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woman up - Liz Cunningham

Liz Cunningh

Liz Cunningham is Google’s Director of Tax for EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa). She is the Executive Sponsor of Women@Google, a network within the company, which provides mentoring and other supports to female employees. The headcount for Google’s Irish operations between staff (called Googlers) and contractors is around 6,000.


This interview was conducted by Aileen O’Toole in October 2017.

How would you describe the culture within Google?

It’s very much a culture of inclusivity, of authenticity, of bringing your whole self to work. It's just ingrained in our culture that it doesn't matter who you are, what gender, colour, race, religion or whatever, you are encouraged to bring your whole self. That is something we talk about and we monitor.


So, when we do talent reviews, performance reviews or compensation reviews, we're actively encouraged to call out each other's biases. So, someone will be asked: “Why did you describe that particular person in that particular way?  Was it because they're a woman?”


There are parameters or principles we adopt.  70% of Googlers globally have taken bias busting training. This training is put into practice daily. If you are at a talent review meeting where you're talking about people, the business partner will start the session by saying: "Here are the kinds of biases to watch out for."  And sometimes someone will be appointed as a sort of “bias buster” who will call out biases.


How important is developing the female talent pipeline?

It’s very important. We are very much focused on our future female talent and identifying what’s needed to stretch them, to develop them further. All Googlers, as we call our employees, are encouraged by their managers to do that.


In Dublin, we have quite a few females around the leadership table. It's very balanced from a gender perspective. The leadership team looks at the talent the next level down. And it's not gender-specific. It's more about this particular person being in this role for quite a long time, and are they going to progress to the next level. And by being in that role, what do they need to do? And are there bigger projects? Are there cross-functional projects? Is there another role that we should be encouraging them to apply for?


What is Women@Google and are there other initiatives designed to grow the company’s female talent pipeline?

It’s an ERGS, which stands for employee resource groups, and this is probably the biggest of them.  It’s a fantastic global network within Google. It’s not exclusive to women, but predominantly our members are women. Any woman in the company can sign up. And we run events targeted at different levels.


So, for instance, in December next, we have what we call the Stride Summit. It’s targeting that profile of women future leaders similar to your (WoW) programme, where they're at that kind of tipping point in their career, who could really make that kind of stretch move, be it expanding a role or going for a promotion.


That’s a day dedicated to them, where we have influential speakers and we have a combination of external and internal panel discussions on particular topics. We also run a breakfast series, where we'll have male and female directors who will speak about their career experiences.


Then there’s the Power Programme, and this is peer-to-peer mentoring. The real magic happens when you have women who are going through life experiences and career challenges and, at the same time, are coaching each other. They’re cross-functional groups of five or six, all of whom are at the same level.


The uniqueness is they find that, even though they all work in different areas, they're experiencing the same challenges. So, they can talk of those experiences and really coach each other through.  Maybe it might be as simple as preparing for the next one-to-one with their manager, or knocking on the door of a leader two levels up to say: "Look, I have seen something. I want to propose something to you."


So, we do a lot of things and it’s important to do that, as there is no silver bullet that we can say: “That's going to change things." We have to stay focused on giving women experiences of other women, of other men, of challenges that they've experienced so that they can learn and be inspired by those experiences.


How does Google use data?  

Laszlo Bock, Head of People Operations, has written in his book Work Rules that Google used data to identify gender gaps We use data for everything, even in areas like HR which might be considered soft. So, for competitive reviews or for talent reviews, the data speaks for itself.


Google identified an issue with the promotion process in the tech side of the business where you can self-nominate for promotion. And the data was telling us that women were not self-nominating. So, programmes were implemented and we did something

about it.


Many researchers describe the progress of women moving into leadership roles as “glacial”.  Do you agree?

I am slightly more optimistic. When my mother got married in 1973, she had to give up her job due to the marriage working ban in place at that time. I think there’s been huge progress since then. So maybe in time we will look back and say that changes we are going through now are much bigger than we thought.


I think we need to celebrate incremental progress.  And I think that progress will come through the next generation of future leaders, not that I'm pessimistic about my own generation. I was doing interviews for a junior role recently and was interviewing one candidate. I asked her: "Why this job? Why Google?” And she said, "I looked at the job spec and I'm confident that I can do everything on the job spec." And I thought:  “great - there’s progress.”


If I look at the WoW programme, if there is only progress with seven of them (mentees) then that’s great. Because that seven will influence another seven, will influence another seven, will influence their daughters, their nieces their co-workers. It's the power of the incremental change, the power of influencing that is often underestimated.


Women really relate to the personal journey. That came through really loud and clear at the Compass Leadership Summit (Google hosted current and future female leaders from business, politics, academia, NGOs and the media to share personal stories at this event in September 2017).  When we were organising it, we were passionate about wanting to do something different. And we got really strong feedback that this event was different, that women in the room were inspired by the women on the stage and their personal journey - women were inspired to taking individual action.


Google’s Global Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat said at that event that she didn’t like the term work life balance and preferred “mix” to “balance”.

I think she fears when you're aiming for balance, and thinking you should be able to “have it all”, you're not setting yourself up for success because it's impossible to get the balance right.  Life isn't perfect. Some things will be aligned in some parts of your life and at other stages in life.


What is your work life mix like?

It's not for everybody, but I have to integrate my work in my life. I'm a Mum of three children that are at school going age. They have lots of different activities. My day is very long. I start at 6:00 in the morning and then I could be going until 10:00 at night. I also travel a lot.


When I’m in Dublin, I’m fortunate that I can juggle my day. I will make it home to do homework, to bring the kids swimming or whatever and then later in the evening I might go online to finish work or to do conference calls with my colleagues in other parts of the world. And that's my interpretation of work-life mix. It works for me.


Is it easier for a relatively new company like Google to foster a culture which enables women to progress rather than a business which has a more traditional culture.Possibly it is. But culture is something that you really have to focus on as well. You can lose culture very, very easily. And actually, it's easier to lose it for a newer company as it grows and you bring in different people who come from other organisations and they're bringing their own cultural influences. Maintaining a strong culture is something we are very focused on through our OneDublin programme and within Google globally, Dublin is known as one of the most “Googley” sites.


What happens when someone does something that conflicts with Google’s culture?

It’s entirely acceptable to stop somebody who's behaving in a kind of spoiled way or entitled way, but in reality, that’s hard to do. However, if people see behaviours, particularly if they see that in leaders, they have the ability to anonymously call that out. We try to make it safe for people to do that. And thinking about it, focusing on it, talking about it, all that is key.

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