‘I never expected to be working in a tech company – but the culture drew me in’

16 Jun 2020

Liz Cunningham. Image: Google

Google’s Liz Cunningham discusses how she ended up in the world of tech, why she tries to be an empathetic leader, and what she’s doing to help support women in leadership.

Liz Cunningham works as EMEA finance director for Google. From the company’s base in Dublin, she is responsible for finance, investment and tax planning for more than 100 entities across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Cunningham studied accounting and finance at DCU before taking a job at Arthur Andersen. After seven years she moved to KPMG and then joined Google in 2009.

‘When I started my career, I wasn’t aware of the places my skillset could take me’

Describe your role and what you do.

I am the EMEA finance director for Google. This means, day to day, I am responsible for developing the strategic direction and future growth of the company as it relates to finance, investment and tax planning for over 100 entities across the EMEA region.

I am also responsible for Compass – a leadership initiative for female leaders in all walks of life.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I am a big believer in self-motivation and flexibility. I am a planner, but it’s always the week I plan too tightly that something changes last minute or goes wrong. I’ve learnt to be flexible as a result.

There are 300 people on the Google EMEA finance team, so to be able to focus on the priorities of my own role, I have to trust the teams around me to focus on theirs.

I am also more mindful of my mental health than I was when I first started in my career. I am very conscious of making sure I alleviate stress and live as balanced a day as possible. I think this helps me think clearly and prioritise effectively. Something will always need my attention, but if I can focus with a clear head, it’s easier to prioritise what needs to be done and what can be distilled down to the team.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The technology sector is at the forefront of a lot of the major challenges facing society today. We are a ‘create the future’ company. That future-focused philosophy has given us a great freedom to iterate ideas and innovate

Google Ireland is focused on identifying what will be critical to us as a company and to our users and we put our energies into developing workable and responsible solutions. It’s by being constantly focused on the future – looking at trends, questioning why things are being done a certain way, reimagining and responding quickly and bravely – that allows us to expand and grow our operations here.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

At Google, we take the long-term view. Our products and innovations should have a positive impact on the world – whether it’s for people that use our services in their daily lives, small businesses that use them to find new customers, or news publishers that want to succeed in this digital age.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I never expected to be working in a technology company. When I started my career, my development path was pretty clear – that was to work in one of the main accountancy firms where I started and where I loved working.

But, I was actually closed off to a lot of opportunities early on. The culture at Google drew me in, and it was very clear to me that I could grow and succeed here.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

When I started my career, I would say that I wasn’t aware of the places my skillset could take me. I was in a great role at one of the big accountancy firms that provided me with a strong learning foundation. But I was very focused on the path that was right in front of me, so when I wasn’t open to other opportunities.

I also made the assumption that I didn’t have the background or credentials to work at a company like Google. And while I believe I am in the best place I could be in professionally, I do think I passed on some significant opportunities earlier in my career.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I trust my team and individual team leaders. We hire driven people who are go-getters and self-starters. Yes, they absolutely have to work as part of a team, but they each have an internal drive and ambition that means that the work gets done to the high standards expected. My team is made up of incredibly talented people who are all hard workers – they don’t need the head of the department managing everything they do!

I strive to be very empathetic and I think this is a quality overlooked when it comes to management. Once my team members realise that I understand that pressure they are under and how challenging it is to find a balance between their personal and professional lives, they see that I don’t have unrealistic expectations.

It sets an encouraging environment among us, rather than a stifling, high-pressurised one. Equally, if they feel that they are under undue pressure at work, I try to create a space where they can call it, or me, out.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Diversity is a central issue in all sectors – whether we are talking about the boardroom, local businesses, NGOs or universities. I consider myself very fortunate to be part of a diverse management team, but I recognise that this isn’t the case for a lot of women in a lot of businesses or working environments.

That is why I created Compass. Women in leadership positions, and women who aspire to be in leadership positions, require support regardless of the sector or area they work in. It’s important to me that women from all walks of life can come to Google for support, and that we help create support mechanisms for them to lean on in their own career. We don’t place boundaries on our resources and Compass helps ensure that they are available to communities of people, rather than only to people working in our sector.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

Yes, and I still do. I think it’s hugely important that everyone has a mentor. I am at the stage now where I also mentor, but you’re never too advanced in your career to need advice.

I have found that it is important to recognise that you will need different mentors for different aspects of your career, so be open to having more than one mentor. At this stage, I rely heavily on my network of colleagues, peers and mentors who I can go to, and vice versa, for advice on a particular topic.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

How Remarkable Women Lead [by Joanna Barsh, Susie Cranston and Geoffrey Lewis] and The Confidence Code [by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman].

I have recently got back into the wonderful daily habit of reading and I read about two books a month. It helps me relax. The most recent novel I have read is Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?
  • My Kindle
  • Working out three times a week
  • Like many of us, I am still striving for the perfect tool to manage my to-do lists across personal, family and work life to keep all the balls in the air

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