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Exclusive interview: Acting Google MD Caroline Rainsford

Caroline Rainsford, acting MD at Google
Caroline Rainsford is the acting managing director at Google. (Source: Provided)
  • Note: Questions are not published in the order they were asked.

What’s your non-negotiable in your daily routine that helps you stay productive and performing at your best?

About five years ago, I developed non-negotiable ones around self care. I spent a lot of time with my teams around mental fitness. We spent a lot of time thinking about how we improve from a work point of view, but increasingly I've started spending a lot more time on how I improve myself from a personal point of view as well.

So self care for me is non-negotiable. The team laughs at me, but every Friday morning, I spend 45 minutes to an hour playing golf. I love it from a sports point of view, it’s incredible mindfulness for me – I don’t think about anything else, so it’s very good for me.

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The other thing is, I’m really quite strict on my personal fitness regime. The other non-negotiable for me which has become even stronger in the last few years is the idea that I don't have to compromise my role as a single mother of two young children, and wanting to be successful.

When I first had kids, I thought that I would have to compromise things like going to watch the school sports, or my daughter performing on stage at school. And in the last few years, I just made it a non-negotiable that I just fit into my day.

So, that means I'm doing meetings in the car, on the way to school. I just fit it in now, and I've realised that in the last couple of years I haven't had to miss very much at all. And you can do both.

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Step by step, what’s your best method or top tips for prioritising what needs to be done for the day/week ahead?

It’s funny you ask this. This is what I spent the most time on when I took on the role in Australia. In the month prior to [Australia managing director Mel Silva] leaving and taking over from her, I sat down and spent a lot of time with others asking them: where could I have the biggest impact the year that she was away.

But you can do this with any job. It gave me clarity around the things that I needed to do, over all else, and that was really helpful. I got a lot of feedback on what our organisation or what our Google users and customers value the most, and that gave me enormous clarity on my priorities I needed to achieve in the year.

But on a daily basis, some tips: I literally have a picture above where I sit at my desk that says: “Am I doing what matters?” Every day, when I have a micro decision to make, I look at that, and it helps me decide. Also, every morning I sit down with my coffee and I always write down things I want to do on that day.

But it always comes back to: am I doing things that day that are related to those bigger goals of mine? So spending that time upfront is really important, whether it be a new job, a project, or something else in your life.

I don’t actually look at my emails that much. In a role like mine, people will ping me in our internal chat or text me, so I only spend about two periods a day looking at emails, whenever my diary allows.

As acting MD for Google Australia, you went from overseeing 50 New Zealand employees to an extra 1,800 in Australia. What shifts in your thinking or mindset helped you deal with that new challenge? Did you have to think in a different way?

My leadership principles that I am guided by are the same whether I was leading 5 people or 5000 people. My main leadership principle has always been: you've got to define a purpose. Increasingly, people, and particularly Googlers, want to feel like there’s purpose in everything they do. So as a leader I always try to give them a sense of how they’re delivering on the company’s purpose, and set a vision, which is really inspiring.

And then, ultimately, I'm just about empowering people. Whether I’m doing it with 50 in New Zealand or 1,800 in Australia, I try to apply the same approach. The biggest thing that probably changed me personally in my mindset was getting out of my own head [regarding]: Was I going to be good enough to transition into leading 1,800 people?

I think all leaders to a degree still have elements of that imposter syndrome, which I’ve learned over the years, that you don’t have to get rid of – it’s actually a very helpful thing to feel. It’s the way you use it to actually become better that matters.

When I first started in the role, I spent a lot of time just listening to people. From that, you start seeing pockets of where they can lead and step up more. Even when I stepped into the Australia role, I was able to tell the New Zealand team to lift the lid on the business and find better ways while I was off managing Australia. And they've flourished doing that. So it’s the same principles, but just having the confidence that your leadership style can scale.

When I got asked to lead Australia, you ask yourself: am I the best person to do this? And you’ve got to trust why you’ve been asked to do that new role. But I also think it’s a really healthy thing to go into your new role with, because it will make you more humble, more authentic, and you’ll listen way more.

I think, ultimately, when you are in that little period of feeling a little bit excitedly uncomfortable, that's when your best leadership comes through. You'll be the best version of yourself if you do actually feel a little bit like that. I've come to realise it’s a good thing.

Caroline Rainsford playing golf.
Caroline Rainsford is the acting managing director at Google. (Source: Provided)

Are there qualities or characteristics in yourself or others that you think are underrated?

Particularly in Australia, we have dealt with bushfires, COVID, fairly large regulatory challenges. I think increasingly, in moments of crisis, authentic leadership. I don’t think it’s underrated, because I think a lot of people are starting to realise this, but I think authentic leadership is going to be more and more important. And we see that in world leaders – we see the difference in leadership styles, and I think that’s really important.

