Episode 3: Effective Listening that Drives Actions

Cathal Divilly

In the second 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, you will hear about the role of trust in leadership, the necessity of engaging with employee feedback, and the connection between trust and genuine feedback. Yvonne also discusses building credibility as an HR practitioner, managing morale and expectations, and how to action feedback. You will also learn about managing meeting fatigue, learning from mistakes and much more.



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Speakers-4Yvonne Frost

VP of Employee Experience



Cathal Divilly


Great Place to Work Ireland


> Transcript

Cathal Divilly: Welcome back Red Cube listeners, today we are continuing our conversation with Yvonne Frost from Poppulo. If you haven’t listen to the first part of this discussion yet, you should be able to find it in the feed of your choice.

We know Yvonne, from your Great Place to Work results that the practices you share there are working for Poppulo. What I'd say is there's also organisations out there that would be doing the ‘Ask Any Question’ or the ‘Listening to the CEO’ practice, but for them, it just doesn't, it doesn't work. And it's not seen as a great practice by employees. Is there any specific elements of… if I was to take the ‘Listen to the CEO’ practice Yvonne, any specific elements or conditions you feel are important for something like that, to have an impact on Employee Experience?

You know, Cathal – and I'm speaking obviously from my experience in Poppulo so I don't understand the issues in in other organisations – but one thing that that I know is quite unique about Poppulo is our CEO, Andrew O’Shaughnessy. And I know that trust is a key part of the whole Great Place to Work ethos, and Andrew, and I'm not speaking just you know, from my perspective, I think of the close to 270 employees in Poppulo, if they were listening to this, they'd nod! Our broader team, kind of implicitly trust Andrew, and they trust what he says. His actions always, you know, match his words, and he has this sincere and honest focus on his people. And people know that. And I think you know if that's contrived, or if it's genuine. And I think you're going to need that as a starting point.

Trust, which actually, when I started probably eight years ago, working with the Great Place to Work team, I probably didn't really understand the power of that word, trust. But trust in the business, not just with the CEO, but all of the leaders, it can be very easily eroded. And actually that – Cathal, you've touched on something which is, which is very important – in fact before you embark on any kind of listening, it's kind of an agreement between you and your employees that you're only… and you're only going to get one or two chances here. What they tell you, you have to act on, and if you don't, then your listening channel is broken, and actually it may not be repairable. So I know Andrew would have worked closely with me, in the early days around: what did you hear? What are you going to do about it? How are you going to demonstrate that you've done something about it? And it's an unforgivable mess if you don't act on what’s heard.

So that's a piece, absolutely: trust, and action. And trust, actually, you're not going to get the true feedback if you're not trusted. So that's the other piece, you know, and that comes back to that kind of traditional HR, where actually, the employees, you know, they were off in the corner of the building, and you only went there if there was a challenge or a problem. So you're definitely not going to go there proactively to talk about something that could be a problem, if you don't trust that group, that team: you know, that's an extreme example, now Cathal. But I think all of these pieces are interconnected, but building that relationship for the HR/People Operations team, to build their credibility as knowledgeable, people-centric, value-providing, is key to people trusting you with their perspective. So be careful who's gathering the insight, and whether it's actionable.

And look, this comes back Cathal, all right, this comes back to my Customer Success days. Whenever I had a customer that was unhappy. And I always said to my team, if you have a customer that is unhappy, it is your fault. It is our fault collectively as a team. An unhappy customer, that's our fault. And then some people would say to me, “oh, but that customer is being unreasonable”, or “that customer doesn't realise, you know, that we can't do that in that time”. And I said, “follow the dots back – that's your fault.” We didn't manage their expectations. We need to communicate to them exactly what problems we can solve, what the timelines are, how we can support them. And we need to do that early, and to stay close to our customers. So we've always, always had that ethos in Poppulo, around that customer centricity, that you look after your customers, you communicate with them, they're very clear on what's required, what they need to do, what we need to do, to ultimately be successful. And you approach them with complete and utter empathy. And actually, that kind of servant/leader kind of approach is what's needed.

