Our guest today is COO, President, and Board Member of Poppulo, Samantha Bufton.
Samantha has successfully driven transformational growth for organizations of all sizes for almost 20 years. Prior to joining Poppulo in 2022, Samantha served as EVP/ General Manager of Momentive-AI’s (formerly known as SurveyMonkey) survey business. She joined Momentive as a product leader in 2013 to architect its Enterprise offering. Previously, she spent 15 years in product management roles at Facebook, Intuit, FanSnap, and Yahoo, where she built and led teams that created innovative consumer and enterprise products. She also worked on the Corporate Development team at Autodesk, driving M&A integration and strategy initiatives.
She has a B.Sc. Computer Science from the University of Hertfordshire and an M.B.A. from the University of Oxford.
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- Samantha’s path, starting with her move to the Bay Area in 1998 as the technology explosion was just beginning.
- Some of the critical mistakes companies make when integrating or merging with a company.
- How the onboarding process for remote employees has changed.
- The importance of communicating uncertainty and being agile to your employees.
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We’ve got Sam Bufton, who is the COO and President of a great company called Poppulo. Sam gets into a lot of great areas around strategy, a number of M&A interactions or integrations that she helped lead, integrations related to the people customer side, and a lot of the process side. She talks about her time back at Yahoo when there were only 300 employees. She was on the engineering team there and her time at Intuit around systems and benchmarking.
She also worked with a company that now has offices in four different countries, and then the people integration side of the business, and also her time coming into the company as a President and COO, and how she did that when there were already 700 people in place. You’re going to love the episode. I hope you will share it and subscribe. We’ll listen to you or see you on the inside.
Sam, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much. I’m so delighted to be here and delighted to meet you and talk a little bit about this wonderful role that I find myself in.
I’m looking forward to learning a lot about that and some of the path that’s gotten you into this COO role as well with Poppulo, and finding out some of the experience that you can give us over the years. You mentioned that you moved to the Bay Area years ago, back in 1998, right as the rise of the tech scene was starting. What was that for you as an experience and what lessons do you still hold onto from back then?
It was a phenomenal ride and sheer luck that I managed to graduate with my Computer Science degree at that moment in time. I was fortunate to join Yahoo when it was about 300 people. I went in as a software engineer, and it was transformative for me. Having worked in the UK for a couple of years, it was a very different work environment. I was used to layers of management, having very well-formed requirements, and clearly understood business requirements handed down to me. At that time, going into Yahoo, we were building things new every single week as new information came along.
It was great in terms of broadening my horizons, broadening my confidence in myself, and understanding the number of things that I could apply myself to, as well as figuring out how you make decisions within a very rapidly evolving and changing marketplace with new customers, new opportunities, and new technologies coming along every single day. Decision-making and prioritization were something that figured large in it, as well as agility and that flexibility in terms of mindset and keeping an open mind in terms of the range of the possible.
When you started there in the software engineering role, did you start to move into operations there? Was it later in your career that you started to move from the tech side or software side into the operations side?
I very much stayed in engineering, but the Yahoo philosophy was that if you built it, you then maintained it. You had to develop this very operational mindset in terms of making sure that you were building something scalable, and therefore, you were able to manage it as that engineering lead. You had a sense of the implications for other functions in terms of making sure you had the hardware making sure that your sales team is aligned and your marketing team is aligned. It wasn’t strictly an engineering role, but it started to develop that mentality.
The biggest leap for me, or the most transformational experience in terms of jumping into operations, was when I moved to Autodesk into corporate development there and ran a series of M&A integrations. We did about 10 to 12 transactions very quickly and had to figure out how to integrate those companies into the Autodesk business and corporate infrastructure. Everything from people operations to CPQ, getting it out into the sales team, and hardware that we had to bring in-house.
It was there that I started to get a deeper understanding of this cross-functional alignment, the importance of the strategic lens, and the tactical lens. The importance of metrics, key impact, and outcomes that you were driving to, as well as the importance of communication and keeping everybody aligned with the direction that you’re pointing on. That was the most transformational experience in my career. It was a huge learning curve for me, and I was fortunate to learn from some great people on the Autodesk team.
