Navigating Tough Decisions

15 mins read
Published on Jan 24, 2024

In the ever-evolving realm of global business, leadership demands the ability to make challenging decisions. Gonzalo Ruiz Calvero, the Director of Recruiting at Google APAC, boasts 37 years of diverse global experiences and shares invaluable insights on navigating difficult decisions in both personal and professional spheres. This blog post delves into Gonzalo’s wisdom, acknowledging his missteps and learning experiences.

Envisioning the Future: Decisiveness with Foresight

Gonzalo underscores the significance of envisioning the future, advocating for strategic decisions aligned with one’s vision. He emphasises the importance of being resolute in making tough decisions, even if their wisdom isn’t immediately apparent. A vivid example from his youth as a HR Leader involves challenging the prevailing pension plan system, facing opposition, and ultimately making a decision that stood the test of time. Gonzalo encourages a forward-thinking mindset, urging individuals to consider multiple future scenarios, take decisive actions, and adapt as necessary.

Reflection Question: What long-term vision do you have for your career or personal life, and what tough decisions might be necessary to align with that vision?

Balancing Life’s Pillars: A Recipe for Resilience

Gonzalo’s life is anchored in three pillars: self-care, family, and contributing to others. This holistic approach provides a robust foundation for maintaining positivity in the face of challenges. The philosophy underscores that personal well-being and meaningful connections contribute to resilience during tough times. Gonzalo shares a powerful quote, likening one’s value to a crumpled thousand-dollar bill—unchanged despite life’s many obstacles and hard knocks. Stay strong; the sunshine will come again.

Reflective Question: What are some important pillars in your life that keeps you balanced?

How can you integrate these pillars into your daily life to create a more balanced and resilient approach to challenges?

⌛ Embrace a Human-Centric Approach

Gonzalo aspires to be remembered for his positive influence, embodying a human-centric leadership philosophy. He was not always like this. He shared an experience in his earlier years where he approached difficult decisions from a technical perspective, and “it was a way also to hide himself from facing the human beings impacted.” But he learned later on that a human-centric approach means acknowledging the emotional aspects, providing support during challenging times, and fostering a culture where even in difficult decisions, micro-moments of empathy and understanding are prioritized. This goes beyond professional accomplishments, focusing on actively contributing to the growth and well-being of individuals.

Reflection Question: How can leaders, like Gonzalo, integrate empathy, active listening, and a commitment to well-being into their decision-making processes? 

Check out the full interview here on Youtube.

Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Gonzalo: Welcome back, my dear friends, to another episode of the Handful of Leaves podcast. By now you should recognize my voice. I’m Cheryl. Today we have with us Gonzalo, the director of Google Recruiting APAC, and he has under his belt over 30 years of experience in the people and talent industry, working across countries like Greece, Spain, Germany, US, and of course, Singapore.

[00:00:23] Welcome to the podcast, Gonzalo. 

[00:00:27] Thanks for having me here. 

[00:00:28] Happy to have you here. So some context. So Gonzalo and I, we were having a casual chat. It was a Friday afternoon with a couple of colleagues, and he was sharing his experiences in his career, including making tough decisions, such as laying people off in his career.

[00:00:44] And I was standing there. I was like, we got to learn more about this. And then I asked Gonzalo. I said, Hey Gonzalo. Uh, you know, I run a podcast on the side and I wanted to invite him and I remember Gonzalo’s first response was, Oh, I don’t do anything Buddhist. I’m not sure if I’m the right person for this, um, but after a little bit of convincing, Gonzalo finally said yes.

[00:01:07] So thank you and welcome to the podcast once again, and I’ll hand it over to you, Gonzalo, to maybe share a little bit more about your experiences. 

[00:01:16] Well, thank you very much, Cheryl. Maybe just to share that I am from Spain, which is a small country in the southwest of Europe. This is where I was born. This is where I grew up, but then when I started my professional life, I had to move internationally, which I don’t regret.

