interview  | 

We’re having the wrong conversation about the future of work

Interview with Steve Cadigan, former VP Talent at LinkedIn and founder and CEO of Cadigan Talent Ventures LLC


Reading Time: 19 minutes

Steve Cadigan is one of the most renowned experts when it comes to people, talent and culture. As former VP Talent at LinkedIn and founder and CEO of Cadigan Talent Ventures LLC, a Silicon Valley-based talent strategies advisory firm, Steve helps organisations worldwide develop winning talent solutions. We spoke to him about the future of work.

One of the most common fears around the future of work is this idea that AI is going to take over and produce a “useless” class of people, that robots will take our jobs. But we've heard it all before and it hasn’t happened yet. How do you see it?

Unfortunately I think we’re having the wrong conversation when we think about the future of work. So much of what you read in the news and the media is around how technology, robotics and AI is going to replace jobs and replace people.

What we’re not talking about as much is how much more meaningful work can become and how much more opportunity and new and different roles technology is going to present to us to be able to have really fulfilling careers. And I think that that’s the biggest  mistake that I see in the world today around the marketing of this new technology is that the conversation is more around jobs being eliminated and people losing work, not jobs being created and people doing more meaningful work.

We have this really interesting dynamic that’s developed for the first time in history. Both parties in the employment arrangement, both employee and management, or employee and company, know less about the future than ever before. So nobody really knows how technology is going to transform jobs, right? When you try to undertake a 10 year plan it’s a bit of a joke, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next year. This technological transformation is creating a unique dynamic where the company can’t really explicitly plan for what skills are going to be needed.

If we take a look at one industry in particular, let’s take the travel industry. Technology is completely transformed. How you book your air travel today. It used to be you would call a travel agent and you’d say, I’m going, I need to fly somewhere. Can you book me a ticket? Well, because of the Internet, everyone can now book their travel tickets on their own. So many travel agents unfortunately lost their jobs. But at the same time, thousands and I would argue maybe 10 times as many new jobs were created by sites like TripAdvisor or Expedia or Priceline, and many of the airline businesses themselves created their own online booking system. The challenge and the friction is that most of the new jobs created in the travel industry were not taken by the people who lost their jobs as travel agents.

You mentioned that employees are no longer looking to stay at a company for 20 or even 10 years. Some say workers will have 11 jobs before the age of 45 so the model of work and the lifespan of an employee has radically changed. Is this a reason for employers to panic or a great opportunity and how can a company remain robust and stable with a continuously changing workforce?

One of the things that really strikes me today is how dramatic the change is relative to how people think about work and how people think about careers. I don’t think people today are thinking that they’re going to stay in an organization for the entirety of their career. And similarly, I don’t think organizations are thinking: let’s offer people the chance to work here the entirety of their careers. I think those days are over.

What you have now more is an experience based economy, a project based economy where people are thinking less around how long they’re going to be somewhere and more around what kind of meaningful work they’re going to do. And this is a big challenge for organizations. Most companies have grown up in an era of we’re going to build an organization where we want people to stay for a long period of time. People are going to have more jobs at the same time than ever before. I think this notion of just working for one industry in your career or one employer is going to shift into multiple industries, maybe even at the same time and multiple jobs. I’m running into more and more people today that have two or three jobs at the same time and they’re happy about it.

There was an interesting article I read last year in the Guardian. The author said: “My father had one job, I had eight jobs, and my children will have eight jobs at the same time.” The older generation might be terrified by that. “8 jobs at the same time, how does that work?” But the younger generation is not afraid of that. I think that is the leading driver of what will make the change, people that aren’t afraid of having multiple jobs at the same time or to move very very quickly.

In the United States in particular, every month the Bureau of Labor statistics measures how long people are staying in organizations. And right now workers between the ages of 25 and 35 are staying on average 2.8 years. And that’s the average, which means we have a huge portion of people staying less than two years in a company. If you’re a business, that’s a problem because we’ve grown up with this paradigm that we want people to stay a long time because we believe if they stay a long time, they’re going to add more value. But I’m asking employers and companies to think maybe we need a new model and a new relationship with workers that accounts with them not staying with us for very long. 