What do you think are the critical mistakes? We’ve got a number of our COO Alliance members who are doing some integrations right now. Some are doing M&A. A couple have been acquired. What do you think are some of the things that companies do wrong when they’re integrating or bringing in a company underneath them or even merging with them?
The most important thing is to set the pace, to align what it is you need to do from a business, from an operations perspective, internal efficiencies from a customer perspective, and then what you need to do from an employee perspective. Those time horizons can be very different. If you are buying or integrating a smaller entity, it might be much more important for you to do that employee integration quickly so that you have a smaller team who feel as if they’re part of this new organization and are effective quickly. If you are integrating somewhat of a bigger entity, it could be that the most important thing for you to do is to figure out how to operate in parallel for a little bit.
You can move past that initial diligence that you might have done proceeding deal. Each entity gets a better understanding of the other side so that therefore you can plan effectively and have a better shot at making the integration a success. The key is to have a strong playbook. Have a sense of what it is that you need to do for the full integration journey, but spend some time thinking about what you are prioritizing for the customer, for the employee, or the internal efficiencies. Think about how you balance across the functions with that in mind.
I understand. I’ve never thought about it from those three different perspectives as well. Something that seems to happen with integrations when you make these acquisitions is there’s a lot of nervousness on the people’s side, from both sides, the acquiring company and the acquiree. How do you calm those nerves? What are the advanced chess moves you need to play on the people’s side to make sure that people are comfortable and okay? How do you deal with it when the inevitable layoffs because of a merger do happen? You don’t need two finance departments or what have you.
It’s inevitable. Sometimes you’re acquiring an organization because of the people, and it’s not necessarily the case that layoffs are inevitable, but there are frequent consolidations and merging of two teams. From a people perspective, there are two ways to think about it. One is to be as transparent as you can in terms of laying out the people’s milestones. Giving people visibility, for example, my customer success organization will be running in parallel for six months. We’re probably looking at a one-year horizon for bringing them together. It’s giving them that high-level visibility, some confidence, and some milestones that they can come to expect.
The other one is making sure that you are integrating people from a cultural perspective. Whether you are integrating a functional, whether you are not, you have a shared common language that everybody is able to use, a common set of values and frameworks, a common understanding of the new entities’ shared objectives, and the customer. You are educating those newer employees on the broader business context.
One of the most powerful things is creating that buddy system and peer-to-peer human connection. If you’re somebody who’s coming in net new, you may have a new business line leader, a new manager, but maybe there’s a peer, somebody who has your job already in the company that you can connect with so that you have that softer integration. It’s a safe space for you to go to so that you can ask some of the questions that you may be a little more timid about asking in a broader context. You need to attack it from multiple levels.
It goes back to the whole of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You go to that second layer of safety and security, and you have to make sure that people feel that safe. Doing the integrations pre-COVID, many companies now being remote or certainly hybrid companies, what do you think would change now going back to those integrations and acquisitions that you did back then? What would have to change or how would you adapt based on the fact that so many people are remote?
it’s my first-time onboarding to an organization fully remotely with this new role. It’s all about communication. Setting up those opportunities for people to come together in person around meaningful events. It could be that you need to drive different company kickoffs and functional departmental meetings. You need to create the social side of it as well so that you are creating that connectivity. Being extremely meaningful and making sure that you have an executive team that is showing up in person, being there, being available, evangelizing again, the mission, the goals, and the value of this integration to the individual people. Establish this drumbeat of outbound communication from your people team, and your executive leadership team, so that you’re sending emails.
You have mobile applications that are employees’ hands so that they have this connectivity all the time, but you are also gathering feedback. It’s very important for this to be a two-way conversation, making sure that as remote as people are, they have the ability to feedback on their experience, and their questions, so that you have this virtuous cycle of communication going on so that leadership can adjust and reflect. I don’t want to downplay the importance of getting people together in person and making sure that you have a leadership team that is available, present, and visible for folk as they’re onboarding.
How often is your leadership team a Poppulo starting to meet in person? Is it quarterly, monthly, or annually? What are your thoughts on that?
