Google’s Corey duBrowa on the Importance of Listening

June-July 2022
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Corey duBrowa is the vice president of global communications and public affairs for Google/Alphabet. Several PR trade publications have named him as one of the most important and influential in-house communicators worldwide.

In the past 20-plus years, his résumé includes serving as CCO of Salesforce, SVP of global communications at Starbucks and president at Waggener Edstrom. He joined Google in April 2018.

Here, duBrowa discusses the challenges of being a leader during the pandemic, the most-important leadership skills to hone and the energizing force of music.

The last two-plus years have tested the skills of leaders in ways that have never been done before. What new leadership skills have helped you to rise to the occasion?

The first was certainly leading from a distance. I had done it before for years without thinking all that consciously about it, but I really had to work to hone this skill as my global team continued to grow even as we were working remotely. Fortunately, technology has made this a lot easier.

The second is empathy. When you can’t “see” someone every day around the office, you find your antennae starting to work in ways they hadn’t previously. This has been a tremendously difficult two years for many — especially for people of color — and so it’s been important to me to do extra check-ins with my teammates and find different ways to stay connected while leading from a place of empathy.

And what are the leadership skills which you needed to rely on most?

The stubbornness and sheer “I will double down on my work rate” mindset that comes with being a coach’s kid definitely served me well during times of confusion and exhaustion. 

That said, I needed to modulate and modify these impulses to ensure that I could bring my leadership team, plus the entire team, even as it was growing, along with me. 

Nobody wants to shout out “who’s with me?,” run out the door, and find nobody beside you. So taking the occasional step back to really evaluate, Where are we? Who do I need to shore up? And even, occasionally, How do I take better care of myself? 

What are the leadership skills you tap most to lead on a global scale?

I’ve been privileged to live and work in many places around the world. Being on the ground in these places outside the U.S. gave me firsthand experience to know and understand these regions and cultures a bit more deeply; mostly what it did was spark curiosity and increase my desire to find points of connection with people from different cultures and backgrounds other than my own. 

I have drawn a great deal on those experiences to make sure that my leadership approach is scalable and that I’m not leaving teammates behind during critical moments. 

What are the leadership skills that are most important to hone, regardless of where one’s leading?

Listening is an incredibly underrated leadership skill and yet all the leaders I admire are both really curious (ask great questions, that come from a genuine place of wanting to better understand or fill in a blind spot in their knowledge base) and then listen/synthesize/process and take on board what they are hearing. 

One example: I learned such an incredible amount from watching Starbucks’ Howard Schultz over the course of eight years together. His natural curiosity and innate ability to connect are extraordinary — I’m not ashamed to admit how much I have tried to emulate some of the best of what I learned from him.

Employees, all humans, really, want to be valued, to be seen, to be understood — above all. The single best thing you can do to continue progress and make change when things aren’t working is to truly listen. 

What do you do to keep your leadership skills up to date, and, specifically, expand them for an ever-changing world?

Three things. Because I like things in sets of three.

Talk with my peers. Endlessly. I compare notes and “fail files” (aka what went wrong and what did we learn from it), and I find out how others are doing the job. There are so many brilliant communications leaders out there – we all benefit from leveraging one another’s knowledge. It’s amazing to work in a profession where you can still be learning nearly three decades into the journey, and peers are a huge part of that, for me.

Rely on industry leadership bodies like Arthur Page and Communications 50, which serve as great convening models to enable more peer connection. Similar to No. 1, these organizations help enable best-practice sharing and discovery, if you know where to look. 

My parents (late dad and stepmom) are college faculty — so keeping my network of academic instructors who study and know more and care about leadership ALIVE is important to me. 

Many people might be surprised to know that you’ve been a freelance writer and editor for Rolling Stone and other outlets. What’s the connection between music and leadership?

I’ve had a lifelong relationship with music: It was playing in my house as a kid, I played guitar in bands in high school and college. (I still dabble today; YouTube turns out to be a great tutor.)

The connection between music and leadership touches upon things I’ve discussed earlier: curiosity, discovery, listening, taking this creativity and conduit to life and processing it and finding the inspiration to apply it to the challenges and problems at hand.) 

Music can energize; it can answer questions; it can inspire; it can serve as a conduit to deep reflection; it can tap into parts of me that sometimes I’m not even conscious of. 

I find that keeping the music on is to keep the aperture open, the one where I am learning and living and connected. When you’re tired of music, you might be tired of life. I think it’s an endless source of, for me at least, the good stuff. 

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