Episode 2: The Power of Culture when Facing Change

Cathal Divilly

In the first of a two-part conversation, Great Place to Work CEO Cathal Divilly is joined by Yvonne Frost, VP of Employee Experience with Poppulo. Yvonne is also the most recent recipient of The Great Place to Work Ambassador Award. In this episode, the duo discusses Yvonne’s involvement in Poppulo’s progression from a small start-up to a global leader in employee communications technology. You will learn about the role of culture in Poppulo’s success, maintaining culture through growth, and the connection between strategy and culture. Yvonne also discusses development, engagement, effective listening, the changing role of HR and much more.


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> In this podcast

Speakers-4Yvonne Frost

VP of Employee Experience



Cathal Divilly


Great Place to Work Ireland


> Transcript

Cathal Divilly: Hello, and welcome to all The Red Cube listeners. We are delighted today to be joined by the VP of Employee Experience from Poppulo, Yvonne Frost. Yvonne, this is crazy times we live in. How have you been?

Yvonne Frost: Hi Cathal, thank you so much for inviting me to this podcast. Definitely, I think you're spot on. The last 12 months, it definitely has been a very, very crazy time. Looking forward to the next stage when hopefully restrictions start to lift, and we can start to get back to some kind of normality. So doing well, thanks for asking.


Cathal Divilly: Brilliant Yvonne, I think things are becoming a little bit more positive out there with vaccines, which is great to see. Yvonne, I suppose a good place to start is, you might give the listeners a sense of your own career journey and sort of into your current role, and a sense as to who Poppulo are.

Yvonne Frost: Absolutely. So as you quite rightly pointed out, Cathal, I'm the VP of Employee Experience in Poppulo. So a little bit about the business itself. So Poppulo was founded by Corkman, Andrew O’Shaughnessy. And when I joined the business, I was Employee #9, I joined a small business in Bandon, County Cork, that had a big ambition for growth. But, you know, it was unproven at that time. But now, you know, I've been in the business for 16 years, and we've grown our employees to over 260 employees. We've got our head offices here in Cork, we also have an office in Waltham in Boston. And over the past 16 years, we've grown the business to really a leader in the employee communication space. So what the business does, is we help the largest and most successful businesses in the world communicate effectively with their employees. So that's what we do.

When I joined the business 16 years ago, I actually joined in the Customer Success department. So my background is in Design and Web Design. And as you can imagine, when I joined a small business of nine people, my role was what presently is around six different teams all wrapped into one role at that time. So it was a fantastic experience, to grow with the business, from that start-up stage, to now being that kind of global leader in our space. So really, really has been a complete whirlwind. But something I'm very proud to have been a part of.


Cathal Divilly: I was wondering how long it would take before we got the Cork mention in, but we've got it mentioned straightaway. So that's fantastic. Another Irish success story, doing great things out there. Yvonne, you started off in Design, and now you're in Employee Experience: any sort of elements of that Design role that's useful in terms of the current role?

Yvonne Frost: Absolutely Cathal. And starting off my career in both Design, and in the Customer Success department has actually was a great foundation to move across into Employee Experience, and HR. And I do use that approach and skillset quite a bit. If you think about it, the practices, particularly around Customer Success, where you're focused on the customer, what their needs and wants are, and that you're listening and adapting your approach based on what the customer needs. That essentially what Employee Experience is about as well. In regards to Design, I'm very passionate still about Design, I'm very interested in it. But similarly, you know, that Design Thinking approach where you look at the user, you take an iterative approach to anything you do, and you try to understand the needs and wants of the user is something that really Employee Experience is all about, so you're absolutely spot on. I use those kinds of foundation skills and approach in my role, I do it every day, and sometimes you take it for granted.


Cathal Divilly: Thanks, Yvonne. And obviously, the core thread that The Red Cube podcast is all about is all things culture right? Look, as we know, there's lots of talk about culture and its importance and its importance to the business. For you, Yvonne, what is culture? And why is it relevant to Poppulo’s business?