As a leadership team, we’re getting together pretty much every single month. We have our board meeting. We have our leadership meetings. We have company kickoff SKOs. We are making sure that we are coming together every single month as a leadership team. We’re also making sure, now, as a global company, we have several offices. We’re making sure that there is executive leadership presence available in each of the offices at a minimum on a monthly basis, more frequently. We have set up our sites so that we have execs in each of the offices. They’re there on a daily basis. The in-person touchpoint is very important to us. We’re a couple of years along into our integrations. It still continues to be important to be there in person and to be available.
I’m going to ask you about Poppulo and some more on your career path, but a weird question came up to me. It was an entrepreneur that I was speaking to, and someone that was in his YPO forum group said that a relative was now getting full-time salaries from three different jobs. He was all excited about it. My friend was like, “You’re excited that your relative is stealing from three companies?” First, how can you rationalize that? Second, how do we, as companies, protect the company against that? Do you see anything like that? Are you aware of that? Are you worried about that?
it’s the potential exists for all companies to experience that. The best way to mitigate against it is to have a compelling, motivating, inspiring strategy and for people to have jobs that are motivating and that they enjoy doing every day. As well as, again, having those visible touch points, those community forums, opportunities for people to show up and demonstrate the impact and the value that they’re delivering. That’s the number one thing.
Be the compelling job opportunity that everybody is looking for. If you discover these cases, it’s an opportunity for listening and for feedback and to understand why. If you are that employer where somebody doesn’t feel that inspired and that commitment and that motivation, you need to sit down and understand why. That’s feedback. It’s important for us as employers to give people that opportunity. To inspire, motivate and potentially raise expectations.
Your career path is bringing you in. What were the other key milestones or key steps that got you into this COO role now for Poppulo?
The Yahoo one, the growth story, Autodesk, as I said, integration, it’s very cross-functional. My time at Intuit was powerful in terms of they are a company that has a lot of frameworks and best practices in terms of collaboration. It’s how you build strategy, how you think about communication, how you think about things steering advisory, and how you think about doing things benchmarking. That was very powerful in terms of building that set of frameworks and capabilities.
It was my journey at SurveyMonkey. The transformation, taking that from a single web channel, selling to an individual consumer, transforming it, taking it to the enterprise, and coming along for the ride, starting out in a product seat, and then ending up in a GM seat. Having that very broad purview across the business as we were growing and transforming so aggressively going through the IPO, there were so many demands during that journey. That was a phenomenal experience, and I was grateful for that opportunity.
What was it that brought you to Poppulo? What was it that you saw in the company? What do you think it was that they saw in you?
It was the experience of going through COVID as a leader of a large organization at SurveyMonkey, now Momentive. Understanding the absolute need for holistic communication in terms of keeping employees aligned with a strategy focused on what’s important and engaged in their work. As SurveyMonkey was a global organization, I was leading a very large team.
Communication became critical in terms of our ability to retain employees, deliver customer value, and grow that business. Looking at the Poppulo value proposition, it was a no-brainer. This is something that all organizations who are dealing with, either large sets of workers within one place, disconnected workers, or a hybrid workforce, critical capability that needs to be front and center. The market need was there, and the product spoke to that market need.
Interviewing with the team and understanding that this was a set of highly qualified areas in each of their functional domains that I had the opportunity to learn from, to partner with. Meeting with David, our CEO, and understanding that we had an instant connection. I saw the opportunity for a great collaboration there. What they saw in me, they did ladder to much of the work that I’d done at SurveyMonkey and Momentive in terms of that enterprise transformation and having that very broad purview across all of the functions as GM. Having that domain expertise across all of those domains such that I could bring together a holistic view across all of those functions. Maybe you’ll have to ask David. Maybe he would say something.
You joined the organization. How many people were there when you joined Poppulo?
It’s about 700 people.
Seven hundred people were in the organization. You stroll in as the COO and President of the company. There have been at least a couple of people that were trying to get that job or hoping to get that job. There were probably a couple of people that were thrilled that they got to work with you, and there were probably a couple of people that weren’t thrilled that they had to work for you because they wanted to work with somebody else. How do you manage through all that? What was your onboarding like? Can you walk us through some of that?
