Former Linkedin VP, Steve Cadigan speaks to #BCNHRN: Part 2 — HR should act as “success accelerators” rather than disruptors

This is the second part of an interview with former Linkedin VP of Talent, Steve Cadigan. In the first part of the interview, Steve spoke about how there has been a shift in the concept of company culture and why employee burnout is becoming a big issue today. In this article Steve discusses HR’s role in innovation, how HR professionals should look to be “success accelerators” rather than disruptors, how he gets his creative juices flowing and finally which books inspire him.

What are your thoughts on the role of HR in innovation?

If I look at my career, some of the best work that I have ever done, always has involved helping somebody think about a problem differently, helping someone who was stuck with no solutions or no options. I think sometimes it’s wrong to believe HR people should be the amazing creators or innovators, instead it’s more powerful if we can help others around us find their way to solve something really important to them, to their team or to the company. Through helping others think about a situation differently and helping them get “unstuck” I think we do the organization a massive service in the duty of innovation. Sure there are some great innovative ideas I have seen from some HR talent, but the best work I believe is when you help others realise greatness. This is when HR can become a force multiplier. And that is special.

Can you give us examples of innovation in HR?

In a recent project, I was with a company who had been doing standard employee surveys for years and the company doubled in size three or four years in a row and they kept asking the same questions to their employees and they kept getting the same scores. The organisation saw they weren’t learning anything through these surveys and decided to change the conversation and started asking different questions such as “do you get along with your boss?” or “do you believe in the future of the company?, and “are you as productive as you can be?”. When they began asking the right questions in the right way, they started to receive insightful stories and real feedback from their employees. And more importantly, they started to build trust with their employees because they were asking the questions the employees wanted to be asked. Too often in HR I think we get stuck doing what we have always done. Today we have no time for that. We must pioneer new ways of building trust and relationships with employees and management. That is the relationship where there can be friction or there can be harmony. Commuication and trust building is essential. Don’t ask questions that will give you the answers you want. Ask the questions you are not certain about. Watch what happens next.

That being said, when I look at the landscape of human resources technology today, there are more companies and products being launched in this space of listening and feedback than ever before. And that’s a good thing but it’s also a testament to this increasing recognition that in a high velocity world where things are changing and we have more information than we can possibly consume, we need to listen more because the insight and the intelligence is much deeper than it’s ever been before AND its much more likely to be lost in all the complexity and all the big data flying around. So some of the creative innovative work that I’m seeing is in technologies that allow human resources and the organization to listen to itself and to help the organisation nurture it’s creative and innovative capabilities.

What advice would you give to an HR professional trying to become a disruptor/innovator?

A crucial piece of advice for anyone in human resources is that the first questions that you need to address and answer for yourself is “what do you believe is the role of human resources in a company?”, “why are you here?” and “what is your purpose?”. If you ask those questions to different successful human resources executives, they’re all going to give you a different answer because there is ultimately no right answer. And this is OK. Do not worry. Just like there is no one right personality for a person — there is no one right philisophy about HR, but if you are going to ask me to tell you how an HR person can be a disruptor it must start with “What is HR and what do you think it is”. Only then can you really answer the next question. Different styles of human resources fit different types of organisations as well as different leaders. Therefore, you have to start by knowing who and where you are first. If you don’t know your place in an organisation, you’re not going to know how you can disrupt. I think the best advice I can give is don’t go out to be a disruptor or an innovator, go out first to understand what you believe is HR, and look at your role as a success accelerator. If a leader or an organization needs to be shaken up then you need to take on that role, if a leader or an organization needs you to boost their confidence to help them think differently, make it happen. Maybe that’s your innovation and it’s quiet and it’s not so obvious, but still very powerful. The most innovative work I have done in my career, I have never been able to share. It would not be appropriate for me to tell everyone that I saved the CEO from making a horrible decisión. That is not good for anyone — but many times that deeply confidential coaching was my best and most disruptive work.

Do you have an example of this approach?

I was coaching the CEO of a successful company and then all of a sudden they were hit by a crisis that really harmed the business leading to damaged relationships with clients and a falling share price. The CEO was in a position that he’d never been in before, having to deal with the fallout from the crisis, everyone was freaking out, scared and upset. The leader felt he had let his organisation down. After a number of sessions talking and listening to him, I counselled him to speak to his employees in a personal, honest and open manner about the mistakes that had been made and how they would together learn from this episode to become stronger. This simple coaching moment, led him to do something he had never done before in which he really connected with his employees and this led to a big increase in respect and commitment from them. The more he made himself humble and the more he admitted his mistakes the more his employees admired him. He did not expect this. He was shocked in fact. He thought his job was to never look weak and never admit a mistake was made. He spent his whole life trying the impossible — to be perfect…. For me this was very innovative and disruptive because I was able to convince him to take a new approach to a situation that they had never been in before. For me this is an example of a powerful but less visible way for HR to disrupt and impact an organisation.

How do you get your creative juices flowing?

I love engaging with teams with individuals and learning about what they do. I am just fascinated by what motivates people and I love being around people who love what they do. So I get my creative juices flowing by asking tons of questions. I also read a lot of articles and books. I love to watch sports and see how athletes handle situations of pressure, of victory, of defeat, of being criticized…I love so much of the game of life I cannot get enough of it. I love hearing about how people think about life differently. I also love watching movies and TV shows, just enjoying giving my mind something different to think about. This gives me energy and helps me understand others better. I think this is a skill that has really helped me in my career above all else. I am able to put myself in the mind of others “what must they be feeling? What are they thinking? What are they worried about?” This helps me to relate and understand them better I believe. HR is all about two things credibilty and judgement. If you dont have good judgement, you cannot build credibility and if you have no credibilty nobody cares about your judgement.

Can you recommend any books for our community?

Books that really inspire my thinking include ones by Malcolm Gladwell such as Tipping Point and Outliers. Girl Boss by Sophia Amoruso is another book that I would recommend which is both fun to read but also gives a different perspective on leadership. I really enjoyed reading Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, Finally, I would love to recommend my book but I haven’t finished writing it yet, so stay tuned for that one!

If you would like to read the first part of this interview with Steve, you can find it here.