Throughout modern times, there have been companies and brands that stand out as representative of the time, but none more-so than what google means in the internet era. While dominance is a desired market position, longevity can all-too easily lead to innovation and curiosity being superseded by complacency. What happens next is as fundamental as that seminal moment when somebody first Googled.
CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER, GOOGLE
The merging of different cultures has always played an important role in my life.
The merging of different cultures has always played an important role in my life. I’m half English and half Italian and I grew up in Rome, which was a great place to be as a child. My mum worked as an admin for the United Nations and my parents’ friends were from all over the globe. I attended an International School in Rome, my classroom was multiracial and my friends were from every corner of the world. I then went to secondary school in the UK, whilst my parents were still living in Rome and there were no low-cost flights at that time and it was tough leaving home at 11 years old. I still can’t say goodbye to people in an airport without bursting into tears, it strikes a delicate chord. Further on in times, when it came to deciding which university to go to, my primary goal was to start making money right away, as my parents were facing financial hardship. I wasn’t sure what industry I wanted to work in, but I knew that I wanted to work for an international organisation. So I chose a two-year international business studies diploma at Leeds University, that offered a sandwich year in a company called Olivetti, based in Italy, as this would be the fastest path to finding a job post-university. After university in the UK, I moved to Rome, then Florence and I was working for an insurance company part-time and went back to university in Italy. I wanted to be a researcher in economic sociology and was pursuing a PhD and life in academics. But then a friend of mine sent me a job listing for an HR role at GE Oil & Gas, which had a big presence in Florence. She said: “Fiona, they need people who are bilingual and who know Florence, you’re a perfect fit for this role.” I had no HR experience and turned up to the interview reluctantly. In fact, I showed up in ripped jeans and my motorbike helmet. I wasn’t planning on taking the role, but during the interview, I was so impressed by GE’s vision of management and HR and how they wanted to run the company. There was a huge focus on company culture and the role seemed like the right fit for me. Despite my initial reservations, I took the job and I will be forever grateful for what GE taught me. I went on to spend the next seven years at GE moving through the ranks.
The first and most important lesson I learned while at GE is how much HR can impact an organisation. If HR becomes a true business partner, learns the business deeply, knows the talent, understands the cultural strengths and weaknesses of the business. Together with the CEO, CFO and leadership team – HR can put together a multi-year plan on how to strengthen the capabilities, the diversity, the succession, development plans and the culture of the company or business. Year after year since, with these elements in place, I have seen business results improve thanks to this strong focus, it’s almost like paving the road ahead of the business. Another thing I learned is what I call the ‘magic triangle’ of company leadership. This is where a Chief Executive Officer, a Chief Financial Officer and a Chief HR Officer come together to build a business in a collaborative way.
The relationship between business and HR leaders is so critical to growing a company, you can move mountains when you balance business goals with employee advocacy and care. I also learned to take big risks and I’ve continued to take opportunities that push me outside of my comfort zone. For example, after seven years at GE, I decided to take a leap and try something new. GE was a high-performing environment, but I wanted to see what it was like to work for a different type of company – a fast, big tech, which still had a start-up feel to it – so, I joined Cisco as the Head of HR for Cisco Italy. This was the early 2000s and things were tough when the bubble of the new economy burst and the big focus for my role was restructuring. What was incredible about my experience at Cisco was how fast the pace was, and you needed to be extremely agile and efficient – the HR processes were carried out via a tool and for the first time in my working career, I worked with no paper – and that was quite extraordinary 20 years ago. I then progressed as Head of HR for Southern Europe and then transitioned to leading Employee Relations for EMEA.
After Cisco, I took an HR Director role at Roche Italy – a Swiss multinational healthcare company – and taking this role was another big risk for me. I didn’t know the pharmaceutical industry and the role itself was quite broad, the scope was overseeing the legal, communications, eMarketing and patient advocacy departments. It was a lot of responsibility, but it was a fantastic experience and I learned so much about the pharma industry. Over time, I continued to grow with the company and after a few years, I moved to Basel, Switzerland to become VP of HR for Global Manufacturing. Roche was merging with Genentech, an American biotechnology corporation based in California and I helped bridge the cultural divide between the California ‘go-getters’ and the Swiss perfectionists. It was so interesting working to bring out the best of both worlds. Working in manufacturing was fulfilling in ways I hadn’t expected. Roche was making life-saving cancer drugs and of course, maintaining the manufacturing process was critical. For example, if you ran out of stock of Herceptin – a drug that helps people manage certain types of breast cancer – you would be putting patients at risk. It required an efficient and meticulous team and, in order to be a strong team, you needed to have trust and collaboration in a multi-cultural environment and we built that. Because of the company’s mission, there was a deep sense of purpose at Roche. It was then I decided that I would always work for mission-driven organisations. I learned that when you have the right skills and capabilities and a strong purpose, you can make a difference in the world. In our case at Roche, it was actually saving lives in oncology and specialty care and it was common to see patients coming in to thank the manufacturing team on the shop floor for creating the drugs that saved their lives. It was a real privilege to be a part of that work and to help push forward the people strategy at Roche.
