Leading Google

Juggling family and career, UTS Alumni Award for Excellence recipient Maile Carnegie shares the story of how she came to lead technology giant Google.

Maile Carnegie

As Google Australia's first woman Managing Director Maile Carnegie is aware many people – particularly the young ones – think she's probably got the coolest job in the country. And they're probably right! This perception is reinforced during the first few minutes waiting for her in Google reception, on the fifth floor of their landmark building in Pyrmont, Sydney.

There's a tyre swing in reception – playground equipment rarely seen in a company foyer. Several employees appear and borrow the scooters which are waiting to be taken outside for a spin whenever a Google worker feels the need to unwind. Does she ever get a chance to snatch a scooter or take a swing herself?

"Not very often," she laughs. "But there's plenty of people who do."

Maile Carnegie (pronounced Miley, "as in Cyrus," she adds playfully) has been Google Australia's head honcho since July 2013. It was a job she wanted so desperately she didn't wait to be headhunted, phoning her predecessor Nick Leeder's office the moment she heard he was leaving.

The right fit

Carnegie spent just over 20 years at Procter & Gamble (P&G) in an ascending order of executive positions in Australia and internationally. Moving from a traditional global giant dealing with fast moving consumer goods to the unorthodox technology phenomenon like Google, leading the 800-strong team in Australia and New Zealand, surely must have been daunting.

"I knew there would be surprises and I was prepared for them. But, holy smoke, I underestimated the pace. The pace of innovation here at Google is mind-blowing."

"Not really," Carnegie says. "I love learning and I love innovation. So there wouldn't be a lot of jobs better than this one. There are things that are very different between Procter & Gamble and Google. But both firms are fundamentally concerned with doing what is right and trying to solve consumer problems. That's not actually what most companies focus on."

"P&G's innovation relies mainly on molecular structure, while Google relies on software, but both share a love of innovation. At the end of the day, a big chunk of Google's business model is selling advertising solutions, and that's something I know about from P&G. Personally, I've bought a lot of what Google sells, I understand the consumer mindset because I was a Google consumer for many years."

"And it's not as if I came to Google without having been involved in technology before. My career with P&G involved a lot of innovation work. I launched P&G's first designated website, Being Girl, for Tampax when I was working [at the company's international headquarters] in Cincinnati. I was on the leadership team which started an internet marketing service provider for P&G. And when I was working in Asia for P&G, I helped redraw how much of our Asian marketing was spent on digital campaigns."

"So I'd had a lot practical experience helping a big, complex organisation become more digital-centric."

Still, the transition wasn't straightforward. "The surprises aren't intellectual," Carnegie says. "I knew there would be surprises and I was prepared for them. But, holy smoke, I underestimated the pace. The pace of innovation here at Google is mind-blowing."

Early life

Now 44, and mother of two boys – Nicholas, 14, and Matthew, 11 – Carnegie spent much of her own childhood oscillating between Sydney and the US. Her parents met and married while serving with the US Peace Corps in Cameroon, West Africa. Her older sister Vicki was born on a stopover in London on their way back to the US. "My parents cut it a bit fine," says Carnegie. Maile Carnegie was born in Hawaii, where they lived until the family moved to Sydney when she was four.

"It felt like UTS had closer ties to the business community, and was driven by the idea of minting graduates who were grounded in theory, but had practical experience too. There was a diversity about the UTS course I loved."

Her father had his Master of Education, and her mother, her second degree in nursing. In 1974, while visiting the girls' grandparents, they went to the World's Fair in Spokane, Washington State. They got talking to someone in the Australian pavilion and heard that the family's airfares would be paid if they took teaching jobs in Australia for two years.

"At that time, Australia was chronically short of teachers," she explains. "My parents tried moving back to Washington State a few times to be near my grandparents, but they always ended up returning to Australia. I had dual citizenship, but I always felt I grew up here. "

Carnegie attended Cheltenham Girls' High, a public school, excelling in history, yet the course she chose at UTS was economics − something she never studied at school. Why?

