#1: Craig Fenton — COO Google — Advice, Lessons and the Path to Google

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Craig Fenton (@craigwfenton), COO of Google.

As the COO of Google in the UK and Ireland, Craig Fenton (@craigwfenton) is the steward of one of the world’s largest technology companies. In this interview we cover Craig’s career journey to Google, advice for young people transitioning to University or a new career and also his new book titled Playful Curiosity: A manifesto for reinventing education, which offers stories and lessons about the current education system and solutions.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.

Transcripts may contain a few typos — with this episode lasting 1 hour, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

Ruben de Noronha: Hi everyone Ruben de Noronha here. I’m really excited today to start this new podcast where I’ll be interviewing people with interesting career journeys and stories to share which will hopefully inspire some young people to see things from a slightly different perspective and think big! My guest today is Craig Fenton. Craig is the Director of Strategy and Operations at Google for the UK, Ireland and many other countries! And also the author of a book: Playful Curiosity: A manifesto for reinventing education. Craig thanks for agreeing to make this happen!

Craig Fenton: My pleasure Ruben!

Ruben de Noronha: So, you’ve had a really successful career and with that comes exposure to different people, different ways of thinking, different cultures so I was wondering if you could take us back to your time at University where you were studying law. Firstly, what made you choose law and what advice do you have for young people who are either going to decide what subjects to study at University or college or doing an apprenticeship because it can be really confusing with so many options nowadays. What advice do you have for them and also how was your experience like at University?

Craig Fenton: The best piece of advice I would give is don’t do that! Don’t do what I did. When I was an undergraduate at University I studied in Auckland in New Zealand, although I’ve been in the UK for 22 years. It was pretty normal to graduate out of school and go onto University in those days and there were loads of relatively low set of professions that you can pass into. I did two degrees actually, I did a conjoined degree so you did them at the same time and graduate the same year. Bachelor of Commerce and Finance and Economics. Honestly I did it because my mate Mike was doing it and that is about as much thought I gave it. I trusted this guy I thought he had some really interesting studied opinions and if it was good enough for Mike it was good enough for me and it also saved me the immense job of reading what looked like a very thick bible or phone book. After that I ended up practicing Law I was a court lawyer a Barrister in court. I had the wig, the bands and spent my time doing mostly civil litigation so commercial negligence, public law type stuff in court. Learnt some great skills like structuring an argument in a logical way and presenting that information to persuade a judge, it was a great formative time for me and taught me a lot.

The advice I’d give to people perhaps in a similar situation today considering what to do is very simple it’s figure out what you love, what really really excites you and do that wherever that takes you whether its an apprenticeship, going straight into the business world, starting your own company which I know you’ve done Ruben or going to University there are many different options many more than I had the choice of but the north star should be your why not your what.

Ruben de Noronha: What do you mean by that choose your why and not your what?

Craig Fenton: People often ask the question what do you want to do which leads you immediately to enter a discussion about a role, a company and actually none of those things are a vehicle for expressing yourself. Your why is actually several layers deeper it’s usually more stable and more limited. There are many whats that can lead to a why and the best way of describing it is most of them if you think about your life experience, your personal experience, your passions that really excites you, your eyes light up, you start talking a bit faster, it brings a smile to your face. These are all symptoms that your indulging in something that you’re passionate about whether that be music, maths, sports or business related.

My why: I love too build things or change things so that’s more of a happiness but mostly so often.

I grew up in a pretty isolated country at the bottom of the world so I’m absolutely fascinated and ignited by the way technology enables pretty much anyone the access and opportunities to do stuff whether that’s build a micro or multinational business or become a creator or find your voice, that’s something that simply wasn’t available at the time and I love the way technology enables that and really democratises talent so I feel very passionate about that.

I’m a bit of a geek I have an understanding of technology even though I’m not a computer scientist I think I understand technology well and its application.

Ruben de Noronha: So you mentioned that you spent a couple of years practicing as a Barrister so what lead you to transition or pivot into consulting later on because I imagine after investing so many years practicing as a barrister, most people would just want to continue in that line because they feel comfortable in that environment so what lead you to want to pivot into consulting.

