How I became a…talent hacker

Time spent crafting the company culture at Cisco, EA and LinkedIn has earnt Steve Cadigan the title of talent guru. Here, he explains how a passion for sports led him to a career in HR
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“In my family, working in business was not the desired outcome,” says Steve Cadigan, the self-styled talent hacker who now advises companies including the BBC, Google and Manchester United Football Club on their corporate culture.

The child of an episcopal priest and social worker, his parents had ambitions for him to work in a space that allowed him to do good for society and help others. “That’s still in my DNA,” Cadigan says. “In my line of work I try to help others do better for themselves, their families and their organisation. It’s similar to the work that my parents did, it’s just in a different domain.”

Growing up, he was particularly influenced by listening to his father deliver sermons. “It definitely shaped me and my career arc,” he adds. “It really gave me an appreciation for the art of communication and the ability to connect with others, no matter their background.”

The intersection of sports and HR

It’s a skill that he has honed while working as an HR leader at businesses including Cisco, EA and LinkedIn, where he helped the fledgling social media company through a period of rapid growth.

Steve Cadigan’s career at a glance

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His first job, at San Francisco fashion label Esprit De Corp, allowed him to rotate between a number of different business departments and it was recruitment that Cadigan felt a particular affinity for. As a younger man he had enjoyed playing baseball, basketball and tennis and he found recruitment held many similarities to crafting a successful sports team. 

“I love sports, both as a fan and an observer, and I realised recruitment offered everything I loved about sports,” he explains. “Every time you play a game, it’s with a new group of people; you need to figure out how to create value, who’s strong, who’s weak and who handles certain situations well. You’re always strategising.”

The same elements are at play when recruiting for a company. You need to consider who will work well together, what type of leadership styles they work best under and how to get the most out of the team. “Over the course of a few years, I realised I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” says Cadigan.

His next career step took him to Fireman’s Fund – a now defunct insurer and US subsidiary of Allianz. The move meant Cadigan went from working in a team of seven to a team of several hundred, and from wearing T shirts and shorts to work every day to wearing a three-piece suit. He claims the experience “opened my eyes to the many dimensions of human resources” as he learnt from specialists in compensation, relocation, immigration and benefits.

The hard side of HR

However, it also opened his eyes to the HR’s more challenging elements. “For better or for worse, most of my career has been spent at organisations that are facing cost challenges and there has been pressure to do more with less,” he says. 

After being acquired by Allianz, the insurer looked to do just this. Cadigan’s final act as an HR manager at Fireman’s Fund, before leaving in 1994, was to fly into different offices across the country and lay people off

“It was very, very uncomfortable, especially as a young kid who was being asked to let people go who were in their 50s and 60s,” he says. “But it’s important that it’s done well. The way you treat people when they’re let go has a greater impact on the people who remain. If you do that poorly, you can create a toxic culture within your domain.”

I’m sad to say that I’ve probably let more people go in my career than I’ve hired

Cadigan found himself in a similar situation at Cisco, where he held the positions of HR director for the Asia Pacific region and for acquisition integration. At the peak of the dotcom bubble in 2000, two years after he joined the company, Cisco was briefly the most valuable company in the world, with a market capitalisation of $500bn. 

“When I moved into the tech sector, my head exploded with the pace and speed with which decisions were made and the dynamism and openness of talent strategies,” he says. At previous companies, the decision-making process was mired in endless meetings, whereas in the tech sector meetings were held on the fly. Any decisions that were reached were then expected to be implemented as soon as you returned to your desk. “It was exciting and terrifying at the same time. That really appealed to me,” he adds.

However the dotcom bubble soon burst and the tech firm was forced to restructure. Cadigan was on the project team that was tasked with letting 8,000 of Cisco’s 40,000 people go. “I’ve done my share of staff cuts,” he reflects. “I’m sad to say that I’ve probably let more people go in my career than I’ve hired.”

Devising LinkedIn’s corporate culture

Cadigan looks back on his time at LinkedIn more fondly. After a brief stint at videogame company EA – which he describes as “the worst career choice” he ever made – Cadigan was asked to interview for the social media site’s first ever CHRO role. “I couldn’t sleep for two weeks after the interview,” he says. “I was so excited.”

During his three-and-a-half years there, the business went from 400 staff to 4,000; two offices to 26; operating in two countries to 17, and from having two business lines to five. It also gave him the opportunity to meet Barack Obama, when the former US president was invited to speak at the LinkedIn offices in 2011, and to visit the New York Stock Exchange when the business went public the same year. “My four years there felt like 20,” Cadigan says. 

I couldn’t sleep for two weeks after the interview. I was so excited

One of the main challenges the business faced during this period was attracting talent. At the time, LinkedIn was competing with the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter for Silicon Valley’s top tech minds. Being more established, these businesses were able to offer better pay, shinier offices and an endless list of perks and benefits, from sushi chefs on site to daycare centres and free buses to and from work. 

“As a networking site for professionals, it would not be a good look if our customers saw we were struggling to hire,” Cadigan jokes. “We realised that we had to build a great culture or we weren’t going to get any good hires. It was the only thing that was going to trump the perks arms race, which we simply couldn’t compete in.” 

Cadigan and his HR team set about making LinkedIn “the best place” to build a career and tried to align the values of the business with those of its recruits. “We sold LinkedIn as a place where you could transform the lives of millions of people, and that was so much more inspirational than what places like Facebook could offer,” Cadigan explains. “Once we found that harmony, then career transformation became our mantra.”

Don’t fear messy careers

One of the things that Cadigan finds most exciting about the HR profession is the fact that there is “no such thing as the right culture”. “There are foundations which are good to have, such as building an environment of trust and transparency, but how these are implemented can look very different in practice,” he adds.

It has also allowed him to work in numerous different sectors, from video games and technology to fashion and insurance. “The greatest thing about HR is that you can work in any industry, profit or nonprofit,” he explains. “Human interaction is always the same.”

The messier someone’s career is, the more beautiful

His advice to others wanting to carve out a career in this space is to “find where your strengths lie”. “There are some people who are highly technical, others who are better at the coaching side and those who are more strategic and analytical,” Cadigan adds. And there are more opportunities for those who are more technically minded too, as data analytics and new technologies like AI disrupt the HR and talent planning space. 

Soft skills are also crucial – and these are the hardest to master in Cadigan’s experience. “The capacity to be able to take difficult topics that get people emotional, and steer them along a constructive path is going to allow you to address any kind of challenge,” he says. 

But in reality, anyone can find success in HR, no matter their career journey so far. “I’m a big believer in the non-traditional path – nobody’s career is a straight arc upwards,” Cadigan adds. “The messier someone’s career is, the more beautiful because it shows you’ve experienced different things.”