The Power of Transformational Learning and Development with Kathrin O’Sullivan

This episode’s guest is Kathrin O’Sullivan. Kathrin is the Head of Cross-Functional Leadership Development at Google.  She leads a team of people who help Googlers exercise leadership to transform themselves, Google, and the world.

In her career, she has enjoyed working in different leadership positions across HR, Sales, Operations, and Business Development. She strives to facilitate an environment to help people become more self aware and clear about their values and goals, and to design strategies and practices that lead to self-excellence. Kathrin was a featured presenter at the 2013 Emerging Women Live Conference in Boulder, CO.

In this episode, Kathrin and I speak about:

  • How she is able to help “Googlers” transform themselves into leaders.
  • What kind of practices they use at Google to foster development.
  • The vulnerability present in sharing your true self.
  • How Google is helping the advancement of current employees especially women in a male dominated field.
  • The definition of Unconscious Bias and how it plays a role in keeping women from rising in business
  • The potential reach of Google and social media, and the role they could play in changing the world.


Tune in to listen to my conversation “The Power of Transformational Learning and Development” with Kathrin O’Sullivan.

Subscribe to the Emerging Women podcast on iTunes.



Chantal Pierrat Hi, Kathrin! Welcome!

Kathrin O’Sullivan: Hi, Chantal!

CP: Thanks for setting the time aside. I know you’re a busy woman over there at Google.

KO: It’s a real pleasure to talk to you. I’m excited about this.

CP: Yay! So for those of you who are listening and were not at the event, Kathrin was part of our panel at the Emerging Women Live 2013 event in Boulder this past October. She was on a panel that was called “Game Changers” with other women in learning and organizational development at companies like Facebook and LinkedIn and Google and Twitter. So I wanted to highlight some of the things that came out in that conversation and explore some of those topics a little bit deeper. So maybe we could just launch in with a little short description of exactly what you do at Google.

KO: Well, I’m responsible for leadership development at Google. So I am helping Googlers exercise leadership to transform themselves, Google, and the world. That’s kind of our grand mission. And what that means is helping Googlers really own their leadership journey as they develop in their career and take bigger and bigger assignments and are more responsible for bigger scopes of business.

CP: So here’s my question with that. You know, Emerging Women, our tagline is “live the truth of who you are,” and it’s kind of a tall order, in general, just as a human being. I’m curious to see how much, when you say that you are responsible for developing programs that will encourage Googlers to transform themselves and their work, how deep does that go, when you say “transform themselves”?

KO: If we talk about real transformation, it goes pretty deep. We give people the choice. Some people might not want to choose to go any deeper than some transaction they’re learning. Other people are really open to going really deep and really looking hard at who they are as people and how they influence the world around them.

CP: Have you been doing a lot of these programs, and if you have, what kind of results have you noticed over time when you bring on programs that actually allow people to deep-dive inward and to self-reflect?

KO: We’ve really seen amazing results. I design and develop some of these programs and I also deliver some of them, so I’m actually in the classroom and I see it happen. A lot of what we do we do over time, and we follow up with people over time to see how the learning gets implemented in the workplace.

Of course, when it comes to more like “softer” skills, it is a little bit harder to exactly determine how it affects the bottom line. But what I can definitely see as people who have become a little bit more self-aware as a result of our programs or who have a deeper grounding in their purpose as a leader are definitely able to enroll their teams, to influence, to work across boundaries, and to become a lot more collaborative and open. Which, in our ambiguous world, in a tech company where we constantly innovate, it’s just a really, really important skill to have [as] a leader.

CP: Give us an example of that. Is it more like meditation or is there some sharing, some personal stories being shared? Are people getting vulnerable? Maybe if you give us a little bit more of the context, we could picture that a little bit.

KO: Sure, sure. It’s anything from—we do have meditation classes. That’s not so much in my path, but we do actually teach people how to meditate. And that is part of a leadership development journey. What we do is really trying to have people self-reflect. And we do that with different tools [that] could be personality assessments, could be 360s, could be discussions with their peer group.

We teach people storytelling—how do you tell a good story and how do you give away a piece of yourself that you would normally hide in order to make an emotional connection to others? Sometimes that goes pretty deep. We teach the importance of being present as a leader, so we’re actually doing briefing exercises and we do some somatic exercises.