[00:01:35] I’m married. I have three children. So also part of my life is the journey of bringing my family along through those life changes. which are complicated. But yeah, very happy that we landed in Singapore at the end, where I have been working for the past 14 years. 

[00:01:54] And what’s your favorite food in Singapore?

[00:01:58] Oh, look, I am a foodie. So I love so much food that I cannot decide on just one dish, right? The same if you ask me which of the three children that you have, you love most, you cannot say. They’re very different, right? Yeah, they’re very, very different, but you love them. This is different, but the same, right?

[00:02:20] That happens with food. I love so many dishes, but if I see a bowl of laksa, That’s something I cannot hold off. I need to eat it.

[00:02:34] Wow, there are so many good laksas in Singapore as well. Katong Laksa, the one in Queenstown, yummy. 

[00:02:40] Great. So we are going to talk today about the theme of making tough decisions. And I think this is very personal, to all of us, because at some point or the other. We all have to make a tough decision, whether it’s deciding if I should marry this person or that person. Or, deciding about changing jobs. We all have to make these tough decisions. 

[00:03:03] So let’s get started with this question. Gonzalo, can you share some of your experiences with making tough decisions?

[00:03:11] Mm. Um, wow. So, um, I mean, of course, when you have worked for 37 years, in the world, you experienced a lot of very tough situations.

[00:03:26] And I have gone through a lot of rounds of layoffs, but I would say just to pick one moment that sticks in my mind as a very tough time in my life was actually not about layoffs. It was a time when I was very young, I was still working in Spain, in my home country and there was this decision about the pension plan for those of you who know a little bit about pension plans in companies, there are basically two approaches to pension plans, one is when the company says, when you retire, I’m going to pay you whatever, 5, 000SGD per year. And when you retire, that’s the money you get. And the other approach is I’m going to put in a bank 50$ and then when you retire, you just get the money that is accumulated now. In Spain, it was the first thing, it was a promise to get a fixed payment for your lifetime.

[00:04:32] And back then, when I was a very young guy, and I am an economist by background, so I love numbers, and I realized that the pension system would not be sustainable. And that is something that people talk about a lot now here in the world, in the current world where everybody is challenging the social security systems.

[00:04:54] Singapore is in a privileged situation because they have a CPF system, which is exactly what I was proposing back then. I was proposing, we need to shift to a model where we put every month, some money in a bank. And when you retire, if you’ve worked many years, you get more money. But back then I was very young.

[00:05:11] And my boss was against that change and all the employees were against those changes. And so I was basically pretty much alone in that, uh, endeavor. But I was absolutely convinced that looking into the future. That would be the right decision to make if you really care for your employees, even if they did not understand that was the right thing.

[00:05:34] So I had to fight against a lot of very important people in the company, but I managed to do it. I survived. I didn’t get laid off because of that. And moving forward, 25 years later, it was the right decision. Now people say this was a no-brainer decision, and that’s funny. Sometimes the toughest decisions that you make, are in the moment when they are not understood.

[00:06:00] And maybe 10 years later, people say, Oh, that’s normal, right? You need to have the courage to make those tough decisions at the right time. 

[00:06:09] It seems like you were ahead of your time making a decision that at that point, nobody understood. What gave you the courage? 

[00:06:18] Well, but this is something, maybe it’s one of the anchor values that I have guiding my decisions, also in my personal life. And it’s about thinking about the future and making decisions today that maybe you, nobody else understand that you know they’re the right ones because they are aligned with your vision of the future. You might be wrong on your vision, but at least you’re making strategic decisions, right?

[00:06:49] And it was like that. You asked me about also the personal side of those decisions. And, you know, when I was 18 years old, I got a scholarship from, an organization connected to the United Nations. And they offer me to go to the U.S to study there. And when I told my friends, my schoolmates, they said, why are you going to the U.S.? I mean, you’re 18 here in this country. We can go out and party and good weather and good food. I said, no, I have to go because I think it will be important in the future to speak English, to understand the American culture, to be international, you know, fast forward, I was given international opportunities because I made that decision.