So I take exactly the same approach to our employees. And ultimately, if there's an unhappy employee, in my business, that's my failure. And, and I take that personally. So that's, that's kind of our, always has been my approach. And, and I think communication is key to that. And building relationships, you know, trust is very linked to that, you know, building relationships with everyone in the business: leaders and employees. So that they trust you, and they believe that you're credible, and that you can deliver value and support them.


Cathal Divilly: You've given us a lot of stimulus there and given us a good process to follow because a big challenge we see in workplaces is moving from listening into action. And it's clearly a difficult thing to do. And it's not about creating a wishlist, right? It's not about listening, and we do everything. What happens in Poppulo when, we'll say we do a listening piece, and it's just an area we're not going to look at or we can't do anything on. How do you follow that process through?

Well I think there's two parts to that, okay? So if there's something broken, right? If someone's giving, giving me feedback, that there is a particular process in the business that's broken, we try to tackle that. You know, usually you can make some incremental changes to get that process back on line, you know? Or similarly, if there's a channel of communication broken, we need to just get on that and fix that. So usually, they are kind of non-negotiable actions. And I think in any part of the business, and I don't think there's anything unusual about this, actually, for the People function, that's kind of the approach. You know, one of our values is high standards as a standard and we do as a business hold ourselves accountable to that. So if something's broken, fix it. And there's no… we don't tolerate that kind of complacency in regards to “oh, we'll get to that, you know, in a month or two” – let's get on it and fix it.

So that's one piece. But then obviously, there's feedback or ideas relating to a bigger body of work, right? And look, Poppulo has been growing quickly for the last – over six years. And I think if you were to write a list any day, and I think a lot of people will empathise to this, you could write a list any day, you could have 50 things on the list that could be done at any one time. And I think, you know, feeding into that there could be areas or ideas that that need to be implemented. And as I say, this is not unique to the People function. It happens in every part of business. And ultimately, I think, to effectively deliver on a strategy, what leaders need to do, is they need to learn to say No. They'll probably be saying No more than Yes. And maybe the No is a Not Now, so there's a bit of a distinction there. But the ability to ruthlessly prioritise, I believe, in leadership is one of those key competencies, because one true path to failure is to try and to take everything on and you fail at everything.

Now, Cathal, back to your point, on, you know, you're hearing from employees, you know, ideas or things that you know, that they want done. I think the part that you have to be – and it's a bit of a craft, I think, in regards to ensuring that people don't get disengaged that their thoughts or ideas aren't being actioned, and I believe in doing this with everything – is bring it back to the strategy. So what's our Business strategy, and let's look at that Business strategy, and then look at what needs to be done through the lens of that strategy. And what I find and, I haven't yet struggled to work out priorities on this is, usually when you do that, you can, you can very easily prioritise the top, you know, three to five things that are next to be worked on. And then you can go back to the person who has that idea, and use – and as long as you understand the strategy, as long as they understand the strategy, and you can take time to explain it to them, then it's a common sense approach to why that can be done right now. And what you're actually doing is you're empowering that individual to become more strategic, to understand that their idea is a really good idea, because there's lots of really good ideas. But right now, the business needs to focus on – and particularly in a People function – of doing, you know, these top five things. And that, and here's why those top five things are so important. And I haven't yet to come across anyone who's who becomes disillusioned or disengaged when it when someone takes the time to explain that to them.

I think if you have… and it comes back Cathal, it comes back to that piece. You get great people into the business, you create that environment, which is they can do good work and built on trust. And when you have those things in place, you can have those conversations and they land and they land correctly. I think the mistake, I suspect the mistake that people make is that they've missed step one or two or, or haven't taken the time to communicate that clearly. And actually, I know I keep going back to this. But is it Yeats or no… I think… “the biggest problem with communication is the assumption that it took place”, I think, I think I'll find that that quote, because I had it on my desk for quite a while. But that communication is key.


Cathal Divilly: Brilliant Yvonne: “communicate, communicate, communicate”. I don't know who said that, but that's a popular one as well. And we'll stick with communication then Yvonne. So the dreaded meetings. I know there's lots of talk about Zoom fatigue out there amongst many workplaces and meetings and more meetings and more meetings! In Poppulo, how do you approach this topic of meetings, and overload, and all of that?