One company that I’ve read about that’s been in the news a lot lately this past year is Spotify up in Sweden. The Spotify CEO announced a company policy recently where he said, I don’t want employees to be in their jobs more than two years now. He wasn’t saying, I don’t want them to be in the company two years. I just don’t want them to stay in the same role more than two years because I think people are motivated by learning and I think the company will benefit if people are in different roles. Now, the whole notion of people changing roles in a company is not new. That’s been around a long time, but what’s interesting about what Spotify is doing is that it is accepting that people may not stay a long time. If someone leaves and no one knows how to do that job, you’re in trouble. The business slows down and you’ve got a big interruption in your productivity. However, if people are moving around in different roles and somebody leaves, now we know somebody else who knows how to do that role. So it’s almost like an insurance policy for a very fluid workforce. 

It’s really an exciting time. We can see more opportunity than we’ve ever been able to see. I can see what my education, my skills, and my experience, what it can do for me because I can go to a site like Linkedin and see what thousands of people with my background are doing in many, many different ways. That’s really exciting and I can go pursue those faster than ever before. However, what I don’t know is, which is the best place for me to go, and I think this is the big challenge that companies and employees have today, is we don’t know what skills we need to be most successful tomorrow. Any industry you look at is going through some kind of transformation, but nobody really knows what skills you are gonna need for tomorrow. But I do believe that the workforce is going to continue to be more fluid. I think we’re going to see more movement and I think we’re going to start seeing more organizations come up with models that account for people coming and not staying as long. 

How would you define the GIG economy and could this platform driven model be the future of work?

The first thing I want to say about the Gig economy is that this is nothing new. The gig economy has been around for ages, but we’ve called it something different. I mean gig workers are really temporary workers or contractors, but I think Gig is a sexier name. And what’s fascinating about the growth of the Gig economy is that more people have opportunities to make money outside of a regular job than ever before. That’s exciting. That gives workers more power, more potential to earn in nontraditional roles than having a standard job. That’s a good thing.

I think one of the challenges with the Gig economy and, and I see this in most countries in the world, is the infrastructure of support is really driven by people having a job in a company. So when you think about getting insurance, buying a house, getting a mortgage from a bank, getting unemployment, getting medical care, particularly in United States, if you are a gig worker and don’t have a job that’s very expensive. And all the mechanisms supporting people are really around them working for a company. So we’ve got a long way to go to make the GIG economy platforms work. I don’t see that we’re very close to the gig economy consuming corporations and jobs, because none of the global infrastructure is moving to support that scale. 

What I find fascinating as the father of several children is how kids today are seeing opportunities to make money through a youtube or, or something like an airbnb or an Ebay. What my kids see is that they can go to youtube and creating content that’s valuable and that makes them valuable. So that’s a great lesson for kids. You know, through watching youtube, you create value by people finding what you’re doing valuable. So getting likes, getting followers is a powerful thing. That’s the same message in any organization. I think you, if you’re creating value in an organization, you’re becoming valuable to the organization. Kids are seeing that they don’t need to be part of a company to be able to do this. I mean, it’s fascinating. If you look at companies like an airbnb or like a youtube, what’s their product? They don’t have a product. Their product is the platform. The product is us, we are the product and we’re able to leverage that platform to make money. 

They’re creating a way for people to create on their own. And I think that’s a beautiful thing. People are thinking about their careers in more entrepreneurial ways and I think that’s a good thing. Many companies that I work with today, big companies that have been around for decades or in some cases centuries, their biggest struggle is we want people to be more entrepreneurial. We want them to move faster. And the good news is most people are seeing outside of organizations many, many ways that they can be more entrepreneurial.

And so these bigger organizations, I think, are going to benefit from the psychology shift for people to be able to create more value and to be able to do that in ways that are without a lot of friction.

In the GIG economy, algorithms are being used to distribute tasks, optimize workflows, and evaluate workers. So how has this changed the boss employee dynamic? If your employee is an algorithm, how can you hold them accountable?

I think it’s a dangerous path. I understand why organizations are trying to use technology, they’re trying to be more effective and more efficient and that’s a good motivation. Who doesn’t want to be more effective and more successful and to build a business with less expense? That’s why they’re applying new ways. But in an era where people are leaving companies faster than ever before, I think people are going to stay if they have more human connection and they’re more loyal to someone. And I also don’t think that as human beings, we like to be measured in this way.