Craig Fenton: So I spent six years actually as a Barrister. I felt it was intellectually stimulating so it taught me attention to detail and as I said earlier an ability to structure an argument and present it in a persuasive way, the confidence to talk publicly which is what advocacy is and also the ability to be in service of others. I found it very intellectually stimulating, I didn’t find it so creatively challenging. Once you become an expert in a field it becomes a little bit automatic like comfortably comfortable if that makes sense and I like to be comfortably uncomfortable.

This was at the dawn of the internet era, I’m talking late 90s so the dot com bubble. Many companies launching at a valuation we didn’t quite know how to get our heads around and so I found that absolutely fascinating. I wanted to try my hand in a better sea so to speak, on a different stage on the technology field and I knew I had strong interest in business. I didn’t know how to get there so I thought probably I need to take some time out to figure that out and also in the process of that rebrand. So I applied to a few business schools and I went into London Business School to get an MBA part of my rebranding, my coming of party, leaving the law and entering the next phase of my life.

Ruben de Noronha: Would you say that the MBA helped you and was it worth it?

Craig Fenton: Yes is the short answer. It did help…. This is a lifelong journey I suppose it never stops; I hope it never stops. The most effective way of rebranding and getting in the door probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I knew I was interested in business but I didn’t know what type of role.

Ruben de Noronha: So consulting allowed you to really explore

Craig Fenton: Yes consulting is a great exercise in business tourism in the sense that you get to work with many different companies, many different problems and in my case many different countries and economic contexts. It really opens your eyes to the reality to what business leaders face, as they try and navigate or grow and handle competition and the ebbs and flows of being in business. So it was a great way to learn.

Ruben de Noronha: You spent 16 years at Accenture. What kept you there so long because 16 years is a really long time and over those 16 years you worked across how many different countries?

Craig Fenton: My prime job that I had at Accenture looked after 124 countries. In terms of properly working in a country it was probably 20. I did 2 years in Germany. I worked in Italy, Greece, Central Europe, I did a stint in Russia, I worked in Turkey, I had a stint in Saudi Arabia in UAE, I worked in Spain, France and Denmark. This was an extended period of getting myself engrained in the culture of that place. Meeting new companies, building relationships. All that time living in London so I was a very good customer of BA, mostly BA at the time.

16 years does seem like a long time and I set a rule for myself early on that I would spend no longer than 2 or 3 years in a single role. Over 16 years had 8 roles and they were very different. My initial plan was to go into consulting and do this business tourism and after 2 years go and get a proper job. What I found was that companies started changing under my feet in a way I felt was exciting and interesting. I had a really positive experience with Accenture, it taught me a lot. Many people I call mentors and friends who are still there or have subsequently left. Really good things to say about the company but eventually I felt the learning curve started to flatten.

Ruben de Noronha: During your time at Accenture when you were leading all these complex sales functions and building also other leaders within the team I wanted to ask you about how you measured success because I assume in a sales environment a lot of people would think that you get a certain number that you have to hit. How do you as a leader encourage people to be motivated to do well and hit targets but also not get too caught up with the number because sometimes I think that can do more harm than good.

Craig Fenton: I agree yes, I totally agree. First of all measuring success is sales is pretty easy, it’s the number and it’s a stable number that hopefully grow overtime. It’s a pretty simple game to measure but it’s a much more complex thing to execute. The one thing I learnt after a very long period in sales is that the best way to sell is not to, it’s to listen to really genuinely and authentically put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re trying to help and see the world through their eyes and to do everything in your power to make them and their company and their cause a success. That sometimes requires you to take decisions in the short term that are harmful to your own business. This is a long term game. Trust based relationships and it’s a long term game we need to be authentically there in a partnership on the long term not be there for the short term transaction. The other thing that true in sales is that it’s a team game like football and netball or whatever sports it’s a team game. So you’re only as good as the team dynamic that you have. One of the delightful things is the joy of working with people, you get to know them so well, you communicate without seeing, you know exactly what place on the field they play.

Ruben de Noronha: In your book Playful Curiosity you talk a bit about how there was research that Google did into high performing teams and it found that the teams that performed the best were the teams that felt psychologically safe. Can you talk a bit about that research and how important it is to build team that feel safe to be in that environment and not afraid to raise their hands if they made a mistake or need extra training.

