Aaron Cooper is the Interim CEO at Groupon, an online marketplace with around 4,000 employees globally. Prior to that he had worked in several other roles at Groupon including president of North America, Chief Marketing Officer, head of Global Travel, Head of North America Services and Head of North America Goods.
Before Groupon Aaron held a lot of marketing and leadership positions at Orbitz and optionsXpress and he held consulting roles at AOL and PwC.
Aaron Cooper, who recently moved into the role of interim CEO at Groupon, says his recipe for success has been working across many different industries and in very diverse roles. These experiences have given him the skills and mindsets he needs to be the best leader he can be.
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He says it has been incredibly important for his career that he’s been able to work in finance, marketing, brand marketing, and general management across industries such as travel, retail, finance, and internet. He has worked with companies who were very successful and growing and he’s worked for companies that were in distress.
All of these experiences have shaped his leadership approach and have led him to his current role.
In fact, Aaron says most of the biggest career moves he made were jobs he didn’t even know were available. He got into a role and did exceptionally well and then management would grab him and tell him he’s moving to a new role. He said he learned quickly to just say yes to these opportunities and it has proved to be an effective way for him to climb up the ladder.
What to do when you work for a bad boss
Aaron says he’s worked for a few tough bosses that have bordered on being too tough. There are always going to be people we work for who aren’t the best leaders. But Aaron says he always uses these opportunities to learn something and grow.
He says, “At those times I was focused on what I can learn out of this situation. It’s a mind shift, you have to decide that you want to be in that situation and you’re up for learning from this person. I also find that when you adopt that mindset, the tougher boss changes their attitude towards you. Which is something that I realized as well, hey, I’m a student, so please teach, has been a productive relationship for me to get the most out of those. And because of that there are tools that I have in my toolkit now.”
The best bosses on the other hand make employees want to show up every single day for them. Aaron says he had a great boss who with very little effort could get the very best out of Aaron. He knew the boss had his back and believed in him, so Aaron wanted to do his best and live up to the reputation the boss believed in.
Aaron gives an example of this great boss. Aaron had moved into a role leading online marketing and his team did a deal, but it ended up being a bad deal that cost a lot of money. Instead of just firing him or demoting him, the boss called Aaron out and said it was his to solve. He was counting on Aaron to fix it.
But the way he called Aaron out was in such a positive way that Aaron was able to come back from the failure. He motivated his team and they all went after it and fixed the problem. He actually looks back at this experience in a favorable way, which is all because of how the boss handled the situation.
Aaron says being a good leader comes down to how you leave people feeling. When you leave the room is everyone wanting to crush it, and do a great job for you? Or does everyone want to leave the company?
How Aaron carves out downtime and why every CEO should do the same
Aaron is very busy with his role as CEO, leading his company through the pandemic, as well as his personal life with his wife and kids. He has found that it is so important to carve out time every day for downtime, time to think through issues, focus on one specific problem, or just think of the next big move for the company.
He actually says his ideal amount of downtime each day is three hours. Which seems like a lot in a normal workday, but he says it’s important to have a good chunk of time so you can actually dive deep into the problems and issues you’re trying to solve.
Aaron says, “if you actually get a chance to think there’s such important things that you can always solve for your team. And sometimes during that time, I may call somebody and think a problem through with them. Absolutely. But it’s time for me to just make sure to take a step back and make sure that in the relative challenges of COVID and people working from home, and everything that comes with that for running a company where local businesses around the world have been shut down and their business has been impaired. And we’re looking for our strategies that we’re working on right now to be successful to help our broad community of Groupon. There’s so much in there for me, just to make sure that as things change day to day everyone’s coming along the same way.”
And even though downtime sounds like someone is just sitting around and pondering things, that is far from the truth. Aaron is very structured with his downtime. He always has a list of priorities he has to think through and he is very active and engaged during the entire time. During this time he only focuses on the top priorities, you can’t let priority 6 or 7 sneak into your thought process at this time. It has to be about critical issues only.
