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“You Have to Take Risks” – Thierry Geerts, Country Director of Google, Belgium & Luxembourg

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Google Country Director Thierry Geerts is a charismatic, warm and inspiring leader. We had the pleasure of speaking with him last year about his book “Digitalis: How to Reinvent the World” and were delighted to welcome him back for the final event in our summer series of virtual Learning From Leaders conferences.  

Thierry’s conversation with Peter Vanham, author of “Before I Was CEO”, inspired all who tuned in. Prompted by insightful questions from EU students, they discussed geopolitics, the role of Google in beating coronavirus and the technology of the future.  

The full event can be watched here. Read on for highlights from this wide-ranging and pertinent conversation.  

Data and a Digital Future  

Understanding how coronavirus has altered the way we behave is key to shaping an opportunity-rich future for us all. Trends in Google’s data offer insights into the economy of tomorrow. 

In the physical world, Thierry remarked, the trend is towards de-globalization, characterized by the rise of populist politics and stringent border controls. However, the digital world is global, connecting us to an international network of people and services. “During COVID, people were watching Netflix, a US platform, and going onto TikTok, a Chinese app”, Thierry remarked. The interconnectedness of digital society is what Thierry’s book “Digitalis” is about. And the changes he predicted have all come true, albeit faster and in more negative circumstances than anyone could have anticipated.  

This pattern of digital globalization has been impacted by the virus. Both ecommerce and travel have shifted their focus to staying local – we no longer want to order goods from China, and we aren’t yet able or willing to cross the world to explore other continents. The pandemic has also had a significant impact on our global economy. Yet, Thierry noted, “There was a lot of business to do during COVID-19, but a completely other type of business.” During lockdown, “Our services went through the roof: more search, more YouTube and more cloud computing than ever,” he reflected.  

Before the virus, travel ads placed by companies including and Airbnb were an important source of income for Google. This meant a hit to Google’s revenue for the several months during which travel was impossible. However, travel businesses are now bouncing back with new campaigns that place a greater emphasis on local holidays.  

Google’s agile advertising platform supported businesses of all sizes to pivot quickly when the pandemic began, offering a level of flexibility that’s impossible with traditional media. Given the pervasive uncertainty, and the delicate position many companies find themselves in now, we can expect to see a greater focus that ever on digital campaigns.  

Supporting the Global Effort Against Coronavirus 

Google has used its policies, platforms and expertise to support the worldwide effort to tackle coronavirus.  “We want to do as much as we can for society”, Thierry shared.  

Which is why all Google staff are working from home until the end of the year. There are some exceptions – engineers working with hardware, for example, were able to return to their offices from July 1 – but otherwise Google is at home. “It would be better for business to go back to the office because the office is useful for human connection, but we have to take the responsibility, we can afford it and we are organized to do it so let’s do it and leave the opportunities for other companies that really need to be in touch”, Thierry commented. With a huge global workforce, Thierry estimated that by asking their 100,000 employees to stay home, they’d be preventing anywhere from half a million to a million instances of contact, thereby supporting efforts to slow the spread of the virus.  

As an inherently digital company, it was easier for Google to make that decision than most. Yet human connections spark the work that they do and being 100% remote has been a significant change. Recognizing the increased intensity of working in front of a computer all day, they’ve introduced new practices to accommodate this shift. “We believe in a work-life mix and not a work–life balance. It is not ‘work 40 hours and then have a nice life’. It is being able to mix that”, Thierry commented. “As a company we won a lot of efficiency”, he said, now, “When we meet we are more effective than ever before”; “Something that will take me one hour now would have taken one day in normal times”. And they have paid this forward to employees, offering greater flexibility and time off to those who need it.  

Aside from taking care of a huge global workforce, Google has been collaborating with governments around the world to ensure the right information appears in search results and on YouTube. They’ve also managed a 30-fold increase in the use of Google Meet, a product which earns them no money, in order to connect people to loved ones and facilitate widespread transition to remote work.  

“Obviously we cannot solve it all, but we can help a lot and that is what we are trying to do”, said Thierry. Accuracy of information and video conferencing, however, “is not enough because the economy has had a very hard hit”, he added. Which is why Google has announced ‘Grow with Google’, an initiative offering digital training to individuals and businesses designed to support the recovery of the global economy.   

Let’s Get Geopolitical 

Choosing to support people and companies to navigate challenges caused by coronavirus is a generous yet clear-cut decision. But how does Google manage the blurred lines of geopolitics? Several EU students asked Thierry about the tricky problem of borders on Google Maps.  

Google Maps coronavirus

Demonstrating the transparency and honesty that marks a great leader, Thierry admitted; “Google cannot do anything alone – we depend on our users, we depend on governments. We try to follow all the rules in the world but sometimes it is hard.” When warring countries are in conflict over a border, that puts Google in a difficult position. Ultimately, until the dispute is settled, they are working with blurred lines.  

Other politically charged situations, however, have been simpler for Google to navigate. The company exited the Chinese market after their platform was hacked and Gmail accounts were no longer secure: “I am very proud that Google is a company that takes its principles seriously and that we went out of China the moment that it was not possible to do business in the way that we believe in.”  As hard as it may have been to turn away from what had been a successful market, being a values-led company made that decision clear-cut. 

Technology and the Future 

It is widely agreed that there is no going ‘back to normal’ once the virus is under control. The technological and cultural shifts caused by the pandemic have ushered in the future faster than we imagined, and no industry will be unaffected.  

At Google, recognizing that employees have adjusted to, and enjoyed, a remote-working lifestyle, they’re planning to implement more flexible and remote working policies. Thierry imagines this will involve a few compulsory days working collaboratively at the office each week, with remote working optional the rest of the time. They won’t go completely remote yet because, “Technology doesn’t have the ability to replace the human factor and that is something we still need to learn.” But remote work is the future, even though, “Policy, people and a lot of companies are still stuck in a prior world.” 