We are a global company. We have offices in Denver, Boston, Cork, and the UK. It was important for me to get into the offices and to meet people face-to-face. Working remotely, it’s super important to build that human connection first, to build empathy and understanding for somebody else’s mission and goals. What they’re focused on is to build that connectivity, build the trust. That was focus number one. Then it was meeting and spending time with the board and with the executive team, understanding the strategy where we are from a performance perspective, anything that we may be steering into, and frankly asking other people what they would want me to bring to the table in this seat.
Getting their feedback in terms of how I can collaborate, how I can augment, and the critical things that they need me to act on pretty quickly. There may have been some detractors in the room as I was onboarded. Frankly, I didn’t experience it. That was part of my experience during the interview process that was so compelling. This is an incredibly supportive, collaborative team and I was truly excited to be part of it. Fingers crossed everything is going well, from an executive partnership perspective.
As you point out, I’m in California. I’m pretty remote from the rest of the team. I’ve spent four months digging in with the executive team, with my team, establishing those connection points with the click down. A lot of what I’m trying to do is to jump into those more operational forums with a broader swath of the population of the employee base so that I can hear and understand what’s going on from them. Understand how I can start to add value, remove bottlenecks, provide clarity, and deliver any optimization that I can for the specific functional groups.
What do you focus on? What’s the day-to-day focus for you as a COO of a 700-person company? How do you not get dragged into so many of the details and the communication? How do you stay above that?
I’m focused on the strategic outcomes. Our goal is to grow the company. Are we delivering customer value? Are we focused on the right segments or go-to-market positioning? As I said, so many companies are dealing with volatility in the marketplace. There are sectors like energy and finance that may be doing extremely well right now. Coming off the back of macroeconomics and others that may be more challenged.
Making sure that we are aligning our resources with the market opportunity, but we’re also jumping in to understand how our existing customer base is doing. How are they doing with the macroeconomic environment and making sure that we are focused on either enabling them to grow because their business is growing or supporting them as they may be facing some economic challenges?
It’s making sure that we have that strategic customer lens always on. Right now, it’s focused on our innovation. What is our opportunity to grow in this market and make sure that we are oriented towards building the right set of capabilities? You’ll see in our product offering, we have a workplace experience offering, which is all about managing your employee experience within real estate. We understand that some customers are pulling back on their real estate portfolios.
What does it mean for them to rationalize that? How can we support them if their employees aren’t in the workplace? We can pull together other capabilities that enable them to stay connected with their employees, but there are some people who are bringing everybody back or manufacturing who’ve never stopped. Making sure we’re pointing, building the right set of capabilities to meet our customers where they are with the specific challenges that they’re facing right now.
It’s always the team. The team is everything. To your question, in terms of making sure that I don’t get dragged down into all of the minutiae, a great COO is always focused on enabling, empowering, and supporting the leadership directly below them. I’m constantly dialed into them, hearing where their challenges are, but figuring out how I enable them to go solve the problem as opposed to becoming the bottleneck myself. Maybe it’s creating a connection across the functions. Maybe it’s pointing them to a resource, a new framework, a new way of thinking about things. It’s teaching a man to fish as opposed to going and getting the fish yourself.
There are two sides to this where companies want to bring employees back to the office, and others are saying, “No, we’re going to be remote forever. Have you had any thoughts about that right now?
The landscape has changed. It is no longer the case. Over the last few years, organizations have fanned out in terms of their employee marketplace. It could be that you have started employing people where you don’t have an office present. It may be physically impossible for you to bring people back. The other great outcome of this is that you may have been able to employ a whole set of people for accessibility reasons or other challenges and may not be able to come to an office. That’s also fantastic.
Each organization needs to look at this and say, “What is the business need? What is my people’s need? What does my team need?” Come to that balance as well. Even if you have a team that is fully remote, you do need to get people together in the location that they can get together in. It’s so different. We are seeing such huge differences across all industries. We all read the news, and we see different levels of success in it. If you’re going to pull people back into the office, there needs to be a compelling reason for it. There has to be a benefit for the employee for them to do it as well.
How does this change your onboarding process and coming into a company as a COO? What do you think you had to do differently via Zoom? You mentioned you visited a lot of the offices. That’s happening now, but how has the onboarding of remote employees changed? What are we doing in that area?
It needs to be a lot more structured in terms of making sure what you could assume was happening casually and organically previously. You have to schedule in and build a capability around it. For my role, it was making sure I had a ton of reading material. There are strategy board decks from years prior, all of the market intelligence, and all of the diligence that was done around the company’s profiling of the team.
