How Olympians at Google handle hurdles at work
Clockwise, from top left: Kate Johnson, 2004 Olympics; Timothy Goebel, 2002 Olympics; Aleksandra Jarmolińska, 2020-2021 Olympics; Natalie Dell O’Brien, 2012 Olympics; Petri Kokko, 1994 Olympics; Matt Brittin, 1988 Olympics
Professional athletes are resilience experts. They’re constantly pushing their minds and bodies to new limits, all while staying motivated to reach their goals and tackle new challenges. If you don’t believe me, ask Matt Brittin. Matt is Google’s President of EMEA Business and Operations — as well as a former Olympian. Matt competed in the 1988 Olympics on the U.K. men’s rowing team, and he’s tapped into what got him to that stage in this last year. “We’re in a state of long term uncertainty and building resilience takes knowing yourself well and takes time,” he says. “It’s all about how you manage your energy and approach the unknown.”
As this year’s games come to a close, we asked Matt and several of other former Olympian Googlers to share how their experiences helped them in the workplace.
Petri Kokko - Country Sales Director of Brands, former Olympic figure skater
“Giving your maximum doesn't help you achieve optimal results, but working optimally will help you achieve your maximum effort,” says Petri, who represented Finland in figure skating at the 1992 and 1994 Olympics. “And often people, especially motivated people, think that the more they work the more they achieve and that's not the case. We’re not trying to achieve our best tomorrow, we’re trying to develop ourselves over the years.”
Petri falls back on his training to find a healthy work-life balance. He builds variation into his calendar, making sure some days and weeks are lighter, so he doesn’t burn out and can give his best over the long term. As an Olympic athlete, Petri learned the value of rest and recovery to avoid injuries and to deal with stress. At Google, mental health and wellbeing are highly valued, and these resources were expanded over the last year.
Aleksandra Jarmolińska - Cloud Software Engineer, former Olympic sports shooterCalling Aleksandra a “former” Olympian is nearly a misnomer — she just competed in this year’s games in Tokyo, as well as back in 2016. “I interviewed for my role at Google during the same month that I qualified for the Tokyo Games,” she says. Fresh off her competition, she says an important lesson she’s learned in her athletic career that translates to work is to keep trying. “This may be a bit of a cliche, but I always appreciated Samuel Beckett’s philosophy of: ‘Try. Fail. Persist. Fail better.’”
In sports shooting, she explains, you can’t necessarily succeed with athleticism, you need to step back, clear your head and adapt. “This applies to lots of things — programming included,” Aleksandra says. “I cannot count the times I’ve started from scratch on some feature I worked on.”
Timothy Goebel - Marketing Mix Modeling Partner Manager, former Olympic figure skater
“It’s important to adapt instead of just giving up when things are challenging,” says Timothy, who won a bronze medal in figure skating for the U.S. in 2002. “It’s about finding small wins, like effectively communicating with stakeholders and finding the humanity in each other. At the end of the day, we’re all teammates!” A strong, supportive community is just as important as the training itself, he says.
Natalie Dell O’Brien - Head of Industry for U.S. Financial Services, former Olympic rower
“We see Olympians as individuals, but you might not realize there’s a village of people they put into their orbit to support them,” says Nataile, who won the bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in the quadruple rowing event for the United States.
Like Petri, Natalie recalls her Olympic training schedule when tackling business planning, breaking things down into “digestible training blocks” and communicating smaller milestones with her team. But Natalie says her support system was equally important to her professional athletic career and she continues to build a similar network at Google.
“Some of the smartest decisions and biggest leaps in performance I made in my rowing career were made possible because I leaned on others for help,” Natalie said. “ And any time I’m up against a challenge at work, I remember that even Olympic athletes have ‘phone a friend’ moments. Vulnerability can lead to better performance.”
Kate Johnson - Marketing Director of Partnerships, Content & Sports Media, former Olympic rower
Kate, an American rower who won silver in 2004, joined Google during the pandemic, and it was challenging to virtually learn the culture and team dynamics. But she relied on the resiliency and prioritizing powers she’d honed as an athlete.
“In rowing, there’s a tipping point where the harder you try to get out of a performance slump, the worse you perform. It’s a tricky balance,” Kate says. “When I'm in a rut like this, the solution isn’t to try harder. Instead, in these moments, it's more important to go for a hike, or go for a run, clear your mind, whatever…then come back with a different mindset.”
Kate said she feels grateful to work at a company that prioritizes the overall health of its employees, which became increasingly important when Kate was diagnosed with breast cancer in May of this year. Kate makes use of Google's flexible leave offerings to manage her health, while communicating with her stakeholders to set expectations in a time when she needs to focus on her personal health and wellbeing. As Kate puts it, “remember that our personal worth is not tied to performance.”