Google’s gaze is set on the future and they continue to innovate “so that technology is out of the way and you can be more human”, Thierry explained. “Machine learning is the technology we use to create a better world”, he shared, which is why Google Translate is constantly improving and why we can find relevant recommendations on YouTube. “We believe in what we call ambient computing […] everything that is connected to electricity can be intelligent – Google assistance can be built into your fridge, your car, your watch – so you don’t always have to take your smartphone with you.” Ambient computing is driven by the idea that these intelligent services will surround us wherever we go, rather than being accessed via a computerized interface like a phone or a laptop. This is not expected to replace our existing devices but to add another layer of connectivity, personalization and convenience. By integrating, for example, biometric data with adaptable design, the world around us will become much more personal. And aside from the Internet of Things – connected homes, devices and cars – Google is now investing in healthcare. The current approach to medicine treats symptoms rather than offering preventative strategies to maintain health. Artificial intelligence, Google believes, will have a huge impact on the way we approach healthcare in the future. 

How to Work for Google 

As a Google Country Director, Thierry’s is a job that many people covet. He shared insights and advice for getting a job at one of the world’s foremost digital companies.    

  • Work somewhere else first: “We prefer people who have more experience.” 
  • Apply! “If you want to work for Google you have to apply, and you have to believe!” 
  • It is not just about skills; it’s about personality and values: “We are looking at who you are and we want to have good people”, which includes, “Being convinced about diversity, being open to the world and having an ambition to solve things.”  
  • What have you done that makes you stand out? “The best degrees are not enough” – at Google they want to see the other things that you’ve done, like climbing Kilimanjaro, being a DJ, starting a company when you were young, volunteering at an NGO… 
  • Are you multilingual? Languages can be important depending on the market you want to work in. 
  • Make your application shine: don’t just submit the standard Microsoft Word document. Do something different. 

Carving a Path to the Top  

Thierry described the path that has brought him to his current position at Google. After graduating, he experimented by working in different fields: “I didn’t know at all what I wanted to do when I studied at university, so I had to find out; there is no recipe”. After two years in auditing at PWC, Thierry decided that was not the path for him: “My goal when I studied was to be a general manager. I love to lead teams, I love to inspire a group around me and I love to build something with them.” So, he took on an interesting sales role at an industrial laundry. With his experience and leadership skills he rose quickly and by age 27 was general manager in charge of a workforce of 100 employees.  

At the time the internet was emerging and he watched with interest. He sought work in this emerging field, taking on an entrepreneurial role to bring a traditional media company into a new era. It was a step down in terms of leadership and salary, but it positioned him in the sector in which he saw a future. 

A few years later the disproportionate hype around the internet which would cause the dot-com bubble led Thierry to consciously step away. Instead, he turned to traditional print media and waited until the internet “became good business”. He enrolled himself on a two-week intensive language course to prepare for the opportunity he was looking for; to work for a global company. “Without that course that I took in addition, I wouldn’t be here today”, he said.  

working for Google

Choosing to work for Google was not the obvious opportunity then that it is now. Thierry refused the offer when they called the first time, but his interest was piqued when Google called back. “You have to take risks”, he advised. And having taken the language course, he was prepared to do the interview in English. “A lot of people say, ‘you are lucky to be at Google’, but obviously it is not luck, it is always a combination of being prepared and the opportunity that flies by.” Recognizing opportunity can be tricky and moving from a leadership role with a team of 500 people, to managing 10 people on a lower salary, was not an easy decision. But he knew what he was interested in and that Google was the right fit.  Although “I am more passionate about humans than technology”, he said, “I am looking at what technology is doing with us”.  

Knowing your passion, your strengths and goals is the key to forging a successful and fulfilling career. Thierry’s success is not luck, but the result of hard-work, astute observation and careful preparation.  

Advice for a Fulfilling Career 

Thierry offered invaluable career advice to the audience of EU students, alumni and guests. 

  • Find your passion; “Students now have to be prepared to study all their career long – that is why it is very important that you go for your passion. You have to take something that you are really interested in so that studying will be fun.”  
  • It can be trial and error: “If you don’t find your passion no problem. You have to start somewhere and then be very open, be a sponge, open your eyes and find out and then if you need to, you do a step back to find out.”  
  • Don’t get complacent: “Look for opportunities, change and challenge yourself.” 
  • Comfort can be the enemy of progression: “If you start at an amazing company it is like a golden cage because you receive some advantages, you have a nice salary and you are promised a promotion, and then you are stuck in one company.” 
  • Develop your leadership abilities: “This is the first responsibility for all good managers. Our number one job is our people. I can do fantastic business but if I cannot succeed at keeping my people motivated, I am out.” “I spend a lot of my time reaching out to people, connecting, doing one on ones, asking how they are.” 
  • Be prepared; “A promotion will come because you are good at what you are doing, you’ve done a management course in addition and you’ve learnt a new language or a new trick to do something. You need to prepare yourself for the next step in your career and then look for opportunities.” 
  • Look to mentors for guidance and a new perspective, not for the answers: “Talk to a lot of people and be open but never believe them completely, it is just input.” 

Prepare for Success 

For an international business education in English that will give you the diverse experience, self-confidence and openness to experimentation which are key to building a successful career, look no further. At EU Business School, our experiential programs, including bachelor’s, master’s, MBA, EBBA and DBA, are taught by real business professionals and cover fundamental concepts and theories as well as case studies from the cutting edge of business.  

Prepare to shine!

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