There was a ton of reading ahead, but also married with very deliberate scheduled opportunities for me to get learning about the product and about the customers’ scheduled time with the team. Once you create a little bit of contextual knowledge, you create the human connection, then you can start to branch off on your own. It’s very hard from the outside to know who I go to for what piece of information. You have to balance the two.
Tell us what Poppulo does so that we’re aware of what the company does overall as well.
It’s an omnichannel enterprise communication platform. It’s focused on making sure that you’re addressing your employee communication needs. Making sure that you can reach your employees wherever they are on the channel that’s meeting for them, whether it’s email, mobile, or on your intranet. Having this ability to essentially run campaigns of information to your employee base to make sure that they’re engaged, aligned, focused, and sharing information and customer communication.
We also do digital signage. As you walk through your favorite bank or your airline terminal, you’ll see our screens displaying information to customers. Finally, as I said, workplace experience. Digitization of floor maps, enabling people to navigate to book desks, and meeting rooms and report issues with mobile app. We’re bringing email, mobile, and digital signage all together once you’re in the office itself.
Before we went live, you talked about changes the constant and having to navigate uncertainty, and being agile. Can you speak to some of that and how you communicate that? How do you socialize that with the employees, and how do you get that to be understood and become the norm so that they don’t get stressed out during this change?
The most important thing is about building trust and giving people the line of visibility that you can. For example, we kicked off by defining our OKRs. Instead of saying, “These are the company goals for this coming year. This is how we’re going to measure success.” Being upfront about the fact that we expect to experience different marketplace dynamics and that could vary by geo. We are not able to read that crystal ball and being transparent upfront, this is our plan. These are objectives. We are all going to be leaning in and focusing on these very clearly, but we’re going to be coming back on a quarterly basis to share with you how we’re doing on these OKRs and reserve the right to pivot as we get new information.
It’s that thing, setting up the expectation that we are going to steer into this set of objectives because we believe in them. The information that we have today signals that these are the right things to do. That little transformative piece of we reserve the right to change some of these decisions and to do some realignment, some refocusing as we get new information. The key is figuring out what listening posts you’re going to be keying into. What are those key metrics that you’re going to be looking at?
They’re going to be telling you and giving those early warning signals that you might need to revisit a situation. Then bringing that back to your employee base and being upfront and saying, “This is the change we’re making. This is the new set of information that came along. This is what it means.” It’s okay for you to set aside that piece of work and to focus on these new things and give people permission to make the pivot and to move forward optimistically on the new set of objectives.
I told a group of employees one time that building the company is like sailing a boat from one point to another when the sailboat gets hit by a wave. I said, we’re going here, but I didn’t anticipate getting hit by every other wave. We have to bob and weave a little bit. You can’t completely go straight. There’s this weird saying that’s been around forever, the whole slow to hire, quick to fire. I’ve been tormented by that a bunch of times. Sometimes I subscribe to that and sometimes I’m like, “I don’t know.” Any thoughts around that whole mantra and how you approach people when you’re in that, “We need to fire them?”
Again, it’s transparency and a conversation with the person. Oftentimes when you find yourself in that gray zone, the person is probably feeling some of that too. The most important thing to do is to have an upfront conversation and say, “How does it feel from either position here? Do we feel as if this is a relationship?” It’s a role that is working out from both sides.
Have that transparent conversation. It could be that that individual is already feeling that same tension and has some idea of how to course correct. They may raise their hand and ask for a different seat at the table, a different opportunity. I do think that transparency is important because it creates optionality for you in terms of how to solve the problem, but it’s also treating the other person with respect.
If any of my team reads this, they will recognize it. I firmly believe that direct feedback is the greatest gift that you can give anybody in their career. If somebody is telling you what you could be doing differently and be doing better, you have the opportunity to do it. Otherwise, you may be sailing along to your point, weaving a little bit, but thinking that you’re generally headed in the right direction. Sometimes you need somebody else to tell you that you’re off course and there’s a set of things that you need to do differently.
