Steve Cadigan: The ROI of Culture-Building


Steve Cadigan is founder of Cadigan Talent Ventures LLC and co-founder of Silicon Valley’s ISDI Digital University—formed in 2017 to help address the growing digital divide. Steve advises fast-growth tech companies like Twitter, Google, Eventbrite, GoPro and some of Silicon Valley’s VC firms and media powerhouses. With more than 25 years of leadership and executive experience in global Human Resources, Steve has practiced HR in the US, Canada and Asia-Pacific within a variety of industries.

Through leading worldwide HR efforts for more than 60 M&A transactions at three global organizations since 1998, Steve has cultivated a deep understanding of business cycles, patterns, high growth, and the key elements required to forge an organization’s sustainability. The teams, cultures and organizations he has led and helped build have been recognized as exceptional, “world class” performers by the Wall Street Journal and Fortune Magazine.

Steve Cadigan takes to the stage as a keynote speaker for the HR Conference + Tradeshow 2018 on Wednesday, May 2, 2018.

Throughout your career, innovation has been a keystone of primary advantage. How did this realization emerge? 
While I’ve never really considered myself an “innovator” in my career, I’ve worked extremely hard to be a creative problem solver. Big challenges and organizational complexity have always been something I have been drawn towards for some reason. I am most content when I am helping individuals and teams improve and work out their issues and problems. Any ability I have built in this field is directly attributable to a great many mentors and coaches in my career who have challenged me and helped me grow.

What is the crux for organizations seeking to unlock their innovative potential?
Organizations seeking to unlock their innovative potential must create an environment and a culture where people can do their best work. What does that look like? Well it depends on your people and what they need to feel supported and inspired. There is no magic formula or recipe here that suits all organizations, but I do know that the ingredients include trust, respect, honesty, and transparency among other things.

When people feel supported, and safe, when they trust their leadership and when they are surrounded by people and ideas that inspire and motivate them, there’s a very good chance great things will happen and ideally that includes innovation.

What are some of the traditional impediments to culture building in the workplace?
Interestingly enough, I think the biggest traditional impediment to “culture building” is a fundamental misunderstanding of what building culture really means. I think too many leaders and organizations think that building a culture means building a “cool place to work.” Many times I have seen leaders try so hard to be a fun place to work and fill their offices with ping pong tables, free food and beer Fridays under the mistaken belief that this is building culture.

Great cultures, from my perspective, grow out of authentic shared rituals that take shape over time. These rituals often connect to the core identity of the company in such fundamental ways that they “fit” at a very core level and are not forced or unnatural. For example, Cliff Bar & Company in the San Francisco Bay Area is an extremely successful organization with a culture that cleanly aligns with everything its product and mission is about: health, wellness, exercise, outdoors and recreation. When you walk into their offices you don’t need anyone to tell you what their culture is and you don’t need to read a poster on the wall to know what’s important to them.

With a growing recognition of the ROI of culture, where are the efforts of the HR professional best spent?
Thank you for asking this question because it’s very important. Overall, as our world has become increasingly transparent, and as employees now have an ability to broadcast their experiences working in your company to the world, the significance of culture has greatly transcended the poster on the wall and become a topic far beyond just a guideline of how we work together as a company. We are seeing company culture today become the company’s brand, become how they recruit and how they sell—this cultural identity is as important outside as it is inside an organization.

The HR function happens to touch employees in many of the most sensitive places: recruiting, onboarding, performance management, promotions, compensation, job titles, and transitions out of the organization. While in many of these points of intersection HR is working side by side with line leadership, HR has enormous power over shaping a culture just by virtue of the daily traffic in many of these incredibly sensitive areas.

While I don’t think how or where HR works in a company should drastically change, I do think that the function must continue to be aware of their impact, strive towards greater transparency (why did you do that?) and above all the function must listen—a helluva lot more than the annual employee survey.

How have advancements in technology helped to gel/change our expectations of workplace culture?
For me, the most dramatic changes for organizations and culture the past decade has been the massive growth of social and professional networks. Facebook, Glassdoor, Instagram, LinkedIn, Blind, Snapchat, Comparably and Twitter among others have created the ability for people to see deep inside a company like never before.

It used to be you relied on the Fortune Best Companies To Work survey as your primary indicator, but today who even looks at that when they can go to Glassdoor or Comparably and see real data from real current and former employees who are talking about their experiences?

I think we are still digesting what it means to be in such a transparent world and let me give you an example of what I mean by that. Today, both companies and candidates know more about one anther than ever before. So, it should stand to reason, both parties are making the most informed hiring decisions in history with more information than ever before. Therefore job satisfaction should be at an all time high, right? I mean both parties have more and better information about one another than ever before. Yet, sadly, this is not the case. The Great Place to Work Institute reports that engagement is at an all-time low and that we have way more people professionally unhappy than ever before. This suggests to me we are still working our way through the implications of a transparent world resulting from new technology.

How do we evolve the concept of total rewards to foster the fruits of innovation?
I have a few thoughts on this. First, I think compensation and rewards is an area where we have seen the lowest amount of innovation in the HR/talent space. How can this be the case when we have a new generation who has needs dramatically different than earlier generations? Why are we rewarding them the same way we have for decades?

I think too many of us are still stuck on thinking that total rewards is cash compensation and the truth is that there are other things people value a lot more than just cash that can be a part of the reward scheme.

The bigger challenge to me is that we need recognize that what it means to work and have a job is changing. We have more “gig” workers than ever before, yet most governments don’t even report on these workers in their labor stats or reports. More and more people are earning incomes outside of a regular “job” than ever before, yet I don’t see companies or governments really responding to address this change or the implications of what this can mean. We need to innovate in the rewards space and we need to try new things and see what works and what doesn’t.

Steve Cadigan is a closing keynote speaker at the HR Conference + Tradeshow 2018. His session, Making Culture Your Competitive Advantage, is on Wednesday, May 2. For more information on this and other sessions, please visit

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