Craig Fenton: Yes absolutely. So first of all Playful Curiosity is a book about education it’s a commentary and an intentional provocation its intended to start a dialogue about the suitability of our current system.

Ruben de Noronha: What prompted you to write that by the way?

Craig Fenton: Well I’m the father of two one is 17 and one is 14 so I’m a customer of the system in a sense. I’m also a leader of a tech company and I see the talent coming through the door and I see what works and what doesn’t work and the skills needed to survive and thrive in that environment where innovation is existentially important. I also believe that teaching is one of the most noble professions. There are a very few jobs that are as important.

Ruben de Noronha: Yes I think they are underrated

Craig Fenton: Absolutely underrated and underpaid and they do so within a system which constrains them and my commentary is about the system. In a world where change is constant certainly our children are being prepared for jobs that don’t exist with companies that haven’t been founded using technology that hasn’t been created. The alternative concept and what separates the good from the great in that context is the ability to be very comfortable with the ambiguity, to be agile adapt and see around corners and imagine a future and go create it. In order to do that we need first of all to have a mindset of curiosity. Second, we need to be comfortable with experimentation and to be comfortable with experimentation we need to be comfortable with failure. Failure is the necessary path for the experimentation process that leads you to insights and learning. To be comfortable with that you need to be psychologically safe and you need to be okay with taking risks and to know that people around you have your back, accept it and congratulate you for it rather than chastise you for it. You need to learn through experience not just through theory. Experience is what really stays with you. We educate and disseminate sophisticated facts. We examine and test a very narrow band of intelligence, so we don’t typically reward for example artistic intelligence. We do that through a result success examination system where memory recall and exam technique are rewarded.

Ruben de Noronha: You’re right because I remember when I was doing my GCSEs the people that were getting the highest grades were the people typically that were good at memorising things. I found that for things that you are really interested in and passionate about you tend to do well. I wasn’t a big fan of reading textbooks but for subjects I was really interested in I could and it goes to show that if you look at the things you are really passionate about and try and explore and not be afraid to fail I think that is so powerful because it can lead you to so many other things.

Ruben de Noronha: In your book there were a few things that struck me. You said “knowledge is a commodity and much of it is perishable quickly becoming obsolete” and you also talked about how 65% of kids in primary school today will do jobs that do not currently exist. My question to you is what is the solution what can they do? I personally think that self-education is the new norm. There’s really no excuses now you can learn anything you want.

Craig Fenton: Learning is a lifelong cycle it exists on a daily basis, on an hourly basis and on a yearly basis.

Ruben de Noronha: We talked a bit about your book and where can people get your book by the way?

Craig Fenton: Amazon

Ruben de Noronha: I want to talk to you about the transition between Accenture and Google how did that happen and what led you to transition to Google?

Craig Fenton: So I had a great career as I said earlier, at Accenture. I have many people whom I call mentors. After a period, I felt I knew the environment pretty well. I felt that the learning curve was starting to plateau and actually paradoxically Accenture had offered me a new role which was a global role.

Ruben de Noronha: Lets talk a bit about recruitment. You’ve probably seen a lot of CVs during your time here and at Accenture. What are the character traits you look for in a successful candidate? What’s the best way to stand out because there’s a lot of competition out there.

Craig Fenton: I think the best way to stand out is to talk about who you are rather than what you’ve done. I pay very little interest to CVs. I’m immediately drawn to the section that generally sits at the bottom but I think should be at the top which is what has this person done outside of work and education.

Ruben de Noronha: Why is that important though?

Craig Fenton: Because it tells you something about the character of the person their ability to contribute to an environment of change and their resilience. It tells you something about whether that is the person you want to have a seat beside you much more than which university or other tertiary education they went to. You can teach life in University.

Ruben de Noronha: So your advice to people wanting to stand out is to talk more about what they do outside of work rather than just their qualifications and their experience

Craig Fenton: Talk about who you are what you believe in. Be authentic and talk about passions and interests.