"My motivation, and I wish I could say it was something more strategic than this, was choosing a subject as far away from teaching as humanly possible. My parents were both teachers, and so is my sister. My HSC grades meant I could have got into any commercial degree course in Australia. I chose UTS because it had a much more practical bent than other business or commercial courses at the time. It felt like UTS had closer ties to the business community, and was driven by the idea of minting graduates who were grounded in theory, but had practical experience too. There was a diversity about the UTS course I loved."

Finding the business focus

Carnegie moved out of the family home to live in Manly, and worked part-time with a local business in administration and then sales.

"It was a long commute from Manly to UTS, so I tended to make the most of it while I was at Business School. Then, about halfway through the marketing course a girlfriend and I decided we wanted to do a double major, which wasn't on offer at the time. We had to petition the Dean of the Business School to be able to do a second major in finance and economics," recalls Carnegie.

During her final year as a marketing student, Carnegie won a $2500 scholarship from P&G. "It paid for my airfare to travel through Europe once I'd graduated in 1991," she remembers.

"I've never subscribed to the idea work and life should be kept separate. To me, it's a juggling act.

But it also made her think of P&G as a possible career path. She joined the company in January 1992, as a brand assistant for products such as Whisper and NapiSan.

"I was lucky and got promoted pretty quickly. After three years I was brand manager of Olay, which is when I started managing people. For seven years I had a normal, linear career path in Australia. Then I started talking to the company in 1998 about working internationally with them. By then I was married. I met Charles at P&G: he was a brand assistant, a year ahead of me. He's now a management consultant. We needed to find somewhere my husband could work too. And since I'm a US citizen, he could get a green card," says Carnegie.

"I had dragged my feet for several weeks before accepting the position with Tampax, saying 'I'd love to do it, but you need to know I'm pregnant'. P&G were great. They said they were happy for me to stay in Australia for the birth and find me another role in the US later. But we decided to bite the bullet. We moved to Cincinnati in June 1999, when I was six months pregnant with our first son."

"I started with Tampax on 1 July, gave birth on 6 October, and was back at work on 1 December. Eight weeks' maternity leave is quite common in the US. If I'd been in Australia, I would probably have taken three months, but I wanted to show commitment to P&G."

After the family had been in the US for seven years, they knew they had to make a decision whether to stay there permanently or move back to Australia.

"The decision was made clearer when my mum was diagnosed with cancer. She's good now, a bit of a medical miracle."

The position back in Sydney looked good on paper, running strategy and marketing (2006−08), but Carnegie admits, "if I was looking at my life purely through a career lens, it wasn't a smart move." Then she was offered a promotion, based in Singapore, as head of marketing, strategy and design for Asia Pacific. After nine months "I also picked up a global role, running a global beauty care business."

The role meant a huge amount of travel, but Carnegie negotiated with P&G to take her children travelling with her during school holidays, sometimes joined by her father as an unpaid babysitter.

"I've never subscribed to the idea work and life should be kept separate. To me, it's a juggling act. But there were wonderful aspects; I got to spend time with my dad, which I wouldn't ordinarily have done."

In 2010 the family relocated from Singapore back to Sydney for Carnegie to take up the role of Managing Director of P&G Australia, a position she held for three years.

"Around 2012 I began to think, what's next? I knew whatever the next job would be it would mean another international move. And I wasn't excited about it anymore. I began to think, why am I doing this? I'm in my 40s, I have another 20 years of work in me. What do I want to do for the next 20 years?" This viewpoint is what spurred Carnegie to unabashedly go after the Google gig. She's still travelling regularly – visiting Googleplex corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California, every seven weeks or so, but home and family are here. "

What advice would Carnegie give current UTS students?

"The thing that is underplayed in Australia is the importance of STEM: science, technology, engineering and maths," she says without hesitation. "If I had my time at UTS over again, I'd spend more time on engineering. It doesn't matter what industry you end up in, you'll be working for a technology company. "No company can afford not to leverage technology anymore. It's our version of the Industrial Revolution. Just as you wouldn't dream of a company not using electricity, every company in the world is increasingly using technology. "

Story by Steve Meacham
Photo by Wade Laube