And a lot of it is really around reflection and feedback—giving people time out of their busy schedule to actually sit down, be quiet, tap into their inner wisdom, and tap into what other people can give them that they don’t see about themselves.

CP: Do you find people, when they’re in this situation, that it’s hard for them? And we’re going to get into the sort of masculine/feminine dynamic here soon. But just in general, is the environment such that people are freely sharing their innermost beings? Because that can be very vulnerable, and I just wonder—I know myself, in a professional setting, it’s been hard for me to overcome that vulnerability and to truly, truly share. What are you seeing at Google?

KO: Yes. It’s really interesting. I’ve been working in the software industry for a long time, and I’ve definitely found that the minute I stepped into Google, it was already easier to be me. It’s such a precious culture where we really encourage diversity and people bringing their whole self to work. So the environment in itself is already kind of a nice, fertile ground for deeper work.

And then in the classes, we’re trying to be skillful about it as facilitators. So it’s not like, in the first five minutes, we’re asking people to go super deep. We’re trying to build an environment of trust and it starts with us as facilitators sharing something about ourselves that we would not normally share. We start opening the space or holding the space.

And we’re not forcing anything, you know. If people don’t want to go deep, they don’t have to, but a lot of people are really, really open and I’ve seen—and you’ve seen this, right?—the energy in the room changes when a few people start and then it’s easier for other people to open up, too.

CP: Right. That is one of the reasons why we brought Brené Brown and her work on vulnerability into Emerging Women, because the possibility of living the truth of who you are and to stay aligned with who you are is much greater when you’re willing to be vulnerable. And when [we’re] not willing to be vulnerable, we tend to put up armor and we start telling a different story than what’s really happening on the inside. So I applaud you guys over at Google for creating an environment that makes it comfortable for people to take those first steps. Because nothing happens without that. First you have to be vulnerable.

KO: Yes. We actually use Brené Brown’s TED talk in one of our courses to reinforce that message. I feel so lucky to be working at Google, and I feel a great responsibility to bring this culture to the world. We don’t want to keep it to ourselves. We want to make the world a better place, and it starts with people, right? If we can do it, other companies can do it, too.

I often ask myself the question: What is it that we can do, not just in the workplace as learning and development professionals, but in general, how can we influence business to become more open to things like vulnerability and experimentation and employees being able to speak their truth without having to worry about it?

CP: Right. That is a question. What is the opportunity here, given that you have the culture? There are people at very traditional companies that are going to want to go and work at Google, but not everybody has that opportunity. How do we take that culture, where it’s very open, to people’s own truths being expressed and being processed within a group setting? How can that actually be leveraged across other corporate cultures? Do you guys ever talk about that?

KO: Yes, we definitely do. And we do share. We use media to share some of our learnings. We’ve published studies around, for example, what makes a great manager at Google. We definitely also—the meditation program that we have, which is called “Search Inside Yourself,” is now going to other companies.  I know that LinkedIn, for example, [is] running a pilot at the moment. So we’re really trying to share what we have, and I think there’s a bigger opportunity there.

It’s really about not just sharing what we have [with] the people who are looking for it, but how can we help people who are not even thinking about it right now? How can we show them that it’s so beneficial for business and that it might be worthwhile to them to look into as well?

CP: Right. Let me ask you a question. As a woman at Google, and also somebody in charge of learning and development at Google, do you notice that there are some opportunities to give women an extra niche focus within your programming? And is there a need, even?

KO: That’s a really good question. We all know that we don’t have enough women, especially in the tech part of the business. This is not a Google-specific problem, but we know that [in] the tech industry there’s just a huge lack of women. There’s only 27 percent of computer science graduates that are women, so it starts early. So we’re all on board to help women advance and to really attract more women to the tech industry.

In terms of if they’re a niche, I’m not sure. I think it would be awesome if we had an equal amount of women and men across the board in every single department. I think it would be great for the company.

CP: I think I’m speaking less about the amount of women, but the women that are there, do you feel like they could—what are some of the issues that you’re seeing that could actually, if they had a little bit more attention to them, women would feel a little bit more comfortable. Some of the issues that we’re hearing [are] they’re not part of the board, or they’re not advanced to the executive level. And part of this is a numbers game, but part of it is also maybe there’s some truth that women can’t negotiate or they’re not as good of [negotiators] as men.