Sure Cathal, interestingly it's something we've been kind of grappling with for the last two or three years. You know, there were peaks and troughs around volumes of meetings and feedback around meetings. And, but it really came to a head, I think, after March, when we stepped into that lockdown, and what happened was, because we're naturally a very collaborative group of people, and we work through each other, but the feedback from the business was that kind of overnight, people's calendars just became block booked with meetings, and they had no space to actually make progress on their goals. And people were exhausted, it was having an impact on wellness. And it wasn't that they thought that any of those meetings weren't needed. It's just the volumes of meetings were off the scale.

So we said right, we're gonna tackle this. So the first thing we did is we spent some time trying to understand the problem, okay? We sat with different groups to understand it. We also sent out a kind of a detailed survey to try and understand what actually was happening, what was our people's perspective on meetings, and, and then, you know, kind of analyse that and actually look to the key drivers around meeting overload. What we did then was, we went out and we did as much research as we could on best practice around meetings, to try to see did someone have some… had someone solved these problems somewhere in a way that we could, we could apply. And there wasn't a quick solve. Instead, actually, it's a number of small things that needs to be put in place to drive healthy behaviours around meetings. So what we did then was, with our Learning and Development function, we built out a learning journey that would help change our behaviours and approach to meetings, but that it was tailored in a way that matched the Poppulo culture, because we found a lot when we read and looked into it, there were different approaches, but actually, you know, they were for different businesses at different stages in their growth, with different cultures, and it just wouldn't land, you know?

So a few things that we that we worked on – and they were simple things, but obviously, you know, like, simple things, build up to big things – so we worked with our employees to set the default meeting setting in calendars for around 30 minutes, right? We talked about simple things, which are big things. People tend to set recurring meetings around projects and initiatives that are set to kind of have a weekly catch up, or whatever. And sometimes the attendees are too long. And because it's in the calendar, the necessity, or frequency, or cadence of that was never challenged. So we asked people to challenge their recurring meetings to make sure that they're… that the number of people who needed to attend, but that there was a clear owner, that actions and outcomes were tracked, so that if a meeting didn't need to happen on a certain day, it was organised better, okay? Then we really went, we really focused on how, how our meetings actually ran. And it's interesting how sometimes your greatest strength can be a bit of a stumbling block. And we've a great crew of people, and we've great relationships in Poppulo, and we love – particularly when you're working remotely, you know, it was almost like that first five or 10 minutes becoming a totally social part of the meetings. And if it wasn't corrected, you could lose 20 minutes of the meeting, let's start running this meeting. Let's create space for the social interactions, but let's get this meeting moving as quickly as possible. So creating kind of key roles around meetings. So who's the note taker? Because you know yourself, when you're back-to-back meetings, I think this is the empathy part, because I completely get it. When you've back-to-back meetings all day, at the end of the day, you're still struggling to remember “Oh, what did I agree? What was the action? When do I need that done? How are we going to track that?” And so having an effective note taker who’s sharing out notes afterwards is an important piece. Watching the time, sometimes we can be so overly optimistic at meetings that we're never going to get it all done or all those things decided and just being ruthless, in what are the absolute outcomes or objectives of the meeting? Also, is there any prep that’s needed for the meeting? So it's not fair on people, to bring them along to a meeting without them really understanding. I know this is kind of basic stuff, but it's important stuff. And I think, I think Cathal what it is, is particularly during lockdown, people just they knew this, but they'd regressed somehow just because of the impact of the volume of meetings, but making sure that people were prepared for the meetings and that they had the capacity to answer and action what needed to be done in the meeting.