[00:07:32] Now, my friends, they say, “Oh, you’re lucky because you went to the U. S. and you speak English. Therefore, you get good job opportunities, right?” Yeah. But I went to the U. S. I took the tough decision to go by myself when I was 18 while they were enjoying home and friends and parties.

[00:07:50] It’s very interesting because making tough decisions is very anchored to your vision of the future. And a lot of my peers, when I speak to them, are not sure what the future looks like. I think most people don’t even know what they will eat next week. So how do you get clarity on the future or at least a glimpse of the vision? 

[00:08:12] Well, I don’t know. I guess you have to, I don’t know. I don’t think there is a recipe for that.

[00:08:18] Maybe something that you have inside, have that curiosity about envisioning the future. I do read a lot also about trends and megatrends. You need to have a lot of critical thinking too, in order not to be biased by what you want the future to be and not what the future will probably be, right?

[00:08:44] And then also not having a fixed mindset of there’s going to be only one future. That’s the problem, I think. Most people see a career path as a single road, and I think you need to have vague scenarios of what can happen and then take decisions and actions towards that direction, not knowing exactly where you will land, but at least you can start walking in one direction, and if there are things that come your way, okay, you might have to stop a little bit or to jump a bump or take a little detour, but never change where you think you have to go, right?

[00:09:26] Never change the direction of where you think you have to go

[00:09:32] Now I’m a bit cheeky here and I’m a little bit curious.

[00:09:37] Have you had a decision where it’s very tough, you think it was right and you made that decision? And looking back, like, Oh, it was a completely shitty decision. 

[00:09:50] Yeah. Yeah. I, yes, I’ve done a lot of those and we are human beings. We make mistakes, right? And, and it’s okay.

[00:10:01] As long as you realize that you’ve made a mistake, as long as you are aware of what was missing in your approach to deciding so that you learn right and some of the mistakes that I made in my career was the first time that I had to do layoffs. When you are young you think that there is a right way to do layoffs, it’s a technical problem that you just need to think through and what are the things that you get to do and your checklist.

[00:10:37] But when you are young, you don’t have the full picture of the complexity of a layoff process. There are so many aspects that you need to consider. And I made mistakes. Why? Because I said, okay, I have to make a layoff. This is the number of people that have to go. This is the criteria.

[00:10:56] These are the names, what is the legal process? We execute. And then you realize that you forgot about financial implications, legal implications. There are so many stakeholders, and communication. And most importantly, have you consulted with employees or representatives? But I guess that because now I am older and I’ve gone through many of those processes, I was able to understand the complexity, the full complexity of a layoff process.

[00:11:26] Some things are technical, some things are just emotional or leadership challenges that you really need to master and you need to take care of them. But nobody teaches you that in any school. You need to learn it when you make mistakes. And then you say, okay, next time I’m going to do it better.

[00:11:48] But also be humble to say, there is no good way to do a layoff. It’s always traumatic for both impacted employees, for the colleagues remaining and for the leaders, because we are also human. And we know that we are impacting people’s lives. 

[00:12:03] And what is the biggest lesson that you learned from these various processes that you have gone through?

[00:12:13] Two things. I would say the first one is speed. And I always say, Take a lot of time thinking it through, don’t rush the decision to make the layoffs, really think it through. Can I avoid it? What can I do? How do I do it?

[00:12:35] A lot of time in the thinking process. But then when you decide because there is no alternative, do it very fast, because when you decide until you make the decision, it’s all a technical process. It’s also you have also the burden on yourself as a leader, right? But the moment that you announce them, the burden goes to the employees.

[00:12:58] And then you want to do it fast so that you minimize the pain for the employees, and then you can take time to help those employees navigate that emotional journey and try to find the next chapter in their life. And that’s the second aspect that I wanted to speak. The second one, invest a lot of time in that second phase.