When I was at Roche, Pascal Soriot was the CEO and we worked together. Later, he went on to be the CEO of AstraZeneca and when the Chief Human Resources Officer position opened up, he asked me if I was interested in the role. I said, “no, absolutely not, I love what I’m doing! I really believe in Roche’s mission and my family is so happy in Basel.” His response was one that stuck with me, he said, “what on earth are you so scared of, Fiona? All I’m asking you to do is meet a few people.” I think it is so important to have someone who will encourage you to push yourself forward and embrace an opportunity when you’re leaning back. I decided to take the interview and I met with the executives and loved them because, like at Roche, they were so humble and full of purpose. AstraZeneca was a successful commercial company, focused on over-the-counter drug manufacturing and distribution, for example, Crestor and Seroquel. But many of the drugs were approaching the end of their patent life and there was an urgent need to refresh the pipeline of drugs by strengthening R&D. AstraZeneca wanted to become a scientific leader in oncology and specialty care and there was a lot to do, it was a true turnaround and, yet again, HR played a key role in shaping the turnaround into successful growth.
In order to be a scientific leader, it was necessary to be located close to the best universities, be able to attract the best scientists and evolve the culture. So that’s what we did, we established a new headquarters on the Biomedical campus in Cambridge, UK – with Addenbrooke’s Cambridge University Hospital, Cancer Research UK and the Laboratory for Molecular Biology as neighbours – and moved thousands of employees to Cambridge. We attracted the best and most renowned scientists and, during my time there, we introduced new company values which were crowdsourced from employees. The values were: “We follow the science. We put patients first. We play to win. We do the right thing. We are Entrepreneurial.” The values were nowhere on the walls, but it was a part of everyone’s language and shaped the scientific culture of the years to come. A great example was the company had developed the initial phases of an ovarian cancer drug, that had been placed on the shelf and a decision was made not to pursue it further, because it was not commercially viable. However, the clinical data showed strong efficacy for women with ovarian cancer, the scientists and physicians followed the science, put patients first, did the right thing and launched the drug which ended up extending and saving thousands of women’s lives. A powerful story of perseverance and doing the right thing for patients. After a few years at an internal company meeting, an ovarian cancer patient came to thank the team and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. A very proud moment. AstraZeneca’s turnaround is a great success story. It was a rough diamond and everyone on the leadership team helped to polish it and HR was a core part of that work. Today it’s one of the largest Pharma companies and, as you said, has played such a key role in the COVID pandemic.
Google contacted me when the global pandemic was beginning. I said, “I love Google, but I can’t join. We’re in a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, there is no blueprint and I have 20,000 employees in China to keep safe. There’s no way I can leave my job as CHRO at AstraZeneca.” You can see the passion I had for AstraZeneca, so even though it was Google, it took several months of persuading before I sat down for a meeting with Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO. But right away, I saw that he was a very thoughtful leader and his vision inspired me. The company was experiencing fantastic growth and they needed an HR leader who could help progress the company from a people point of view and, in a way, it was as if the company was moving from adolescence to adulthood. The reality was that what had worked for Google in the first 20 years may not work in the next 20 years and so joining a company at this stage of its metamorphosis was exciting. But I joined Google during the height of the pandemic, without meeting anyone in person… talk about taking a leap of faith!