Yvonne Frost: I suppose I put culture: there are four fundamental elements that I think define the success of any business. And that's vision, strategy, culture, and leadership. And I think of those four, culture is kind of the cornerstone of those. And to me what culture is, culture is how your company behaves, you know, how, how you get things done, your attitudes to each other, to your work, and to your customers. And that's key. So as we've grown Poppulo, you know, we always actually, from when that when I first walked into the business when you were nine employees, that was something I felt special about our culture, and our people. And the big challenge we had then was holding on to that, throughout such rapid growth. And as we were hiring lots of people into the business. And as you know, strategically, we were pivoting at different stages of our growth. Culture is what kept us together. And ultimately, I attribute our culture as one of those foundational elements of our success. So people can, you know, there's a lot of thoughts, sometimes people can be cynical on the importance of culture, but with vision, strategy, culture, and leadership, and they're all quite interconnected, I believe that culture absolutely is the cornerstone cog.


Cathal Divilly: Brilliant. And along with those four elements Yvonne then, maybe we'll link in two of them, right? So this idea of strategy, and culture, right? So interested in hearing about the People strategy that you have in place in Poppulo. And I suppose, what drives that People strategy, you know, what determines what strategy you choose Yvonne?

Yvonne Frost: Yeah, and that's, that's a really interesting one. I think the overall Business strategy is key to defining what the People strategy should be. And I think sometimes people can make the mistake of kind of embarking on defining a People strategy, without looking at that through the lens of the overall Company strategy. And what I mean by that is, and this is where I think sometimes in the HR function, leaders can be overly focused on the function itself, versus the impact it has on the business. And what I mean by that, but maybe just to give you an example: Learning & Development is something, I’m just picking it as an example within the HR/People Operations space, you can’t look at your approach or your strategy around Learning & Development within your People strategy, without understanding what the business is trying to achieve strategically over the next 12 to 24 months.

And what I mean by that is: let's say, for example, just hypothetically, if your business is trying to focus on raising your Customer Net Promoter Score, I'm just picking this an example now Cathal. Of that's one of the strategic focuses in the business, to drive customer retention, then you need to do a dotted line back into the People Operations, overall strategy and back into your Learning & Development approach to make sure that everything that you're doing is driving that business outcome from a Learning & Development perspective.

So coming back up out of the weeds there for a moment, Cathal, I think overall, your People strategy – and I believe in keeping things absolutely simple, right? – but our People strategy in Poppulo at a very high level is, it's about hiring exceptional people, and bringing them into our business, okay? Then it's about creating an environment where those people who can do great work, where they can learn, you know, develop their careers, create great working relationships with their colleagues, and ultimately be proud of how their contribution is driving our strategy. So if you take that approach of getting great people in, creating a positive environment, really what People Operations is about is often sometimes about removing obstacles or barriers to helping people achieve success, and then influencing the culture, when things go a little bit off track to make sure that we're staying on track. And then the rest is around aligning people, making sure there's kind of proper communication in the business and effective communication, to keep people aligned as they deliver on the strategy. So I think the starting point always is with the Business strategy. I think that's where any HR/People Operations leader needs to start, and everything needs to be mapped to that Business strategy.


Cathal Divilly: Brilliant. So Business strategy into the People strategy and things flow from there. Yvonne, actually, I love the specific scenario you gave there around businesses looking to raise – we'll say the NPS score of the customer – and then how that links in with Learning & Development, I think you've touched on a real challenge, I guess, for many businesses. Could you actually give us some specifics around how that challenge of the NPS score, and how that correlates then with what we need to do around Learning & Development?

Yvonne Frost: Sure, and you know, we're very blessed in Poppulo, we've a high Customer NPS score. But as an example, just as an example, there is a strong correlation between, you know, your Employee Net Promoter Score and your Customer Net Promoter Score. And really what that is, is that if you are able to build an engaged team in your Customer Success function, that team will ensure that your customers are looked after, right? And that's proven. That's not just me saying that, that's proven in the industry. So then if you think about your People strategy, what do you need to do to ensure that – definitely from a Learning & Development piece, but just for, a broader piece is around Employee Engagement – within that Customer Success function to drive a really positive Net Promoter Score?

