you don’t want to lose that capability, you don’t want them to be in a crude numbers cut.

    What you need to do is to stay in a position that when things turn to the good again you’ve got the capability to take advantage of it. If you’ve cut your capability you’ve also cut your ability to respond quickly when the difficult time has passed, handing advantage to competitors who might also have cut capacity but didn’t mess with their capabilities.

    Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

    There’s no silver bullet for how to keep growing when the economy is in difficulty.

    But you’ve got to ask yourself, how vulnerable would my product be to an economic downturn? And if it is vulnerable you need to make sure it’s not your only product. Either that or you’ve got to look ahead and look at strategies around how you can change or adapt it in different ways for different scenarios in a slowdown.

    The past year has shown many examples of companies or even sectors imaginatively adapting to circumstances that were impossible to predict. But many of those who have coped best are those who had looked ahead and had contingency plans in place for dealing with a crisis.

    When times are tough you’ve also got to put yourself in your customers shoes and if they’re struggling and it looks like you could lose them, look at losing some revenue instead, give

    time-bound discounts, payments pauses etc. It’s easier to keep a customer than to win one, so lose the revenue if you have to, but not the logo.

    Make concessions to keep the customer, make it work for them and they’ll appreciate that you looked after them when they needed it.

    Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

    From my perspective the 5 most important things for a leader in this context are:

    1. Be visible: Make frequent communication with your people a top priority
    2. Be calm: A crisis tests true leadership — and as the saying goes, losing your head in a crisis is a good way to become the crisis.
    3. Be honest: Just as in battle, people will follow a leader they trust.
    4. Be clear about what’s happening, what you’re going to do and why
    5. Give people hope.

    That’s fundamentally what I believe and it’s what informed how I and my leadership team led Poppulo through the pandemic.

    For example, in relation to the first point on being visible, from the start of Covid when the entire company started working remotely, we went from a monthly Town Hall and newsletter to a daily email to all staff and I did a weekly video to keep everybody in the loop. This high visibility communication was very important during a turbulent and uncertain time and people really valued it. We know that from both the feedback we got and the engagement data.

    I think I was calm during this time! At least I gave a very good impression that I was! We were honest and open at all times and we encouraged people to ask any questions they wanted, whether it was about how the business was faring, or any issues they had personally — and we made sure that people could ask these questions in person or anonymously.

    We worked hard at keeping the lines of communication open at all times and I also kept reiterating that we would come through this just as we had come through big challenges in the past. I was very clear about this and I believe it did give our people hope when it was needed most.

    I think that if you look at leadership globally during Covid, the people who have been acknowledged as having shown great leadership — like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern or Mark Aslett, CEO of Mercury Systems Inc in the US — it’s very notable that high visibility/communication played such a crucial role.

    Indeed, when Glassdoor named Aslett the most highly rated CEO during Covid-19 based on employee feedback, one of the key factors that influenced ratings of CEOs in the global survey was ‘maintaining frequent and clear communications”.

    Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    For me it has to be “the darkest hour is just before dawn”.

    No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s running a business or a project you’re doing, or just the way life is, if you have a number of things that are going wrong, that is the critical point and you can either cave in then or you believe that the darkest hour is before dawn and you push on.

    Because the negatives, the things going against you, come in cycles, whether it’s in life or in business, or both, and you do get through them. Remembering that the darkest hour is before dawn helps get you through it.

    From my own experience, I’ve had many days when three or four or five things have gone wrong, and everything seems bad, but knowing that this will pass, just like the dark before dawn, keeps you going.

    I find thinking like that is helpful when everything seems to be dark and going wrong — I know things are going to come around, so do what you can do, keep doing the right things, and the dawn will come again and we’ve made it through!

    How can our readers further follow your work?

    Anybody who has followed Poppulo’s journey over the past few years will have seen a small company with a big heart and ambition grow to be a global leader built on really strong values that we live by in everything we do. The best way for readers to keep in touch with my work is to continue following us on the next exciting chapter of our journey after our recent merger with Four Winds Interactive. It promises to be another very interesting installment of the Poppulo story!