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LEADERS SURVEY: Google Australia managing director Melanie Silva on risk taking, future of AI and leaning in

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Sarah-Jane Tasker
The Nightly
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Google Australia & NZ Managing Director Melanie Silva offers some wise career advice.
Google Australia & NZ Managing Director Melanie Silva offers some wise career advice. Credit: Nic Walker

Google’s Australia boss Mel Silva credits leaning into “the discomfort” as the key leadership advice that pushed her onto the path that secured her a top role with the global tech giant.

“It’s impossible to overstate how important and powerful it is to put your hand up for opportunities that stretch you,” Ms Silva told The Nightly for its exclusive Leaders Survey.

“It’s something I learnt early on in my career and has been the essence of my career journey — it actually sparked my move from banking into the tech industry.”

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Ms Silva, managing director and VP of Google Australia and New Zealand, said over the years leaders had nudged her to take risks and consider roles outside of her comfort zone.

She put that into practice when working at AMP and overhearing a colleague talk about a new internet project they were working on.

“I put my hand up right there and volunteered for this big, new opportunity,” Ms Silva recalled.

“Within a few years, that decision to take a risk and put my hand up opened up a whole new career pathway for me.

“That one little spark can be incredibly powerful — taking a risk, asking a question, leaning in and stretching yourself a little more than you think you probably should.”

Melanie Silva advised people to lean into discomfort.
Melanie Silva advised people to lean into discomfort. Credit: Nic Walker

The greatest leadership lesson she keeps in her arsenal is asking the right questions, adding it’s not about “knowing everything about everything”.

Ms Silva said the best outcomes often started by sparking the right debate, highlighting that was how problems got solved and was what she focussed on when it came to leading at Google.

“To me, it’s important not to get solely fixated on the solution but instead to focus on the problem and truly understand it,” she said.

“That’s how you’ll solve it, how you’ll identify the risk, and make the most of the opportunity.”

My advice is: ask the long-term questions first...

Artificial intelligence is the significant opportunity Ms Silva points to as a good example of leaning on that leadership lesson for an outcome that benefits not just her company but industries across the globe.

She said the number one question she got from business leaders was how best to use AI.

“My advice is: ask the long-term questions first … are we creating the right environment and culture to succeed in an AI-first world? What AI capabilities do you have in-house today and what will you need in three to five years? What problems are your competitors both here and abroad solving with AI? Focus on the questions just as much as the solution,” she said.

Ms Silva names AI as one of the most exciting opportunities for Australia right now, fuelled by the “world-class tech talent” in the country and a technology shift that creates opportunity at all levels of the economy.

Google Australia’s head added that she firmly believed Australia had the talent and resources to be a world leader in AI, just as the country was at the forefront of earlier waves of technology.

“Across the country, we’ve seen Australians asking endless questions about AI on Search, which is reflecting not only a fascination about what the technology is, but a strong desire to understand its potential to help with work or their daily lives,” Ms Silva said.

“Businesses, too, are looking to understand how they can harness AI to enhance their operations — or start entirely new companies.

“We are only in the very early stages of realising its true potential and it’s critical for Australia, a nation of innovators, to be at the forefront of this change.”

Ms Silva warned that realising that opportunity was not a given and required actions in the short and long term, adding there would be countries and economies that led the way, and “those who don’t”.

She also said the technology should be part of the conversation when talking about a key economic challenge for Australia — productivity.

“How can we fully utilise technology and build a digital future that enables more Australians to work smarter not just harder,” she said.

“What we are seeing with AI is innovation like never before and a remarkable opportunity to transform us economically and improve our productivity.”

She added it was vital companies, industries and countries treated the ethical and safety risks posed by the development of AI with the seriousness it deserved, outlining the need for co-operation on building, deploying and regulating it in a safe and responsible way.

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