In your career to date, have there been any colleagues, superiors or mentors that stand out to you now as having given you particularly valuable advice?
At AOL and earlier in my career, my manager would change quite often. I know this can sometimes be a bit disorientating for people, but my advice has always been that, while you might get on better with some people more than others, you can learn something from everybody.
I was lucky enough to report to John Herlihy for a long period of time [Head of Google Ireland from 2005 to 2015], and throughout my career, I have had managers who have supported, mentored and sponsored me. I have had people telling me “this is the role you need to move into next” and making the case on my behalf.
I try to do that myself now because I know how important it is. I try to pay it back. It is important to be conscious of the impact that you are having on talent at every level in the organisation and to be aware of the mentoring and sponsorship people need. I know how important that is, because it made such a difference for me.
From the point of view of the “learning curve”, what lessons have you learned over the years that have stood you in good stead?
In a flat structure organisation, people expect to have access to you and they will contact you if they are not happy about something, so spending time with people is particularly important.
There is an expectation that they will have direct access to you if they want to talk about something important. I think that’s great, because that is how you hear about what is really going on.
My approach is to try to spend time with my team, whether that is through listening sessions or even just shadowing or observing. It is about listening to customer interactions or maybe organising individual sessions with people on just one topic and asking “What’s really going on with this?”, so you’re really in touch with the issues.
It is also important to think about the different ways in which you communicate. Email is just the baseline. You need make sure you are communicating in a way that ensures that everyone is aware of your priorities and also has a sense of your values, because that drives the culture.
You really need to think about the different ways in which people absorb information and cater to them, because people want to get information in a way that suits them, be it one-to-one interaction, all hands meetings, videos or podcasts.
How important do you see “up-skilling” and Continuing Professional Development in your role and the world or work generally?
In any business nowadays, Continuous Professional Development is really important. I think if you’re in the tech industry where there is so much ongoing change, keeping up is almost a daily activity. That is the case for me, because our product changes on a weekly basis.
Formal CPD has a role to play and I think it’s good to do it with a regularity that suits you. It also offers you a way to develop your network, when you undertake training with a cohort of people you don’t normally work with.
At Google, we have lots of training options to choose from. It doesn’t stop there though. It’s really about how you apply it on the job and, in that sense, it can be very beneficial to develop a peer group, where you coach each other and provide mentoring support.
So, if you are looking to learn about something specific, you can ask yourself “who is great at that?” and then ask them to mentor you for, say, six months. That is a key part of the wider learning picture. As a leader, deliberate practice is very important. That really comes down to the habits you form every day. If you want to start to develop a skill, you need to be deliberate in how you go about developing it as a habit and ask yourself “what brilliant practice am I developing every day?”
That has become more and more important to me the longer I have been working.
What are your hobbies outside work – do you have any tricks to help you switch off after a long day?
I enjoy running, reading, cooking, baking and pottering around the place. I think exercise is a great way to switch off. It provides you, not only with a fitness regime, but also “processing time”. I look forward to going out running in the evenings, because we’re all absorbing a huge amount of information every day and I think it’s important to do something deliberate, whatever it may be for any individual, to clear your mind and help to mark the transition from work to home. It is important to set boundaries that suit you and stick to them and to manage your energy over the course of any given week or month.
What’s the last great book you read or film you watched?
I love reading history books. In 2016, I read a lot about The 1916 Rising. By the time I get to read at the end of the day, I’m lucky if I get through three or four books a year.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I do like to listen to music. I enjoy hard rock and heavy metal, but the range is vast. I started off listening to my brother’s Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix records. The newer bands I love would be The Marmozets and Black Peaks, but I also enjoy nineties bands like Metallica and Faith No More.
When you travel for pleasure, where do you go?
I like to mix it up between Europe and America. We have had a few family holidays recently in Italy and we’re heading over to the US to the West Coast. We try to get a good mix and do something different from one year to the next. My kids are at different ages, so we try to build a holiday where we can keep all of them happy.