You have the conversation and if you’re misaligned, in terms of somebody thinking they’re doing a great job and perhaps you’re on different sides, in terms of opinion here, then you have to steer into, “Is there an opportunity for coaching? Is there an opportunity for support?” We invest a lot of time, money, and cycles into finding great candidates. Having made that investment, you need to do that diligence in terms of, “Is there a safe opportunity here? What is the cost of us mentoring and growing this person as opposed to having to go back to the market to essentially fill that seat?” It’s a trade-off.
I agree. That’s where I am as well. It’s very similar. We’re in this strange time right now. It’s the second time in the last few years that we’ve had a bit of a market meltdown, first, because of COVID and, second, because of the economics of where we are in inflation. You’ve navigated companies through the 2000 tech crash, with this NASDAQ falling by 78%, and then probably the ’08-‘09 global financial crisis.
A lot of employees nowadays, specifically anybody who’s like 22 to 35, have never been through an economic downturn, and the news is all about, “So-and-so’s laying off 50%. So-and-so’s laying off whatever.” How do you keep open communication and help them with their confidence? How are you navigating this time with people?
You have to reiterate the positives continually. The framework that comes to mind is the Zone to Win, like Jeffrey Moore. When you’re running your business, you have a set of things that are core and foundational. Those are typically going to continue and do well. Your cash cow, the thing that has been that repeatable thing for a long time. You need to orient employees around that and remind them that you have this healthy core of the business and this is stable. You’re going to continue focusing on this thing and growing it. A lot of companies are focusing on retaining and expanding their existing base. That’s the most efficient area for them to focus on right now.
It’s fair to you to have conversations around those innovation areas. Those areas where may have a very steep growth curve, but you’re potentially not so sure in terms of how that’s going to trend out of the market. You have to be clear with people about that. You have to point out where you’re strong, where potentially, you are going to be listening to signals a bit more closely and balancing your resources and adjusting as you get more feedback from the market. It is that drumbeat of celebrating the work, reminding people of the positives and, “It’s good for you to question this area.”
We should all be asking questions about whether this is the right resource. It is empowering people to ask those questions and inspect their own portfolio of work, ask the question about whether it is something that they should be pursuing, and be open to that conversation. It’s a positive thing for the team to raise their hand and say, “I’m not so sure. Is this the right thing for me to be doing?” Have those conversations.
Are there any lessons that you think that the smaller entrepreneurial organizations, let’s say 25 employees to 200 employee enterprise, can learn from the larger medium or enterprise companies? What are the bigger companies doing better that we can embrace at a smaller scale?
It’s developing that set of options. When you are a smaller company, as a founder, you may have conviction around a single idea, a single set of customers, and a single business line or a product opportunity. It’s always considering, “What I would do?” Build those scenarios. What would I do if my churn rate spiked dramatically? What would I do if my bookings were to drop 25% next quarter? You are doing that scenario of planning, and you do not have to make a knee-jerk reaction at the moment. You’ve already thought through the range of possibilities.
You’ve built them out. You understand where your key levers are in the business. Is it a headcount? Is it marketing or budget? Is it a specific geo investment? Is it the currencies that you allow people to transact in? Understand those key levers and the options that you have available in a range of scenarios before you need them. Be ready because, in this market, you need them and you need to understand what they are.
One of the things that’s always driven me crazy about companies is they talk about strategic planning. There’s no such thing as strategic planning. You’ve got a strategy and planning. Strategy is all those questions that you’re asking yourself, thinking about, what-iffing, and running scenario plans in case so that when it happens, you’re ready. You’re right because companies don’t take the time for that. They’re reactive to it. They constantly have to react and plan versus thinking ahead. I want to go back to the 22-year-old Sam Bufton. She’s getting started in her career. What advice would you give the younger you that you know to be true now?
it’s always been the same. Do the hard thing. Whenever I was given the option to make an incremental change, take on an incremental set of responsibilities, or take a leap. Do the harder thing that other people might not be willing to do that you didn’t have a level of comfort in or that you weren’t sure if you could exceed or succeed. Even if you fail, you will learn from that experience and it will grow you your confidence and resiliency.
Sam Bufton, the President and COO from Poppulo. Thanks very much for sharing with us on the show.
Thanks so much. I enjoyed it. Thanks for the opportunity.
That was great.