I mean we are inherently flawed as human beings and I don’t know if machines are flawed in the same way. I hope it never happens, but until we can program empathy and love and caring I don’t know how an algorithm can appreciate that somebody’s child is sick at home and they’re not feeling as motivated today and maybe they need to not work today because something tragic happened in their life. How does an algorithm address that? I understand why we’re doing it because we want to be able to measure performance to achieve a greater outcome. That’s good. But at the end of the day, your success is because people on your team are delivering output and those people I think are going to be much more motivated, much more excited, much more driven by having a human being looking over them than an algorithm.

How can we reform the current educational system to prepare the younger generations for this new world? What has been done so far?

What can we do to prepare future generations for the future of work? I think we need to step back and ask is that really the right question? Because if we don’t really know the future of work, how can we build systems or platforms that are going to address something that we really don’t understand yet? From what I’m seeing in the organizations and educational institutions that I’m working with or working for it is really about just trying to build a system of learning that has a lot of diversity. Instead of an instructor teaching a passive student, to have small groups where students are self teaching one another. They’re giving each other feedback in realtime that there’s a diversity of environments. They can be one to one, one to small groups, one to large groups, groups coming together, collaborating differently.

So much work today is performed through teams. I heard someone say recently that all work is teamwork. And so I think we need to start helping people, not just with knowledge but with the capabilities of learning how to learn and how to work together. Communication skills, collaboration skills, being able to negotiate and work on tradeoffs. So I think what needs to happen over time, and this is a big change in terms of how we teach, more important than what we teach, is teaching the skill of being able to learn in different ways. The skill of being able to operate in different environments, high pressure environments and short deadlines, long deadlines, in small teams, big teams, large teams, multiple teams at the same time.

Exposing our students and our children to many different phases of how to learn and how to compete and how to be successful is really important. I mean, the younger generation is going to teach us a lot more about how they can be more effective and successful in the future. We’re going through a laboratory right now because work is changing so fast. Students, my children, for example, their ability to learn new things quickly, their comfort level with technology is much greater than someone like me or some other senior talented people that I work with. That is something we don’t understand. The senior teachers didn’t grow up with the same mindset around technology or familiarity or comfort level with technology. So we’re dealing with an unknown generation and how to best equip them. But I do have confidence we’re going to figure this out. I’m not worried as much as I am excited about what’s possible when it comes to the future of education. I think we have to be less stressed out about trying to control what that educational process really needs to look like.

How has the recruiting process changed? How can employers maintain good relationships with workers in this digital era?

When I think about the relationship between companies and employees and how companies can shift their thinking around recruiting,

I think companies should start shifting the conversation from come here because we can promise you a long career to come here because we can promise that you’re going to grow, learn and develop. And that’s the shift I’m starting to see organizations make when it comes to recruiting. Not selling a long job. I’ve been telling people lately that I think the new job security is employability. I don’t think people want a promise of long employment with a company. And I think if people hear a long promise, they don’t believe it.

It’s very counterintuitive to how organizations have grown, which is I want to hire you, I want to keep you here as long as possible because I believe I’m going to harvest more value from you over a longer period of time. You’re going to learn our systems, our culture, our style, and the longer you’re here, the better. But today it’s not working. People are leaving faster than ever before. Every country I’ve visited, and I’ve visited dozens in the past two years, people are leaving jobs faster than ever before, even in countries with unions and works councils. And more employment contracts. People are still leaving those faster. So you have a choice as an employer today, are you going to try to keep people or are you going to accept there may be a new reality that involves a more fluid workforce?

If you’re recruiting, the promise needs to be, we’re going to help make you vital for an uncertain future. We should promise that, however long you’re here, one year, two years, five years, 10 years, you’re gonna learn and grow and be better when you leave to go do something else. Come here and we’ll teach you new skills, new technologies, new methodologies that you can’t learn anywhere else. And I’m starting to see organizations start to understand that. That’s a big shift, you know, and it’s not one that people are really comfortable with, but the truth is in a more fluid work, a reality where people are leaving companies faster, that means you need to be recruiting more actively. That means it’s not just a one time event.

Jobs are constantly changing and being extracted from companies. Companies need to constantly train people to be prepared for the next job. So what role should they play in terms of learning? What skills do we need for the future?