[00:13:24] Sometimes leaders that I have seen in my life and me myself in the first rounds of layoffs Because I was approaching it from a technical perspective. I work a lot on all the details, what has to be done. But the moment that we announce it, I would say it’s done. Mm. And I guess it was a way also to hide yourself from facing the human beings impacted.

[00:13:49] And as I grew old, I realized that as a leader it’s much more important that part of the equation, you need to be with them. You need to be present.

[00:13:58] I take a very personalized approach. Which means. The previous phase of the layoff, it’s all numbers, it’s all, you know, something that it has nothing to do with a human being, the moment that you are going to announce the layoff, then you see names. And then for me, it’s very important to understand every one of those names, who that person is. And every person has a very different need, right? So I need to understand also, how is this layoff affecting you? Is it a financial problem for you? Is it a status or reputation? 

[00:14:45] And I always advise people impacted in those conversations also try to understand yourself better. Try to also eliminate all the noise of the emotions that go with the layoff and try to think deeply to yourself. Why is this layoff impacting me so much? Some people it’s just because it’s a job and they need to provide financially to their families.

[00:15:13] So it’s critical that they get money again, from whatever source some people is because it’s they love what they do, is the content of the job what they love, right? For some people is the social environment or the recognition from friends and family. But this is very important because I want every one of my employees to do well in life, whether it’s with my company or elsewhere.

[00:15:45] And I try to help them navigate that self-reflection process. And then if I can, help them accomplish their next step. 

[00:15:58] I can see like from the first round of layoffs that we did at Google, it was something completely new for Google and nobody knew how to go about it.

[00:16:08] I have seen a huge progress in this second round where leaders and managers have been already much more closer to every individual having those individual conversations. Not perfect because we are all humans and the learning process takes time and experience, right? 

[00:16:25] And still, there is no good way to do layoffs. This is something we need to always remember. 

[00:16:32] And that also makes space for us to continuously iterate so that it is done in the most compassionate way to the people. 

[00:16:41] And moving into a more personal side, some people are very overwhelmed by the negativity that’s going on in their life. How can they still stay positive?

[00:16:52] Negativity is just a moment in time and like in any layoff or in any trauma that you have, even personal trauma that you might have, whether it’s with your health. Or with your marriage or with some of your children when, you realize it’s always a temporary thing where emotions fly very high and you need to understand that and you need the emotions to follow the process.

[00:17:26] And those emotions that is angry. I’m angry. What’s happening or anxiety is all those negative emotions. You need to know that’s gonna happen and you need to let them be. There is no shortcut, but you also know that it will go away and you will have to focus on the next chapter, which has to be positive.

[00:17:50] My advice is always the shorter that you manage to, well, how you say that in English, if you can manage to make that grieving and emotional period shorter, the better, it will help you move on into the positive side again. And now there are techniques that I use, right? Which is typically always thinking about “What if, right?” I always advise people, even before the layoffs, I advise people, what if you would lose your job, right? What would you do? What would be really exciting in your life that you would like to do? And you don’t do because you are working every day from nine to five and you’re busy with other things.

[00:18:39] That creates already a positive mindset because you’re thinking about exciting things. But at the same time, you are also getting prepared for if something negative happens, how do you come out of it quickly?

[00:18:57] Okay. And I told you there are traumatic times with medical topics, with marriage, with children. We all overcome them, right? 

[00:19:11] Are there any other techniques and tools that you use personally other than what if?

[00:19:19] I try to have a very simple approach to, to my life, even though it’s complicated, but I basically anchor my life in three pillars. One is me. One is how do I make sure that I am well, this is what I call the me time and I need to have my me time. That’s where I do things that are good for my health and mentally.