And then another one, which is a really interesting one Cathal, which is – we tried to deal with this with humour because we created the learning journey was actually quite entertaining as well – is that piece around meeting etiquette. So look, we all take certain roles in meetings, some people talk too much, some people can look like they're disengaged, some people are trying to spot all the problems and barriers to progress. And some people, dare I say it Cathal – sometimes I do turn up late for meetings. So you know, trying to make sure that from a basic meeting etiquette that everyone was doing what needed to be done to make sure that this meeting would start on time, finish on time, reach the outcomes, and do what needed to do. And the last piece we worked on really is working with leaders in the business to change this behaviour. Now, we absolutely have, you know, we followed on with a survey and I think all of everything that we did, people noticer the change in behaviours, there was a reduction in meetings. But things have started to, I suspect, as we've got busier, or even over the last quarter, we may need to refresh on some of those, those original kind of drivers of meeting overload. But really what it was, you know, and I think, you know, it really did drive change, but is working, you know, giving people the autonomy to run the meetings in an effective way, but trusting them to do it. And I think that that worked quite well. But look, I think Cathal it’s a little bit like – we all know, we all know what nutritious eating is and we kind of go through peaks and troughs of eating healthily and then ordering pizza, so it’s I think, naturally in a business I think it’s something that we’re all going to have to battle on the meeting overload problem.


Cathal Divilly: Absolutely yeah, and yes it can be seen as basic, but it’s the basics that are really important in terms of the culture. I’m really disappointed to hear that there’s no Meeting God out there or Meeting Guru out there that we can all learn from but clearly you took ideas from different sources and brought a structure to it which is really important, so lots of ideas there. Yvonne, I’m really interested in things that we try that don’t work, right? So for me, it’s probably trying to put together flat-pack furniture I guess, and it never works for me but any examples of practices that you’ve introduced in Poppulo, thought it was a good idea, and then it just didn’t land for whatever reason?

Yeah, I think probably lots of those, I could probably come up with a list, you know? And I think sometime then, it’s not even the practice you brought in, it’s the timing of it or the stage the business is at is not ready for it. But two pieces that we – interestingly, which probably worked initially and then we outgrew it, but – one was, working with yourselves Cathal in the early days when we were much smaller. We brought together on central Great Place to Work Team to try and action some of the feedback that came back through the survey. And that was a cross-functional employee group who then would work with the Senior Leadership Team as required depending on the feedback area or topic. And that worked initially, but I found then was that the scope of the survey was… it was too broad on what needed to be actioned, and the approach was wrong. So what we did was, we actually looked at, instead of having one Great Place to Work Team, we created a number of teams focused on specific areas that the individuals within that team were passionate about. And that has worked really effectively.

So for example, instead of having one broad Great Place to Work team, we have a Wellness Team. And that team has made great progress. First of all, people opted into it because they’re passionate about wellness, so you’re already winning because it’s something that people really care about, they personally have opted in to tackle that issue. It means then that you’re giving that team as well the autonomy, I work very closely with them but giving them the autonomy to solve the problems that they see, or the opportunities for, for wellness in a way that excites them and interests them. So you get this really high level of engagement and innovation and fun and ownership on that topic.

So we’ve Wellness, we’ve a Sustainability Team – I think we were nominated for Sustainability Team of the Year, last year I believe – but, like that you know, they’ve just taken it and gone with it and just do incredible work, and better work than I could ever do on the topic, because it’s just the enthusiasm and excitement.

Another one we have is Diversity and Inclusion, and that’s really come - you know, played a part in the last twelve months with all the kind of international challenges, particularly in the US, Black Lives Matter and all the rest. It’s just that people felt that they were able to impact issues and to bring knowledge and insight into the business about things they’re passionate about so – so that approach from having one central Great Place to Work Team to, we also have our Sports and Social Team, which actually, probably our longest running team in the business, and what they come up with is just – you know, you wouldn’t get those results from a team focused on a broader scope so that definitely is something that we had to change. We weren’t doing well one way and we adapted.

Another one which is, which is an interesting one. And I still probably haven’t cracked that properly but I think the fundamental approach that I was taking at the start was wrong and I think it was a bit traditional, in the fact that around kind of emerging leaders in the business – and I think that is something that probably happened in the past where a number of kind of key people who people felt were on a manager track, who had that ability in the future and that kind of you’d bring them together, and that you’d put them on a track, and obviously you know, just kind of I suppose identify them and that they saw themselves on a particular track.

