Google’s Mel Silva On Clarity, Culture And Coffee Machines

Google’s Mel Silva On Clarity, Culture And Coffee Machines

As managing director of Google Australia and New Zealand, Mel Silva is one of the most influential people in the local industry. It’s a role that not only sees her serve as the local face for one of the biggest companies in the world, but also oversee the 1000+ staff over Australia and New Zealand. But as she explains here to B&T, everything she does is underpinned by a few key leadership philosophies.

If there is one word to describe Mel Silva’s leadership style, it’s probably ‘clarity’. Clear strategies, clear objectives and clear expectations.

“It’s about empowering people to do their best to drive the organisation’s strategy and mission,” she tells B&T.

It’s a simple philosophy, one that was shaped in her early days as a ‘Googler’, working under former Google Australia MD Nick Leeder.

Silva explains how Leeder was able to instil this in her by setting clear goals that were ambitious yet achievable.

“Nick had this great ability to uncover people’s superpower – and articulate it clearly. I remember him telling me once that I had this fire in my belly that was infectious to the people around me – but that it might also be a weakness as I progressed in my career. 

“It was the first time I learned that lesson of ‘what got you here, won’t get you there’ and he really taught me that you can always be better.”

Google’s culture

Silva worked with Google for over a decade before being named managing director of Australia and New Zealand in 2018. This included time working in or across the financial services, travel, government, utilities and education sectors.

It even included two years in Singapore as managing director of go-to-market strategy and operations across Asia Pacific.

Through this time, she has seen Google consolidate its spot as one of the most influential companies of the modern era. 

Silva has also played a role in forging Google’s famous corporate culture.  

“My job is to create a culture and environment where people can do their best work – I might set the vision and strategy, but teams know how to best deliver and work with each other,” she says.

“And to really achieve this, teams need to know their work will be recognised, that great work will be rewarded, and that it’s safe to make mistakes. In fact, I’d be worried if no one was ever making mistakes because it would be a signal that teams were playing it too safe.”

Setting the strategy is one thing. But Silva’s true passion is getting ‘down in the trenches’, so to speak.

“I get my dopamine hits from coaching and helping people develop their careers – this means giving people feedback. 

“I really believe in giving feedback in real time and stretching people’s thinking about what might be next in their careers. 

“So many folks have a tendency to get too focused on moving up the ladder, rather than a role that might appear sideways but really helps them acquire new skills and experiences that will make them more successful in the long run.”

Why the coffee machine is important

As much as Silva loves going one-on-one and providing feedback, she is acutely aware that leadership – particularly in a role like hers – is multifaceted.

It’s not just about what you say, it’s about how you carry yourself.

Acknowledging your ‘leadership shadow’ is critical,” she says. 

“That is, the impression you cast as a leader. The way you show up in the lift or at the coffee machine is just as important as the more formal communications you have with people.

For Silva, the ‘why’ is more important than the ‘what’.

“When people understand the rationale or importance of doing something, they are much more likely to be inspired or want to take action,” she says.

Life outside of Google

As much as Silva’s role is defined by what she does inside Google’s walls, it is equally marked by life away from the office. 

Google incorporates a host of flexible working arrangements which, as Silva demonstrates, aren’t just lip service.

“The reality is we aren’t just employees. We’re humans – with families, friends and lives outside of work,” she says.

“For me, it’s things like unapologetically taking a day a month to work from home and think through the big stuff, or taking time out to go to school events, or unashamedly and visibly leaving the office to make it home for dinner.” 

The desired outcome here is to help staff to bring their “whole self” to work.

“Google expects me to produce impact – not input!” she says.

Photo credit: James Brickwood

Hear from more of Australia’s leading female technologists at B&T’s inaugural Women Leading Tech awards gala lunch on 8 April 2020 at Linseed House, The Grounds of Alexandria, 7a/2 Huntley St, Alexandria.



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