For me, it just feels like the issues are so nuanced and complicated. I’m curious to see, at a company that is so progressive like Google, whether or not you’re seeing patterns or whether or not there’s any attention being brought to advancing the women that are there.

KO: For sure. We have a lot of initiatives, but one thing that I would really like to call out is really the hot topic currently, [which] is [to] help educate everybody in the company around unconscious bias. So basically, what are the invisible barriers to women’s advancements? What are the cultural beliefs about gender and workplace structures that might favor men? So what we’re currently doing is we’re educated every single manager in Google about what unconscious bias is. And then also, we’re trying to get to the whole population over time.

In terms of helping women, we’re actually going to run a pilot very soon, in December, with a group of tech women, so women engineers. And what we want to do is we want them to identify, “What are the issues that you would like to change so that you can advance and so that you can be more happy in the workplace?” And we’re actually going to work in small groups with executive sponsors to try some experiments that might facilitate some systems change.

So we’re really trying to be proactive about it, to use the women to influence the system. So our value to be to educate them and to teach them some systems thinking skills and introspection and self-reflection, etc. But then have them go out and empower them to change something. I wish we could fast forward six months and I could tell you the results now. We don’t have the results yet, but I think we’re onto something really good.

CP: I would love to do a follow-up on that and hear more about that. That’s exactly, I think, the approach that makes sense, to incorporate women and have them identify the issues and create the solutions. That feels pretty progressive.

KO: Yes, yes. We have a lot of really good structures and benefits and the culture of flexibility in place, [and] I really think that we’re kind of leading with that. But it doesn’t seem to be enough. There is more to do, and I think really putting it into the hands of the women and [giving] them the support will hopefully help us understand the system better in terms of where we still need to make changes.

CP: Now, tell me what you mean when you’re using the term “unconscious bias.” Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

KO: Yes. The really interesting thing [is] because it’s unconscious, it’s hard to know what kind of biases we have. There are different tests that you can do that actually show you how biased or not biased you are. I did one, and to me it was really eye-opening that there is some part of me that has some biases that I consciously had no idea I had. It was such an eye-opener, it was so important for me to see. And we’re doing that with every one of our employees who go through that training.

It’s hard to generalize because it’s different for everyone. But for some reason, there will still be beliefs or structures in the workplace that favor men, right? Otherwise we would have more women leaders.

CP: Yes. I think one that I heard that’s kind of a good example is that there’s this idea that women are great with [being] task-oriented, and yet they’re not visionary. And that’s something that keeps self-perpetuating itself, where women themselves don’t believe that they’re as visionary. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s almost like a rumor that just becomes true.

That’s how I understood unconscious bias, and then everybody feels like, “OK, now it’s time to hire a visionary,” and those positions are very rarely—it’s a very, very low percentage of women in the visionary roles. More so than any other offices or board members. So it’s fascinating to see, if we could all take those tests, it might illuminate a little but more on some of these patterns that we’re seeing that keep reinforcing each other.

KO: Yes. So those tests are called implicit association tests, and you can just Google and you can try it out for yourself. But yes, I think the trouble with conscious bias is that at some level, it communicates to women that they are ill-suited for certain leadership roles, right?

CP: Right.

KO: And I think it really interferes with a woman’s ability to see herself as a leader or be seen by others as a leader. And that’s the unfortunate part. It’s unconscious and it needs to be conscious. It needs to be made conscious so that we can do something about it.

CP: Right. I guess that’s where I was kind of going with—to me, a lot of this is about self-concept and less about the skill work of, “OK, we’re going to teach women to be negotiators, or we’re going to teach women to ask for the raise.” I do think those things are relevant, but I feel a strong pull towards the work of self-concept and self-awareness and breaking those barriers between the subconscious and the unconscious.

And one of the ones that I just used was visionary. The percentage of women that see themselves as [visionaries], as opposed to the percentage of men that see themselves as visionaries. There’s just no comparison. And I wonder if that might be a place to direct some of the development programs to see if there can be more women-specific programs that could help change that self-concept a little bit.

KO: Absolutely. We’ve done some work with some of the leading professors in women’s studies and women’s advancement, and they’ve advised us on two things. They said, “You know, if you really want to make a big difference, do two things: Number one, educate everybody in the company on unconscious bias. Number two, help women identify their leadership identity and their leadership purpose.”