People want to see real people. At Google we talk a lot about mental health and mental wellness at the moment. And I really encourage the leaders at Google to share individual stories, to share how they're all addressing their mental fitness or wellness. Because if you see a leader as consciously doing something different to support their mental health, it gives you permission to like that about yourself. So, I think leadership that’s authentic and leading by example is more important than ever.

On the other side of the coin – is there something you see other business leaders getting wrong, time and time again?

I still see business leaders feeling like they need to control situations – you know, that fear of failure and not letting go enough. The most influential periods in my career and my leadership style have been when I've been allowed to fail by really great leaders. I still see a lot of leaders try to [have too much] control – to some degree I think it’s to protect their teams from making those decisions.

No one knows all the answers right now, so we’ve got to let our teams try things, experiment, and potentially not always get it right. But this is the time to let people know that we’re grappling with areas that are very uncharted and unprecedented, and we won’t get it right. So we do need to give our teams that opportunity to try things and fail.

How do you communicate the message that it’s okay to fail?

Sometimes I just talk to the teams about it, but it's often in the way, as a leader, I coach my team. My mantra is there aren’t that many decisions that I should have to make on any given day. So if someone in the team comes to me and asks me what we should do about a situation, I always put it back on them and say: well, what do you think you should do? And then get them to start exploring what the possibilities might look like.

It’s a coaching style that I'm increasingly trying to use with the teams – putting it back on them. Sundar [Pichai], our global CEO, told me this one: only the most difficult, global, most challenging scenarios should really ever get to him. Because if you've got the right things in place, there should be very few decisions that you need to take. If you empower your team in that way, they feel comfortable that they can try, and make mistakes.

So I do think you have to celebrate, sometimes, making mistakes as well, and reflecting on them. Google's going through a period where the world is changing and will constantly have to reflect on the learnings from various situations we find ourselves in.

As managing director, you command an executive salary. Where do you like to spend your money?

Easily on exercise. I love spending my money on experiences, but I also love spending money on others. For example, one of the things that I've been doing during lockdown is I’ve been writing gratitude letters to people who have been most influential on my life. But I could not be more grateful for the upbringing that my parents allowed me to have and the support they gave me. So I love surprising, my parents or my family. I love getting my girlfriend's flowers to say I'm proud of them.

Otherwise, I do think about the long term. I do invest in quite a diverse portfolio of things with my children in mind. I want them to stand on their own two feet, but I am setting a solid foundation for them.

And then there are a number of charities that I like to support. Locally in New Zealand I like to support a few charities that I've had a personal involvement with or I’m just passionate about: the Children's Hospital in New Zealand, and there are search and rescues that I've had personal involvement with.

Acting Google MD Caroline Rainsford
Caroline Rainsford is the acting managing director at Google. (Source: Provided)

If I handed you $10,000 for you to invest in your child, where would you put that?

Education. I'm really a believer in giving my children the most diverse range of opportunities, be it going on coding camp, getting the best possible diverse cross section of education or sports or music or dance. I’d just invest in it, in something that gave them some different experiences.

Absolutely – those experiences are priceless. In the same vein, other than your salary, what's been the best monetary or financial or investment move you've made?

I've done quite a bit of property development. The best financial decisions I've made have been in the property development area, but also, I've always been quite a conservative saver. From a very young age, I was taught the value of saving. If I wanted something I'd save for it, as opposed to buying it earlier when I couldn't really afford it.

In my time at GE Capital, I learned so much about the way the Australian consumer uses finance. I learnt so much about the importance of financial literacy. Just some of those basic skills that I've had for my life, I realise, is so important. So for example, making sure that you're paying off not your minimum balance on a credit card, but your full balance. They’re really basic things but I've had those from a very young age, and I guess it sets me up well with financial decision making.

What’s the best advice you’d give to someone to command a higher salary?

Have the confidence to know what you're worth. Money’s never been a priority for me, but have the confidence of what you’re worth, and never underestimate that.

What would you do with 10 extra hours in the working week?

I’d spent a lot more time focused on the strategy. I am endeavouring to do this now but more time on strategy and thinking about: are we on the right track?

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received that’s shaped your thinking today?

To always push yourself to be excitedly uncomfortable. Whenever I get to a point where I know that I'm not learning as much as I historically have, I have always pushed myself to find a new opportunity. And this last year has taught me that, through moving to Australia. My growth has been exponential.

Even recently, I joined a board as a director of an NZX-listed company for the first time. In the first two board meetings, I learned such an enormous amount. That constant desire to learn and push yourself to be in uncomfortable spaces is so rewarding.

Note: This interview transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

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