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I’m a VP at Google, and this is what my summer interns taught me

Unencumbered by workplace norms, these individuals inspired me to take a step back and reflect on the fundamentals of how we find a connection to “work.”

I’m a VP at Google, and this is what my summer interns taught me
[Source photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock]

Around May, it became abundantly clear that the pandemic and the associated WFH setup wasn’t a temporary inconvenience to muscle through, it was going to be a new way of life. My approach of getting by day-to-day, clawing my way through a packed calendar and playing whack-a-mole with unforeseen challenges, wasn’t going to cut it long-term. I needed to get back to a place of sustainable happiness. And like many leaders, I wanted to do whatever I could to ensure my team stayed energized and directed, connected to what we were doing and why we were doing it. These were things that previously, and fortunately, we took for granted when we had the office and fed off the proximity of our colleagues.

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I found myself asking: what keeps a team eager to “get to work” when they no longer “go” to work?

Then I met Caleb, Aminata, Sophie, Jacqueline, and Ayomide—my team’s 2020 summer interns. Faced with more uncertainty about the future than most previous generations and limited knowledge of what a typical workplace should look and feel like, they could’ve been immobilized by anxiety. Instead, they found a way to not only move forward but to thrive. Witnessing their attitudes and achievements this summer, I was struck by how much they offered me as a leader. Unencumbered by workplace norms, these individuals inspired me to take a step back and reflect on the fundamentals of how we find a connection to “work.”

Work is more than a place

For some of these team members, this was their first experience “at work.” They’d never commuted to an office, been pulled into a last-minute creative meeting, or grabbed coffee with a new coworker offering to show them the ropes. For those of us used to an office and the ease with which these things naturally happen in a shared space, we felt a certain sense of loss on their behalf. But that was quickly channeled toward actions to ensure each one felt welcomed, included, and personally supported so that—despite the physical distance—they’d still experience the best of our culture and feel a sense of real belonging.

By examining the experience of these newbies coming to the workplace with fresh eyes, we’re offered a couple of valuable reminders. First, the shared responsibility the broader team felt for our interns not feeling shortchanged reinforces that culture really comes from all of us, not from just an individual. The most impact I can have is to inspire collective investment and accountability for our culture, not feel unduly responsible for creating it. By reminding my team of what we love about our community and inviting everyone to translate that to a virtual world, I empower culture makers all around me.

Second, it’s clear that there’s no silver bullet way to foster community and belonging for everyone. This is a challenge that I’m still working through. For example, while some employees crave the virtual happy hours for social interaction, parents might find those a burden within the work/childcare puzzle. The needs of the organization also change over time, so it’s important to stay on top of what I’m trying to achieve by fostering connections and innovating when necessary. If my weekly stay-in-touch email served as a community lifeline back in April but has since become “another update email,” maybe it’s time to mix it up. A series of guest authors might help. Or experimenting with fun features like highlighting the stories of the employees who got married during the quarantine.

Ultimately community and culture are alive, and since the circumstances will always change, so too will the cultivation tactics.

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Participate, don’t anticipate

When it comes to personal and professional setbacks, the summer of 2020 was a doozy for all of us. And when plans are thwarted, reality falls short of expectations, and daunting challenges mount, it’s often a recipe for reticence or even resentment.

But I witnessed the opposite in these interns. All five of them eagerly embraced a “participate, don’t anticipate” attitude—a phrase I picked up from one of them. They didn’t allow anxiety or inexperience to impede their ambition to contribute and learn. Instead, they reframed what a successful internship looked like and got after it. In a climate where perfection is impossible, they looked at achievement through the lens of progress, not complete resolution, and they embraced the beautiful chaos, looking at the unknown as white space for learning and growth.

The notion that the conditions for success and fulfillment aren’t predefined—but rather can be continually recalibrated— resonates with me. We so often feel the need to be in control, but we need to let go of some of that. COVID-19 has taught all of us how fruitless it is to try to have full command over our circumstances. Instead, we should focus our energy on the approach we take to overcoming adversity, adapting, and thriving in ambiguity. That’s where we’ll find our true sense of agency and personal contribution—the motivating stuff.

As a leader, that means helping the team trade some finite certainties for broader directional goals and principles. In other words, I empower them not by outlining (or requiring) a bulletproof plan, but by clearing the noise and (re)isolating the true objective. There will still be unknowns, but limiting the field allows the team to focus their attention and take more pleasure in the problem-solving process.

Emphasize “Step Zero”

In speaking about Google’s efforts during this summer, it struck me that all five interns defaulted to the pronoun “we.” Admiring the moral compass of this generation, I asked how they came to self-identify with the brand purpose. (After all, we know healthy skepticism and an emphasis on the need for brand trust are hallmarks of Gen Z.)

They told me they felt inspired by and connected to the core company mission, but it was the firsthand experience with how we operate and make decisions that drove deeper trust in our intentions. In their minds, while we could be doing more, we were passing the critical sniff test—the earnestness with which we tried to start with “Step Zero”—our brand values. (Step Zero is a concept I attribute to them, too.)

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Their insights reinforced how much more can always be unlocked by continually championing and clarifying brand purpose. Especially during times of crisis and ambiguity, attending to Step Zero, is, paradoxically, a multiplier. A brand with strong values and a clear purpose gives employees a north star to guide them and their work—despite broad geographic distribution—and allows for more effective experimentation, pivoting, and fresh ideas, which are all crucial in times like these.

And just as important, it helps us identify what we should not be doing and when to say no. These boundaries can give employees a greater sense of stability and intentionality for their work, all while affirming our core values for users and fostering greater trust. On both sides, the result is a strengthened relationship with the Google brand they support. Watching that unfold in real-time with these users-turned-colleagues was one of my proudest memories this summer.

I will always be inspired by the five bright minds my team hosted this summer. While they emphasized how much they learned and took away from their internship experience, I take away as much from them. Amidst countless uncertainties and setbacks, they taught me that a real connection with “work” comes neither from an office nor a playbook but from reconnecting with the fundamentals and trusting your instincts.

Looking at the next year and all the unknowns that come with it, the ideals and approach of this group keep me optimistic. I leave this summer focused on finding growth and fulfillment in the process, creating opportunities from the chaos, and embracing a dynamic relationship with my work and those I work with—even without a plan for what comes next.


Marvin Chow is Google’s vice president of Global Marketing.


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