I think that’s what you are talking about. We call it “vertical development” versus horizontal development. So vertical development meaning, looking deep, looking [at] who you are, what you stand for, what your values are, what you want to be as a leader or how you want to be as a leader.

And both [are] really important, right? It’s really helpful to be taught brilliant negotiation skills. But it’s also really important to know, “What do I actually want to negotiate? What’s important to me? What do I want to negotiate for? Where do I want to put my energy in?” And I can only do that if I know what I stand for as a leader and what kind of impact I want to have with my leadership.

CP: Right. I love that question: “What kind of leader am I? What kind of leader do I want to be?” Because it’s really about who we are as unique individuals, and how that gets expressed as a leader is unique to each and every one of us.

KO: Yes. And I see it often, because our population is quite young and we have a lot of people who are on the fast track to leadership. And I can see people who come into the company and who are super ambitious and brilliant at their job, and they seem to be motivated by something outside of themselves. The motivation is to climb the ladder, the motivation is to prove that they can do it.

And I was like that when I was in my 20s and even in my early 30s. But at some point there’s a shift, where it’s not so much about—maybe it’s a little bit less, “This is what I want,” but it’s more, “This is what life wants from me. This is what the company needs from me.”

CP: Yes. I feel that Google has such an opportunity with their reach to reach out to women who do not have access, for instance, to the Internet or other women, and they’re in places of danger, like Afghanistan or third-world countries where women are not treated very well. Of course, that’s not relegated to third-world countries. But I’m curious to see if Google has done anything, or even in your department of development—does it reach beyond Googlers and into the rest of the world, where women’s education along these [lines of] self-concept and skills work and just connection to other women or other people through social media and the web? [Is] that ever a mandate or a vision or a mission of you and/or Google?

KO: Definitely. There [are] so many different initiatives. Community outreach is really important, and some of it is helping women entrepreneurs on the web advance, especially in other countries that are maybe not so wealthy as the United States and Europe. But also to do good in the world. There is YouTube and Google+ and many other products that are used by Googlers and by other people to really create awareness.

We have a week every year, we call it GoogleServe, where we give our time as Googlers to a good cause. And some of them go to women’s causes as well. But Googlers choose that. Googlers choose who they want to give their time to or what project they want to support.

CP: I think my question was more like systemically, is there a way to—and this might be just you and me dreaming and coming up with ideas—but is there a way for Google to get in with the governments of some of these [countries] and deliver technology to women in the most remote places and somehow make it culturally OK for women to have access to information through the web? I mean, you can really Google anything, like “repression,” you know?

And maybe that’s too big of a topic here, but I do feel like there is an opportunity for a company like Google that has this progressive mindset to reach outside even their own community base and to create programs that would help both in hard access, but also with the self-concept. I guess maybe I’m doing more of an ask.

KO: No, I hear you, I hear you. There is a lot of stuff that we already do. I don’t have the exact information, but I know that with, we’ve done things like partnering with 10×10, which is a social action campaign dedicated to educating girls, for example. We support the International Day of the Girl. I don’t want to make it a big Google marketing campaign, right, but I want to say that there is a lot of great stuff that we are doing.

And we can always do more. I’m really welcoming ideas and input of what we can do. And maybe also how we can pool together with other Silicon Valley companies or other companies in the world to make the world a better place.

CP: Right. That, I think, is the opportunity here, especially with the community that we’re building with Emerging Women. It’s just that we don’t know—there may be somebody listening here who has an organization in one of these countries that could use some support, and maybe something brilliant comes of it from just listening to this podcast.

So when I’m talking to somebody like you [who is] connected to a company like Google, I just always want to throw that opportunity out there so that both you, and Google, but also the listeners are keeping this in mind, especially since you guys are really seeming to have your heart in this. You are an open company and it feels like you are well-poised to lead this new way of doing business, if you’re not already doing so.

KO: Yes. I’m on board, for sure. And I know our leadership is as well. Any thoughts, any comments, I’m open.

CP: Great. Well, Kathrin, it was great to speak to you today, as it was during the events. And just thank you so much for your time.

KO: It’s been a pleasure talking to you, thank you!

CP: Thank you!

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Chantal Pierrat

Founder & CEO
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