I think this is the epicenter of the biggest problem that we all face. Companies and employees. Neither party wants the world to be changing as fast as it is today. There’s a gentleman in Silicon Valley by the name of John Seely Brown and he used to be the CEO of a company called Xerox. In the 70s and 80s xerox was cooler than Google and Apple combined. It was a cool place and there was a place in Palo Alto called Z Parc, Xerox Parc Research. John Seely Brown, since leaving Xerox has dedicated his life to education research. And one of the things that he has revealed recently, which I think is very powerful as it explains why we are where we are relative to education, is that the shelf life of a skill today is about five to 10 years. 30-40 years ago, I believe he said the shelf life of a skill was the entirety of your working life. So it used to be you go to university, you’re prepared with the fundamentals to really drive your career, the rest of your working life. Well today, given the pace of change, given the introduction and the advent of new technologies, robotics, AI, the shelf life of a skill is way down. So organizations are in a bit of a panic. They don’t know what kind of skills they should hire. What skills are we going to need for tomorrow? How is our industry going to change and what people should we have to best help us navigate an uncertain future. 

Similarly, and even more profoundly, workers look at the reality and say, oh my gosh, look at what’s happened in all these industries where we’ve had massive disruption, in the music industry, in the taxi industry, in the photo industry, in the hotel industry. What industry should I work in? What skill should I have to make me most likely to be successful and to thrive in an uncertain future? For the first time in history, we have both parties in the employment situation full of more uncertainty than ever before. And that’s a really uncomfortable place to be.

I get asked a lot in interviews, whether it’s on television or radio or print, Steve, tell us what are the most important skills that people need today in the digital economy and my answer is usually pretty simple. I could tell you what I think they are today, but I can also tell you with a high degree of certainty that in two years there will be different skills. So I don’t want to give you that answer because you’re going to chase something that in three to five years may not be as valuable for you.

The most important skill is the skill of being able to learn and apply quickly. That’s who you want in your organization today. And that’s the advice that I give leaders around the world. If you don’t really know what’s in front of your business or your industry five or 10 years out and you know you’re probably going to need to shift or change or maybe radically turn your business around, who do you want around you? Well you want people that can change and learn and adjust in an uncertain business reality. Don’t worry about learning that hot new technology or learning this programming language, don’t worry about that. You should think more around, can I learn new things? Can apply them quickly? Because if you can, you’re going to be infinitely more valuable than people that have a hard time learning new things

For the future economy, when I think about where this is going, companies are going to need to change how they recruit and the kinds of people they recruit, but more importantly, leadership is going to be more about developing your people and setting up an environment where they can grow. People want to learn because they don’t believe anymore in a job guarantee.  The biggest reason people leave today, and this is a big lesson for leaders, is because I don’t think they feel they’re growing fast enough. If they’re not growing fast enough and someone can grow them faster, they’re going to go to the company where they can grow more because if they’re stale and stagnant, that’s death today. That’s career death. And you don’t want to be somewhere where you’re not learning and growing because you know whatever industry you’re in, it’s going to be changing. And disruption is not a one time event. It’s a constant now. The companies that are going to win today are the companies that are going to build a learning culture, that’s not about having classrooms and teachers, that’s about on the job learning and experiential learning. 

There’s been a huge rising employee activism. Places like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, all found themselves under fire over a variety of social and policy issues coming from employees. How can or should companies adapt to a more vocal and active workforce and could the tech labor movement bring about serious and lasting positive change?

The workforce increasingly today is asking their employers ‘what difference do you make in the world?’ We’re searching for more meaning. This is one of the unintended consequences of a reality where we have access to more information and where we have more choice. I think one of the most fascinating trends in the world of work right now is the fact that employees have more power and their voice carries more weight than at any time in history. There are numerous sites out there where employees can go and voice their concerns. I think companies are still learning to adjust to this new reality.

When you see the leading technology companies in the world, like an Amazon or Google or even a Facebook get brought to their knees because of their employees questioning decisions or questioning their transparency, it makes you realize that… the Internet was really only built about 25 years ago and we’re just at the very early phases of learning what that really means for us in terms of how we relate.