I joined at the beginning of 2021 and I think initially, I was curious to see how far I could engage in the culture under these strange circumstances, without actually having met anyone at the company, nor been in any of the offices. Everyone talks about Google’s culture and it’s true, that it’s one of the most unique workplaces in the world. Our employees are passionate about doing what’s right and solving big problems and there’s a healthy disregard for the impossible. It is what has led us to achieve some of the biggest breakthroughs, that are helping billions of users, whether that be a better search engine, a more secure browser, from Gmail to using AI to detect breast cancer. I had high hopes for the vibrancy of the culture and the sense of fun and it didn’t let me down. Google is one of the most open workplaces in the world and the environment is very collaborative and less hierarchical. Great ideas come from all across the company. The level of openness is unconventional – especially for a company of our scale – and any person can share their opinion, offer a new idea or build something new. We provide internal forums for employees to share their views, raise concerns and connect with leadership and each other. For example, during our companywide All Hands meeting called ‘TGIF’, Sundar and his leadership team share information about the latest happenings at the company and give employees a platform to ask questions. Today, we have 150,000 employees around the world and it’s my job to help ensure the culture stays strong, as we continue to grow. Googlers expect this and we need a strong HR function to maintain the culture they know and love. There’s a very high bar to clear and I love the challenge.
In my first six months, I spent a lot of time listening. I heard from employees about their experiences, what was on their mind and suggested areas for growth. I also heard from hundreds of Vice Presidents across the company, in order to understand what changes were needed when it came to People and Culture at Google. Several common themes came through and so, together with my team, we structured a People Strategy, which outlined the main areas of focus that we should work on over the next three years, such as; belonging, delivering on our deep commitments to equity and inclusion, growth and performance. When I presented the people strategy, it came with an understanding that it was all of their responsibility to build a strong, inclusive and welcoming culture. As a company scales to the size of Google, you need the leadership to lead people, not just products and every leader has a responsibility to grow, attract, develop people and foster belonging. This is a fairly new muscle for leaders at Google, where product excellence has historically been front and center, but over the last few years, the company has made tremendous strides in this space.
During the past two years, the most profound shift is happening in how and where we work. In March 2020, we made the early decision to send employees home to slow down the spread of COVID and had to quickly transition two of our biggest in-person programmes to a digital format – our onboarding for new employees and our internship programme. This gave us the opportunity to re-evaluate our onboarding programme and experiment with digital strategies, to help all new hires feel connected, engaged and inspired from anywhere in the world. Our new employee onboarding programme, called Noogler Orientation, provides an introduction to what it means to be a Googler and who we are as a company. We had to figure out how to communicate this through a computer and create moments of culture, connection and community in a digital format. The redesigned new employee orientation digital programme was launched in November 2020, delivering various interactive sessions about Google’s culture and business, mission and values. New hires can also access a site to support ongoing learning, including wellbeing and resilience practices, resources to support remote and hybrid work and connection to Employee Resource Groups and other affinity groups. The site also connects new hires to one-to-one Noogler Coaching, with specially trained peers to support onboarding, learning culture and creating connections. Since the shift in 2020, we have now onboarded tens of thousands via this digital-first experience and favourability ratings and completion of our Noogler Orientation programme, are on par with our previous in-person programme.
Another example of how our work has shifted during the pandemic is through Google’s internship experience. In 2021, we hosted our second year of remote internships, welcoming thousands of students virtually from across the globe. We continued to find creative ways to connect interns to our culture and each other – hosting more than 300 events in the summer, to help interns connect with their peers, our leaders and our culture. Ninety-six percent of interns were satisfied with their experience – the same as when we were all in the office. Most importantly, the pandemic has served as a reminder that we have a deep responsibility to care for our employees. During this time, we leaned into our values to take care of Googlers and their families and more than ever are caring for either children, parents, or both and not surprisingly, the pandemic has made these roles more difficult. That’s why we expanded our carer’s leave to 14 weeks, helping people who needed to care for their children or a seriously ill loved one. Additionally, we introduced work-fromanywhere weeks, no meetings weeks and we closed our offices globally for reset days, so that the whole company could take a break together. We also provided wellbeing bonuses and stipends, so that employees could set themselves up with the right equipment to work from home.
As the majority of our employees are now heading back into the office, we’re looking to return to the office in a purposeful way. Sundar said it best – “the future of work is flexibility” and Google’s future workplace will be flexible, as we continue to support employees. We have incredible offices around the world and we’re finding that most people want to be in the office at least a few days a week. We have given flexibility to apply to work remotely where the roles allow and we expect up to 20 percent to be remote. However we’re nowhere near that number at the moment. This is such an historic moment as we’re transitioning to a hybrid work setup and we’ve never been here before, so there’s a lot we don’t know and have to learn. In a few months, we will take our experiences and evolve our philosophy, based on our research and feedback from people across the organisation. The key thing here – and what is a differentiator for Google – is to operate on a basis of flexibility and trust, as we build new routines to optimise for the work, the team and for ourselves.