So, comes back to my general People strategy: any hires that you're bringing in, are you bringing in people that are aligned with your values and your culture? And who have that customer-centricity? Are you onboarding them in a way that builds cohesive teams, and sets them up ultimately to succeed? On the Learning & Development: does your customer success teams, you know, do they have the skills and competencies required? And this is kind of where there's, you know, this is where People Ops overlaps, or HR overlap really closely with the Customer Success leadership around understanding what does good look like? In how we support and service our customers? And how does that map back to key competencies? And what's the fastest and most effective way of delivering those competencies to your Customer Success teams? What are our learning outcomes, but also how are we going to track that that is sticking? And then before you know it, you have a nice series of kind of metrics, that that are linking your Customer Net Promoter Score to all of the activities that are happening in your People function.

But as I said, Cathal, I believe in keeping things really simple, and not overcomplicating it. But the role of the People leaders and the people working within the People Operations function, you can see automatically is, even as I'm speaking there, they need to work with the leaders in the business, just as the example I gave you. They need to work really closely with the leaders so that they have an understanding of what's required. And I think that's the piece Cathal, back to your question earlier, when you asked me, you know, coming from Design or coming from Customer Success, what do I bring across? I think the piece where I've been very blessed in my career, is that I have come from the business into the People function. So I didn't come from outside the business straight into HR or People, I've come from within the business. So because I've done most of the of the roles or been exposed to many of the roles in our business, I understand what challenges these teams have, what's key to their success. And it means that I can influence our People strategy and everything that we're doing to support them. Because I think ultimately, that's what it's about.

And Cathal, as you know, in the past, you know, if we went back, you know, 20-30 years ago, the HR function sat in an office in the corner of a building. It was about compliance, procedures, protocol, avoiding risk, and didn't… as a function, in the early days, HR often didn't understand the business. But now that has completely changed. And what I try to do, ultimately with my team and with the function, is to put us at the centre of the business. And we can only be at the centre of the business if we understand the business. And if we are advocates, and experts on the strategy, because everything that we do comes back to that strategy, and my team need to be able to articulate the strategy, understand the strategy, but in particular understand the key challenges to delivering on that strategy. And that cascades right down to – if we're hiring for a new role, you can come across a candidate that has an unexpected experience or skill-set that can help solve some of the business challenges. So everyone needs to have their sight on strategy. And I think it's a step that sometimes people overlook how critical that is.


Cathal Divilly: Absolutely. And it's extraordinary to see the career journeys of many people now in HR and have come from different parts of the business, and now find themselves in HR and People Experience, and I think the more I guess we position that Employee Experience is a real destination role for people, I think the better the culture will be so it's clear Yvonne, you spend a lot of time yourself and your team in listening to your employees, what are the specific ways that you listen to employees in Poppulo?

Yvonne Frost: Absolutely Cathal you’re spot on and look, early on, when I stepped into this role, I was tasked with the communications piece, and you naturally have to learn and develop your skill-set. But what struck me early on is the importance of the fact that communications needs to be two ways, it's not just sharing information, it's about listening, you know, and, and listening is key, if you're actually going to align people, you need to meet them at their starting point. And the only way you can do that is by listening and understanding their perspective. And I think that some, it's a place where people, sometimes they don't start, they're more focused on what they want to say, then actually understanding your audience and where their audience is at. So, you know, I'll give you some specifics. But on a broader level, what I'd say to you is that it's kind of listening is woven into everything we do. So if we're going to make any change in the business or, you know, set strategic goals for a particular year, things like that, any kind of change, all of our leaders and in particular our CEO begins by sitting with small groups in the business, listening to, to their experience, their understanding, their starting point around what's going well, where can we improve. And often by doing that, you'll find that there naturally would be some things you never thought of or a perspective that you weren't aware of. And it means then that any future communications can be tailored to add the context and clarity to help people bring them on the journey. So I'd say first of all, it's just a general approach to start with listening.