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How to give employees the autonomy to make decisions on their own
In the past companies have tended to be bogged down with bureaucracy and hierarchy that made the decision process long and tedious. Just to get permission to buy a new piece of equipment or streamline a process it may take weeks or months to run it up the ladder and back down.
Now, with our current pace of change companies can no longer afford to make decisions this way. Employees have to be able to have the autonomy to make decisions for themselves. So how does Groupon make this possible for employees?
Aaron says it comes down a couple things they have done internally. The first big thing is transparency. Every employee, whether they have been at the company for 10 years or 4 months, knows what the company priorities are and they know what the current strategy is.
In fact when they launched a new strategy during Covid-19 they not only announced it company wide, but they went team by team, person by person to make sure they fully understood what the new strategy meant.
But Aaron knows that people can’t just understand the strategy, they have to believe in it. But you can’t force people to believe in something, it has to be a back and forth conversation until everyone is on board. This process takes consistency, discipline, and commitment.
So you have to have transparency and alignment in order to successfully hand over control to your employees. As Aaron says, “Within that empowerment giving someone the task, the resources and trusting them and their judgment becomes so much easier, because trying to goal something so specifically for the uncertainties going on right now is that much harder. So I’m really proud of our team across the board for the way that everyone has come along on this.”
How Aaron works on being a better leader
One thing Aaron has found very helpful in his journey as a leader is reflection. He takes time to reflect on the week to think back to when he wasn’t the leader he wanted to be so he can address those issues.
He also recently attended a class on authentic leadership which really impacted him and the way he approaches leadership. You have to figure out what kind of leader you are and you have to authentically lead in that way. Don’t try to be someone you are not. You can’t just read about another leader and try to copy and paste that into your way of leading.
When asked what kind of leader he is, Aaron said “An energetic leader, I’m a structured thinking leader. I like to make sure that we have the strategy and goals set out clearly. And people have embraced those. Because for me it’s grounded in getting the absolute best out of the team. And having them show up in ways where the energy that they’re both getting and giving to Groupon makes them feel better about themselves outside of Groupon, especially in a pandemic.”
And so he shows up everyday with that purpose and mission in mind and he leads as authentically as he can.
How Aaron keeps up with the constant pace of change
One thing a lot of leaders struggle with today is trying to keep up with things when the pace of change is so constant and so fast. This year has really shown how fast things can completely change. So how does Aaron keep up?
He says constant learning is a crucial key. He is always reading and is a part of a few book clubs, he listens to podcasts, he meets with other leaders, etc…He also finds it important to pay attention to his employees and what they are saying. They bring different perspectives and ideas that drive him forward.
What should leaders stop doing to become better leaders
For any leaders who want to better themselves Aaron’s advice is to stop playing it safe. You are going to have tough decisions to make and you are going to have to keep the company moving forward, playing it safe will not help you. You have to be bold. Especially with the things we are facing this year.
He says, “One of the things I learned in my turnaround management days is you’ve got to make the hard decisions, because time does not help when you’re running out of cash. We were in that situation here. But I learned that earlier in my career, and that’s something that now in leading through a year like now, it shows up, and it shows up in important ways. So stop playing it safe, is I think, really, really big.”
What should leaders start doing to become better leaders
Aaron says it is crucial for leaders to have a mission, a passion, an obsession and they have to be able to name it so that they know what they are doing when they get out of bed in the morning. This really goes back to the importance of reflection and understanding what kind of leader you are.
As Aaron shares, “Here, we’re helping local businesses, we’re helping local businesses through a challenging time, we’re helping our customers do more. There’s more ways that we can help. But we are redesigning Groupon into a recovery so we can help grow local commerce. And for us, that’s energizing, it shows up in multiple ways from our strategy, just to the way we were working throughout the team to develop more empathy and more listening on the front end with customers and merchants. But I would say you gotta you got to start with that passion. But again, I think the ingredient for that is you have to do the reflection. So you can really be genuine and honest with yourself about what your passion is all about.”
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