We want Google to be an extraordinary place for everyone who works here. As mentioned, we created the people strategy to support our business strategies, based on three key pillars – belonging, growth, and performance. We chose these principles because they are the areas that kept coming up in discussions with leadership and employees. Belonging is a pillar for everyone as it’s about ensuring that we have a diverse, equitable and accessible Google. This is continuing to build a vibrant community, where we can speak openly, while respecting each other. Growth is attracting, developing and retaining the world’s most innovative talent. Without a doubt, we’ve achieved this over the past two decades, but now we’re facing even more competition for talent. We offer great compensation and benefits at Google and we also need to offer a great career and build a culture of learning and development. Performance is all about unlocking our ability to pursue audacious goals by investing in the future of work, simplifying people processes and making sure our compensation is aligned to the business strategy.
Creating a sense of belonging for everyone is at the heart of our people strategy. It’s going deep into the hard wiring of how our processes are run, how we recruit, how we promote and how we evaluate. As a company, we’ve committed to making diversity, equity and inclusion part of everything we do, from how we build our products to how we build our workforce. We’re taking concrete actions to steadily grow a more representative workforce, to launch programmes that support our communities globally and to build products that better serve all of our users. In the past few years, we’ve doubled in size and operating at this scale brings an elevated level of responsibility to everything we do and we’ve worked hard to scale up our diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to match the pace of Google’s growth. One example of this work is our racial equity commitments. In June 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, we put forth companywide commitments to advance racial equity. Since then, hundreds of Googlers have worked on these efforts, including; Melonie Parker, our Chief Diversity Officer, members of our Black Leadership Advisory Group and Black Googler Network. Through these efforts, we’ve expanded our talent pool by growing our sites in the U.S. including; Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. We’ve grown these sites by more than 1,800 employees in 2021, nearly doubling our growth commitment. We have also tripled the Retention and Progression team, so that each organisation has a designated consultant to support underrepresented Googlers, including Black+ Googlers. We have more to do, but there are some promising signs – our Black+ representation grew from 4.4 percent in 2020 to 5.3 percent in 2021 – and we’re on track to double the number of Black+ employees in the U.S. by 2025. We’ve also met our goal to increase leadership representation by 30 percent, ahead of our target of achieving this by 2025.
The biggest thing that I’d like to achieve is reconnecting our vibrant community of employees after all that we’ve been through in the past few years. A part of that revolves around being in-person again at the office some days, but it will also be about welcoming the more than 50,000 people we hired during the global pandemic, whom have never been to a Google office. It will also be about making sure those employees who are permanently remote and working from home feel included as well. As we move forward in the new future of work, we’ll need to be intentional about the kind of environment that we’re creating and make sure everybody feels like they belong. Another aspect I’m deeply focused on is making sure that diversity and inclusion is hardwired into the fabric of every process. We’re already seeing the needle move on this, for example, we’ve seen real progress as a result of our five-year racial equity goals. We have taken concrete steps such as expanding our onboarding and mentorship programmes for Black+ Googlers and, because we know leadership engagement is critical in this area, all VPs are now evaluated on their leadership in support of diversity, equity and inclusion, which factors into their ratings and pay. Finally, I’m also very focused on rewiring some of the people processes of the company. Today, we have some processes that come from academia. Googlers are intelligent and high achieving – they write a PhD-level thesis for their performance management twice a year – and it’s not needed. So, I ask myself, “can we give some of that time back to them”? In order to do that, we need to develop managers who can lead their teams and not just lead the work. My long-term hope is that we build a company of really exceptional leaders.
It’s not about me at all – that’s the thing. It’s about building a fantastic people function that allows employees to do their best work. It’s about empowering others to lead in this incredible company that makes such a difference to people’s lives. My goal is to evolve people practices at Google with innovative practices and weave things into the fabric of the company, so they will be long-lasting after I’m gone. At the end of the day, that’s what I want. I’m passionate about what Google gives to society and the knowledge that it’s built and shared around the world. There’s a huge amount of purpose here and if I can help to ensure that it remains part of the foundation and that innovation thrives, I’ve done my job.
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