On a kind of tactical level, over the last 12 months with all of the acute change that's happened with working remote and all the rest, what we've got into a nice cadence of creating a channel for our employees to ask any question into the business. And that's open all the time. And every Thursday, we send a newsletter, we call it The Loop. It includes a message from our CEO, a video message from our CEO, a weekly update, as well as between kind of three to four videos from the rest of the business, might be from business leaders, or it might be from particular team members talking about progress in their area or updates. But that video Loop allows us to answer the questions. So everyone has questions it can be related to strategy, they could be related to something we can do better, it may be related to something we didn't think of. So we can go from, you know, high level to a very tactical question. It might be “goodness, we've had enough of those virtual social events can we try and do something different”, you know, it could be anything that people, you know, what's on your mind, just let us know! And that kind of weekly cadence of giving people you know, a chance to ask questions, we’ll answer the questions and add as much colour and context as needed. It was interesting, when we started that exercise, the first few months, there was a really a lot of questions, but then we found out, you know – you answer those questions, and then you, you learn from the questions so that your general kind of comms is given the required level of detail. And then it kind of settles down to a nice kind of, two to three questions every week, but everyone has what they need. And it creates this nice culture of openness and transparency.

And really, at the end of the day, you know, there shouldn't be any question you can't answer clearly. And there's nothing I – you know, particularly in Poppulo, there's nothing I'd be afraid of – you know, it creates that community of openness and transparency. So that has really helped. I think, then on top of it, you know, we send, we've been sending actually daily newsletters during the acute part of the lockdown, but we know it's kind of two to three mailings a week and within those communications it can be anything from business updates, we have a Wellness Wednesdays where we focus, our wellness team focuses on content specifically around wellness, we've had Diversity and Inclusion sometimes actually, I think every second Friday or… they focus on that content. And it's lovely because it creates this lovely sense of community around it. But woven through that, we use surveys and we gather sentiment on specific topics, you know, and there's great engagement with those surveys. That's another way of, just having simple surveys, kind of Pulses throughout different times through the year is very helpful.

Another way of listening is we've kind of mapped out our employee journey. So for example, when someone starts after the first two weeks, we send it a detailed survey to understand what their experience was at that stage of the journey. What went well? Where can we improve? So the employee journey has a few checkpoints around listening. And then of course, back to yourselves, Cathal, we have a very detailed Great Place to Work survey every year, which is a great listening tool because the depth of questions and the nature of questions and the interplay between those statements is key for us keeping on track. What we do when we get the results of that survey, is that we get out to the business and if there are issues that need to be tackled, before we put a plan in place to tackle them, we will sit with kind of listening sessions with cross-functional teams, depending you know, if it's in a particular pocket of the business, we sit with that pocket of the business. And we'll try to understand the problem before we try to jump to conclusions because sometimes, you'll find with the surveys, that if you take a knee-jerk reaction to solve the problem you think you have to solve, actually, when you take a bit more time to understand the issue and understand people's perspective, your solution may not have been the best solution. And actually, I find over and over again, that sometimes the root cause of any problem in a business is around not communicating effectively. And sometimes if you just take the time to make sure that people understand the broader context, my experience is, people are very reasonable. And communication is key. So I think a lot of problems come from poor communication.

The last one around listening is we've begun to run a quarterly Employee Net Promoter Score. And with that, there's naturally an opportunity for people to share their perspective on where they would score higher on that Employee Net Promoter Score, what we need to do better, but what I like about us is with all of these different channels, you get a sense of what are the issues you need to tackle. So often at this stage, there's nothing new coming up. It's something that we're already focusing on fixing. So really what it is, is making sure that people know when is that going to be solved or what, you know, progress on that particular work stream, we know what you can expect next, which comes back to the communication as well, Cathal, so it's interesting. 

Cathal Divilly: And often the listening practice is an opportunity to reinforce what, I guess, you're already doing. It's a communication opportunity.