Google HR Cluster Head for SSA Avanthi Maharaj on leading with compassion

Avanthi says joining Google was a dream come true.

Google’s HR Cluster Head for SSA Avanthi Maharaj joined Google as the SSA people partner in October 2019 and was promoted to the HR cluster head for SSA in May 2020. In her current role, she is responsible for South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana. Google’s total African team is roughly 150 people strong with goals to grow headcount and open new territories over the next few years. The internet services giant is focusing its attention on untapped African markets to bring more people online – this is part of the organisation’s ambitions to bring the internet to the next billion users.  

“Joining Google was a life-changing moment for me. It has been a huge learning curve. We are on an absolute trajectory of building the Africa vision and strategy. We want to bring Google to Africa in a way that is accessible to everybody. The knowledge that people have of Google on the African continent is minute compared to that in the rest of the world. Google is not just a search function, we have so many other products and business initiatives underway,” says Avanthi.   

Permission to dream big 

Avanthi hails from the small Kwa-Zulu Natal town of Verulam. While she was growing up, her family owned a shop in Durban. She has memories of studying for her matric exams in the car outside that shop. Her career ambitions came from her mother who encouraged her to achieve academically. 

“My inspiration came from my mother. She was a traditional Indian woman who was locked in a culture that was not supportive of women in the workplace at that time. She pushed both my sister and me to break that traditional mould of being a housewife or being married at an early age. She was fiercely independent and wanted to make sure that I had no dependencies when building my career.” 

Avanthi realised early on that she wanted to work with people and considered social work and psychology as possible avenues. She qualified through UNISA with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Psychology and Industrial Psychology and later a Certificate in Human Resources. Her first job was as an administrator at UNISA in 1996. Here her mother was once again supportive: “They phoned on a Friday to say that I got the job. The only catch was that I needed to show up for work on Monday morning. My mother and I got on a bus to Johannesburg the very next day.”

While she enjoyed her job at UNISA, she soon realised that she wanted to build a career in HR. Her route into HR was through recruiting working at recruitment agencies. She then transitioned into a role at ABSA where she was responsible for HR management of a large IT team.  “My love for IT has stayed with me throughout my career. I started as an IT recruiter and I navigate to roles that have a bit of that element. This is why Google is a good match for me,” says Avanthi. 

A defining role 

Avanthi’s career-defining role was at Mastercard where she was the HR director for SA and SSA. She travelled extensively across the various Mastercard African territories and built her ‘cultural muscles’ with on the ground experience with her African colleagues.  

“Getting SSA roles in South Africa are like hen’s teeth. There are very few companies that would take a chance on someone without sub-Saharan Africa experience. I had a fierce passion for and determination to break into the SSA realm. I wanted to learn and understand what is happening on the continent,” she comments. Her husband was a true champion of her vision as travelling was a major aspect of her role. “Knowing that my kids would be in the best hands of care and that I had his unconditional support was a huge help!”

For Avanthi, the role offered both incredible personal growth and the chance to define her philosophy as an HR leader. “Ajay Banga, the CEO of Mastercard used to say ‘I want to be the hand on your back to push you forward or catch you when you fall. Not the hand in your face to push you down.’ The fundamental goal of HR is to grow and build our people. My approach to HR is exactly the opposite of hiring and firing. It is a relationship and a dialogue between an employee and an organisation.” 

Google in a time of COVID 19 

The wellbeing of employees and their families is a top priority for Google. “When I joined Google, I was impressed by how inclusive and welcoming the organisation is. The employee wellness programme was very visible from the onset – looking after employees is a key differentiator,” says Avanthi. 

She doesn’t foresee a speedy return to the office despite the easing of lockdown restrictions. She believes that the organisation was ahead of the curve in terms of planning their response to the virus, saying staff are equipped to work from home for the next six to twelve months. The company has provided a $1,000 allowance to each employee to allow them to equip themselves with a comfortable work-from-home space. 

Google has also granted fourteen weeks of ‘carer’s leave’ for employees to take in the event that one of their family members contract the virus or if they need time off to sort out schooling arrangements for their children. We don't believe that there is a one-size-fits-all approach, and we look at every request individually. Some Googlers will need more time off than others depending on the specifics of their situation. “We understand that this is business unusual. It is such a privilege to know that your job is safe, you can still deliver and also look after your family. This ‘carer’s leave’ has resulted in huge employee goodwill and commitment. We are trying to make a better Google by being there for Googlers in the moments that matter the most,” says Avanthi.  

Google prioritises employee wellbeing and psychological safety. The employee wellness resources, tools and communities available at Google are extensive. During Covid-19, the company has run online training on how to manage work-life balance, psychological wellbeing and the prioritisation of work tasks. “Google has not asked employees to manage their psychological wellbeing in their own time. Your psychological wellbeing is part of how you deliver in the workplace. If we don’t take care of that element, we won’t get the best out of our employees,” adds Avanthi. 

Key to helping staff navigate the Covid-19 pandemic has been keeping the doors of dialogue between leaders and employees open. “The engagement of leadership to staff has been phenomenal; empathy and compassion have been the golden thread which the held the conversations together over the past months,” says Avanthi. She believes that having an open-door policy has been invaluable: “Our employees know that they can pick up the phone at any time. They know that they can share their concerns with zero judgement. It’s an ongoing engagement, not just a superficial occasional check-in with employees.”   

Making time to unwind

Avanthi admits that finding a good work-life balance over the past few months has been challenging. “It is hard to shut down when you have a vested interest in the wellbeing of so many people. It is also tough to disconnect when your home office is a few steps away from your bedroom.”  When she is not working, she spends time with her son and daughter and steals moments late at night to binge-watch a few Netflix series. She especially enjoys sci-fi and crime series.