Sarah Jones Simmer’s career started at a hedge fund in Los Angeles. But while she loves investing, there’s something about business growth that got her thinking beyond just the numbers. “I love thinking about what makes businesses grow and succeed, and also what barriers exist to allowing that scale to happen,” she says.
So it’s no surprise that after several years in the finance world, she shifted over to strategy consulting with a focus on social good. She was a natural fit to join the team at rapidly growing woman-first networking site Bumble, where Sarah was named COO in 2017.
That was the same year that Bumble expanded beyond an app for dating into other types of social connections. It rolled out Bumble Bizz for business networking, and Bumble BFF for people looking to make platonic friends.
Those various platforms speak directly to the company’s values of kindness and empowerment. “It’s about destigmatizing this idea that we all want new relationships and creating the right format for that to make people feel comfortable pursuing new relationships,” Sarah says.
In an interview for the Second in Command Podcast, Sarah shared how her leadership style has evolved over the years and how facilitating empowerment takes many forms at the brand, which has more than 55 million global users. Here are a few key points from the discussion on getting aligned with the boss, promoting kindness and thinking locally to grow globally.
Find the intersection of leadership value and joy
Sarah describes founder CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd as a visionary leader, which is evident in Bumble’s rapid growth — the business is only about six years old.
She says the most important part of the relationship between a CEO and COO is being honest — both with each other and the goals they’ve set for the company. “There has to be a level of trust and mutual respect,” she says. “There has to be this ability to push and pull on a day-to-day basis, then a clear understanding of where your lane is.”
And while no one stays in a singular lane in a fast-growing business, it’s important to know where each executive can provide the most value and where they experience the most joy. That clarity of vision and value can keep both CEO and COO aligned toward mutual goals, she says.
Sarah admits that earlier in her relationship as COO to Whitney, she’d skip over the vision and the goal as an idea and instead start asking about the tangibles: budgets, project management, execution, etc.
But she’s learned to focus on the vision first allowing herself to feel her CEO’s enthusiasm and the potential benefit for the company — before diving into execution. Unpacking the vision first “helps me be more comfortable shooting for the stars and being a thought partner with her,” Sarah says. “As opposed to feeling like it’s immediately like brass tacks.”
Being kind doesn’t mean sugarcoating feedback
One of Bumble’s core values is kindness, but Sarah is quick to explain it goes beyond the surface level. “It doesn’t mean we only ever say nice things,” she says. “It means we operate from a posture of kindness.”
Giving authentic feedback contributes to kindness, as does being able to speak with respect as equals. “If I hear feedback from someone because it’s coming from a place of kindness and every interaction I’ve had with them reinforces that, it’s a lot easier to receive that feedback for what it is,” Sarah says.
While in the past she may have internalized feedback, she’s been able to separate actions and outcomes from her existence as a human, business leader, and mom.
Kindness extends to difficult decisions, as well. “The kind approach is going to be what is kind for both of you,” she says of determining whether it’s time to part ways with a team member. “If that person is not set up to succeed and not capable of succeeding in the role, then it’s the kind thing for them too, to be given a chance to move on and have other opportunities,” Sarah says.
To grow globally, think locally
Sarah and I spoke at length about Bumble’s December 2018 launch in India.
Expanding to new markets takes more than just replicating what works, she says. It’s a matter of starting from the ground up to adapt Bumble’s platforms to a particular audience. “There’s no way to do this templatized at scale because the way people connect and form bonds with one another is dictated by millennia worth of culture,” she says. What works to foster interpersonal connections in one country may go against societal norms in another.
That attention to cultural nuance has led to some surprising wins.
For instance, when the company developed Bumble for an Indian audience, religion, and astrological sign were two badges and filters deemed essential to add to the dating side of the app.
“We ended up building that functionality, and then deciding to roll that out globally and not saving it for India,” Sarah says. The nuances of each region drive decision making for expansion in each, but Sarah says it also reveals “how ultimately interconnected the world is” in how we build relationships.
The opportunity to promote empowered connections keeps Sarah excited for the future of the company. The fact that the company is profitable already doesn’t hurt. “It sets the standard for what is going to be possible in the way that businesses are built going forward,” she says. “We’re excited to be one example of what that could look like.”
This article is based on an episode of Second in Command Podcast, where your host Cameron Herold interviews the chief operating officer behind the chief executive officer to learn their tips, systems and insights from being the second-in-command of an amazing growth company.