[00:19:56] So I do sports. I like to do sports to feel fit. I like to read. I like to do my hobbies. All my hobbies are typically things that I always believe I was not good at like, yeah, yeah, it’s like, I, I, I am very stubborn and we all think sometimes, Oh, I’m not good at that.

[00:20:16] I cannot do that. But, and one example is photography. I thought, Oh, that is so complicated. I can’t do it, but then I start doing it, where I said, no, it’s a matter of practice. I start reading and reading and reading and practicing and practicing and you never get maybe too good, but at least you realize that you can learn, and that is something that helps me mentally. 

[00:20:36] Then the second pillar is my family. I love to do a lot of things with my family and we like to travel and explore new countries. We like food and cook and the third one is others. I need to do things for others. And I am the president of the Spanish Association, and this is where I invest a lot of my free time helping the Spanish community in Singapore, people that arrive in Singapore, how do I connect them with others? How do we explain them about the culture here? And I do that without any payment. It’s just time that you use as a volunteer for the community, and that provides you a lot of reward emotional reward, because you’re doing something for others, and I think that that helps me also to have a balanced approach to any challenge that comes my way. I guess it’s the best technique, but that’s my way. That’s what works for me.

[00:21:38] And I think that points to something very important is that for us to live a fulfilling life, first, we need to take care of ourselves. We need to make sure that our glasses are full. And I feel that approach of me-centered approach is really the way that, ironically, take away the perspective that “I am the world” to, “I am just a part of the world.”

[00:22:01] Yes. Yeah. 

[00:22:04] And what are some of the things that you hope to be remembered for after, let’s say you end your career?

[00:22:14] Oh, wow. What a question. Um, well, Cheryl, I don’t have the aspiration to be remembered like, in the big scene. Uh, by the society or no, no, no, no. I, my only aspiration is to be somebody that, uh, people that had the chance that I had a chance to impact their lives in a positive way. So that people remember what I did for them in their lives that made them better persons or had the possibility to do a different job or that they learn something.

[00:22:50] So it’s just this micro impact. That is very, very rewarding, right? Like when I left my previous employer, you typically say, okay, now nobody will remember you, right? And it’s okay, because I did took the decision to move on. But then I got this huge amount of emails and phone calls, and even still after three years, some of my previous employees, call me or have a GVC regularly, and they are grateful for what you did, 

[00:23:29] and how much they learn and the opportunities that they had. And then that’s when you realize, Oh, I really did have positive impact in their lives. And that is such a great feeling that you are remembered like somebody that had an impact in their life. And that is when I learned, well, that’s exactly what I want to be remembered for.

[00:23:54] I have no higher aspirations than those micro moments

[00:23:59] and I find it so beautiful because when you focus on making the micro moments, perfect, helping the person right in front of you, that is where you can create the largest impact. 

[00:24:09] Yeah. 

[00:24:12] Wonderful. And just to wrap things up, one final question would be if someone, one of our listeners here, they’re facing a crossroads in their life, be it whatever aspects they’re facing is there any advice that you can share with them? 

[00:24:30] Maybe instead of an advice, a quote that I read long, long time ago, which was for me, “Oh, this is interesting.” so imagine that somebody gives you a thousand dollar bill, right? And then you. crumple it, and then you crumple it, and then you soak it in water, and then you step on it, and it’s still worth a thousand dollars. The value is the same, no matter what happens to you in life. 

[00:25:07] So do not… Think that your work is less because you had a challenge in your life, your value is the same, and your value is perceived in your family, in your friends, the same.

[00:25:24] So stay strong because it’s just a storm that you have to master and the sunshine will come again. 

[00:25:31] Wow, that gave me goosebumps, Gonzalo. Thank you for sharing that quote. Thank you so much, Gonzalo, for your time and all the pearls of wisdom that you share with us throughout this podcast.

[00:25:43] And to all of our listeners, if you like what you learn, feel free to share with us your insights, your experience on Telegram, YouTube. And you can also find this podcast everywhere. So share them with your friends.

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