And I think that was a mistake actually. I think because… coming back to my customer piece, you need to manage people’s expectations as well – absolutely, you communicate that they’re, their manager communicates, you can see that they’ve high potential, the business is really invested in their progression and their future, and putting the tools in place and the track in place to get them where they need to go to. But I think the mistake I made, you don’t need to do that through building together a group of people, it’s actually just how you work to do that, and how your manager focuses on their learning and development, and how the manager and the broader business focus on putting things in place to address high potential people who are moving at a faster track and actually creating that culture of learning is more important than having a particular track specifically focused on that group. Don’t know if I’m explaining myself very well but I think it’s something that we evolved our practices but definitely when I started out on that kind of traditional emerging leaders kind of group, it just – it was a bit clunky and I think ultimately it didn’t achieve it’s objectives, and it probably wasn’t a great experience for the people in it, whereas creating personalised development tracks for emerging leaders as part of a broader culture of learning, and tailoring that development track to their needs and wants is a better approach and I think that was one thing I learned the hard way.


Cathal Divilly: Brilliant Yvonne, two great examples shared there. We’re almost at our time together so we might finish up with a rapid-fire ‘Get to Know Yvonne Better’ round… so Yvonne, Netflix or TV?

Oh hard one… ah…. Netflix. Netflix, I think yeah definitely Netflix.


Cathal Divilly: Any shows?

I’m contradicting myself now ‘cause I’ve said Netflix but I’ve just finished Mare of Easttown with Kate Winslet which was a TV programme, so I’m flip-flopping here Cathal, but probably the most memorable programme I’ve just finished, but in general I find the fact that you can just flick on Netflix and hopefully find something at any time, and stage of the night. I’ve four kids at home so TV can be less reliable whereas Netflix is just easily accessible. But Mare of Easttown with Kate Winslet, I loved that, and what I loved about it was that Kate Winslet’s character is just so real and relatable, I don’t think we have enough of that in TV.


Cathal Divilly: Very good, good recommendation there. Em… favourite county?

Ah well, Cathal you know I live in Cork, that would be blasphemy if I mentioned any other county, it has to be, has to be Cork. I was laughing actually, with your colleague Jim there, I think I did a webinar with him back in the summer and it was probably that stage when you were allowed to stay within your county and it was definitely a whole piece in Cork “sure where else would you want to go? As long as we can get around our own county, we’ll stay like this forever, sure it’s absolutely fine!”

But yeah, I have to say… I actually was born in Wicklow, Cathal so… and I grew up there ‘til I was 10 but I’ve completely been converted to a Cork woman, there’s no escaping it now.


Cathal Divilly: Right, the real Republic of Cork… Yvonne, any advice to yourself, I suppose, starting out on your career?

Yeah Cathal, great question… I think if I could talk to myself probably 20 years ago I’d say don’t be so hard on yourself. I think… and I don’t think it’s unique to me in the fact that I probably had a very unhealthy relationship with failure. And when I did something wrong, or when I didn’t get something right, I’d sit and stew on it forever, and I’d be very hard on myself, and it’s really silly, I actually think it’s probably something that we’re all programmed from our educational system to not be resilient around failure. And failure is a key part of growth and we’re just not taught that in school actually, we have the tests and the red ink, and tend to make a big deal when we make mistakes.

Whereas actually in our career and in business when you make a mistake it means that you’re doing something, you’re trying something. The big mistake is not learning from it. But I think if I went back to myself earlier in my career, and I think it’s something that we need to work on particularly with young girls because they’re being kind of programmed to be risk averse, we need to work on that – something I’m a bit passionate about actually – but it’s to don’t be so hard on myself and… break something! That’s what I say sometimes “just go break something, learn from it”, and it’s the only way you’re going to learn and grow.


Cathal Divilly: Yeah, it’s all learning, right?

It is, absolutely.


Cathal Divilly: It’s an important message for us to, for all of us to hold on to. Yvonne, really appreciate the time today, really appreciate your partnership. You’ve led the charge in Poppulo along with your colleagues in building a great culture consistently over the last number of years and your data backs up all the examples you’ve shared with us today so Yvonne, thank you very much for joining us.

Thanks Cathal, thanks a million.