How The Head of Retention at Google Infuses Empathy Into Her Leadership Style

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Rachel Spivey

Photo courtesy of Google.

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“I have been at Google for almost 13 years, and in this time I’ve gone through bad breakups; lost my mother; been depressed; gotten married; and had a kid” shares Rachel Spivey, the Head of the Stay and Thrive Team at Google. Through all of it, Spivey notes that she’s grown up at Google. “I know life happens while you’re at work, and I keep that in mind as I lead people,” she says.

As a result of this people-first mentality, Spivey has developed an admirable direct, transparent and empathetic approach to leadership. “I try to ensure that the employee, as a whole person, feels supported,” she shares. “I am empathetic and ensure that their well being is top of mind.”

Spivey makes sure to always ask her team how they are doing and to check in with them on a personal level. “You can't not experience life while you're working,” she explains. “I want to make sure that my team members know that acknowledging life is an important part of the process. For example, I’m open about my mental health. Not everyday will be a good day. Some days I am really productive, and other days I don't get much done. Underrepresented women feel the need to always be perfect when nobody is — that’s not realistic.”

Spivey’s approach to leadership stems all the way from her start at Google. “There weren't many role models in the sense that there weren't that many Black Googlers when I entered the company,” she tells us. “So, I had to find my own pace of what worked for me as a young Black employee from BC starting at a tech company in California.”

“In response, I operate as an owner,” Spivey explains. “I cherish Google, and I want to make sure that it gets better, but I'm also gonna challenge it. That's why I intentionally lead with empathy because I think this is where we need to go as a company. I intentionally call out my darkest times at this company because every time I acknowledge that I've been depressed at work, I get so many responses from other Googlers, who thank me for being honest about my experiences. And, so, I challenge Google to be better and to be more inclusive and to be more forward thinking and to accommodate everyone. So, as an owner, I respect where we are, but also know that we need to go further."

Spivey’s racial justice work at Google. Photos courtesy of Google.

In this article, Spivey reveals more about her life at Google and how she succeeds as a trailblazing leader.

Tell us a bit about your job. What’s your current role, how long have you been in this role, and what were you doing previously? 

I lead the Stay and Thrive Team, where we try to make sure that retention and progression rates are at parity across race and gender lines. I've been in this leadership role for four and a half years. Prior to this, I used to be the community inclusion adviser for both our Black Googler Network as well as our Hispanic Googler Network, also known as Hola.

What has made you stay at Google for over 12 years?

I think Google is the perfect balance of stability and innovation. We are here to stay, and we believe in our employees. We are bold and audacious. I agree with the leadership here. I believe they have good hearts and want to do the right thing. The longer I stay, the more I realize that I get to see the seeds that I've planted grow and have impact. I get to see the fruits of my labor. I want to stay and witness it all.

And, knowing that Google actually has a team dedicated to retention speaks VOLUMES about who they are, who they want to be and who they want to keep.

While at Google, how did you build the Stay and Thrive Team? 

The first woman who I worked with, she luckily decided to take on the mission with me around retention — a mission that no one initially wanted to do. I remember in another interview, someone asked me, “How did you get this big important job?” I answered, “No one wanted it. That's how I got it.

It was scary and unknown, and it took a long time for people to even be interested in the work. So, the way we grew the team was nothing short of a miracle. We were doing the right thing for the company and for our employees over time. We slowly added people and then, in 2020, as part of our equity commitments, Google announced that they were going to triple my team. But, what actually happened, was my team quadrupled! More and more people wanted to get on board. I'm appreciative of the growth, and I think it happened through doing good over time. By doing the right thing for our clients and our Googlers and then starting to see the results.

How has your day-to-day work changed since you went into leadership at your company?

Leadership changes everything about your job. I am not just an individual contributor. I’m a strategist, futurist, manager, counselor and coach. There are so many different transitions from being an individual contributor who supports work versus someone who's driving the work in the business.

A big part of leadership is retention — making sure your employees are engaged and feel supported. I take the time to invest in my employees, and I’ve seen the consequences of not doing so. 

Something unique about my leadership is that I started in an entry-level role, so I actually know how to do the job of the people that I am leading and am unafraid to roll up my sleeves and work with them. 

Photo courtesy of Google.

Could you tell us more about how you support your employees?

I let people show up as they are by enabling them to choose their identity and show up as that

To create a space for everyone, my team does something called BLANK SPACE, where we talk about anything work or non-work related and open up as a team. This helped me realize that I don't need to have it all figured out. I need to be there, show up and support any way that works for an employee.

What is your No. 1 piece of advice for other people who are moving into or want to move into leadership? 

Raise your hand for the right opportunity. I know so many ambitious women who want to do more, and women often feel the need to carry the load and take on the burden of it all. However, taking on more doesn’t necessarily mean advancement, and it doesn't always mean you will have visibility and shine where necessary. So focus on the right opportunities that are going to advance you and provide you with the additional visibility you need to shine.

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