Ruben de Noronha: We live in a world where we are so connected. Every time I look at my phone there’s notifications from email, social media so I was wondering how you manage your time as someone who’s really busy. In addition to your day job you invest in so many different companies you have the record label. How do you balance all of that because there is so much information coming at you?

Craig Fenton: I have a few techniques. As it relates to email I batch process. Today for example I didn’t look at email all day and set aside 30 minutes before you arrived to go through it so that was it. You can easily sit at your desk and all you do is answer emails so you’re incredibly busy and completely unproductive. Another technique is I block time in my diary just to think or to read. Yesterday I blocked time to disappear off to a quite area in the building and I read a piece of research about technology trends. I try to prioritise really ruthlessly so I have a 3 process system. I have 3 post it notes in front of me at all times at my desk with (WOT) what one thing. What one thing do I need to achieve this month, this week and today in order to call this a success. That helps crystallise for clarity.

Ruben de Noronha: You started a record label to give young artists an opportunity to enter the music space. How did that come about and how is it going so far?

Craig Fenton: Like most people I like music I listen to it! I was at the Brit Awards this week it was an amazing show. Stomzy is a wonderful example of the democratisation of platform technology because people no matter where they are from, who they are or where they come from have an opportunity to express themselves in a valuable way and make it. That simply wasn’t available. Stormzy’s story would not have been available 10 years or maybe 2 years ago.

I started to ask myself after the referendum in 2016 what I would do personally to help people who don’t or haven’t had the privilege that I have had, to make their mark. How can I give someone the oxygen to breath. It’s very easy to say the Government can do the job or these communities need to sort themselves out or there’s a lot of charities that do that. I think every person in society has an obligation to help at least one other person who hasn’t had the good fortune that you have and that’s where it was coming from for me.

I started mentoring this young chap from Mitcham and he was absolutely brilliant I thought. Very similar background to Stormzy.

Ruben de Noronha: How did you find him?

Craig Fenton: Contact of a contact of a contact I meet people rather randomly, but I ended up meeting him and I thought he was very good. His personal background was difficult in many ways. I helped him learn how to use a spreadsheet, create a budget to do an album and create a marketing plan.

It’s a for-profit business but a for-profit business with a social purpose. He’s an incredibly talented guy and he’s going to be huge.

Ruben de Noronha: I want to ask you a hypothetical question. If it was many years from now and it’s the last day for you and the books that you’ve written, the YouTube videos, the Linkedin posts are for whatever reason erased and you can write down three truths you know to be true from everything you know about life, business or whatever it may be. Three things that you would leave to the world of your biggest lessons what would those three things be?

Craig Fenton: that’s an interesting way of posing that question! I think the first would be that your life is measured by the impact you have on others. First and foremost, your family if you’re lucky enough to have kids your kids. Beyond that the measure of your success I think is the degree to which you can lift others.

Really understand what excites you and what you are passionate about and keep on doing that. That requires many whats many jobs, options, companies, pursuits.

Ruben de Noronha: So don’t always go for the name

Craig Fenton: Definitely not. Never take a job for the name, logo, title, size or the salary. These are trivial external markers none of them matter at the end of the day and it certainly won’t make you happy. Do what you love and don’t settle for less.

The third thing is we are here for such a short period of time and we can move humanity forward by staying curious. It’s the curious people in this world that ask the questions that find ways of doing things that move the world on in meaningful ways and that is personally exciting and leave a mark on the world.


Ruben de Noronha: What are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

Craig Fenton: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Ruben de Noronha: If you could have a gigantic billboard with anything on it metaphorically speaking getting a message out to millions of people what would it say and why?

Craig Fenton: Follow your passion

Ruben de Noronha: When you feel overwhelmed on unfocused or have lost your focus temporarily what do you do?

Craig Fenton: Sleep!

Ruben de Noronha: If you’re having a dinner party and you can invite 3 people dead or alive who would it be and why?

Craig Fenton: Nelson Mandella and I’m a huge fan of Jacinda Ardern who’s the current New Zealand Prime Minister a young leader who has an interesting and modern take on the world.

Ruben de Noronha: I think we are going to leave it there. I think people can take away so much from this interview and thanks so much for doing it!

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