But it is fundamentally changing the relationship between management and workers. And I think it’s a healthy change. It used to be that a company could say, we’ll tell you what you need to know when you need to know it. Today employees have more choice to leave and see other jobs than ever before. So if they’re not happy, they will move. And it’s putting pressure in the right places. Companies have to be more transparent. They have to be more authentic. You can’t spin or bullshit your employees the way you used to before because you can’t control the message. Employees have access to more information to know if you’re not being honest. And that’s actually a very healthy element of friction that’s been introduced in the working relationship. As I said, we’re still adjusting to this more transparent world of communication. And one of the things that’s really interesting in the world of human resources technology is that the fastest growing segment in human resources companies are companies that are building solutions to help the employers listen, to do surveys, to get pulses, to listen to the ideas of the employees. The number one area of new human resources companies are companies that help organizations listen. There’s so much information that employees have right now that they are more vital to an organization because it’s impossible for management to know everything.

What are the essential skills for a visionary leader in order to be effective in today’s environment?

When I think about the elements of successful leadership today, I think of one word. Trust. If you want people to stay, it’s not just because we’re doing sexy things, it’s not just because we’re going to make a lot of money. It’s because we’re going to build a relationship of trust and you’re going to want to stay here because you trust that I’ve got your best interests and that we’re making a difference in the world in a very positive way. So the next question is, what does that look like and what do you do as a leader to build this notion of a bond of trust with your staff? I think that comes down to lots more communication, more listening, more questions. I’m expected as a leader to share with you why we’re making decisions that we’re making and include you in some of the decision making.  We have more things to worry about and be nervous about and be fearful of today as workers than ever before. I don’t know what skills I need. I don’t know if my industry is going to get disrupted by some new startup tech Unicorn technology. But if I feel that I’m in a place where I trust my leaders are looking out for the best interests and I trust that they’re investing in me to help me grow, that’s a powerful thing. In an uncertain world, if you’re not building trust, you’re not going to get people to do their best work. If people are working out of fear, it’s not going to be sustainable or successful.

If you had to pick one piece of advice, which piece of advice would you give to the leaders of a company today?

If I were to give one bit of advice to a leader today is that in an era of digital transformation that what I would recommend you do is if you are building a new technology or you’re digitally trying to transform your company, don’t start the conversation with technology. Start the conversation with what is good for you as a human being. I think we’re getting too seduced by technology that whenever we talk about what’s next as leaders, we talk about technical elements. We don’t talk about the richness and the greatness that is going to happen for people who are working and how the future is going to be brighter. We need to shift the conversation off the technology and onto the people.

Are we digitally transforming to make a lot of money? No, we’re digitally transforming because you’re going to be able to do more exciting work and you’re going to be able to do more interesting things and you’re not going to have to do the crap work. Technology can replace that. You’re going to get to do the good, thoughtful, interesting, innovative, you know, human centered work. Probably the biggest piece of advice I’d give in this digital era is to focus more on human connection and less on obsession with technology. The most important thing when you really strip it away is the reason we’re using technology is so that we can have richer lives with more meaningful connections. But we don’t talk about that as much. And that’s a shame. Our seduction and our obsession with technology is taking our eye off of the point that it is so we can have greater connections. So we need to reframe, we need to hit the pause button.

It’s all about trust, about building connection and appreciating that this is about humanity first. Technology second. This is the irony of the digital era. Executives need technology to grow, to become part of the digital economy, but that technology is not going to leveraged or used to its greatest potential without human interaction and without building trust.

What would be the biggest challenge to the world of work over the next few years? How can we adapt to these changes?

I think the answer’s pretty simple. The biggest challenge is complexity, pace and volume. The human brain is only capable of being able to absorb so much information and to be able to do so many things in a certain period of time. We have an impossible amount of information to consume today and I think one of the challenges is going to be for organizations and leaders to figure out what is that fine line of maximum absorption ability. I still feel like organizations are expecting more and more, but we know unfortunately that cases of anxiety and depression in the world are growing faster than ever and that’s because we’re always feeling left behind. We’re feeling it’s impossible to keep up. In some cases work never stops. If you have a mobile device, work is with you all the time. 

We’re going to need to learn ways of giving ourselves permission to find beauty in life’s experience. We have to learn how to tame technology, how to discover ways of using it that really add value. Technology wasn’t thrust upon us, we’ve created it. We’ve got to find a better way of reconciling how it’s going to work. We need to do a much better job marketing the human upside of how technology can realize greater benefits. We need to demystify it. I think we need to project the, the greatness and the upside for workers, from many dimensions more than the upside of how cool the technology is. We all need to put humanity in front a little bit more than technology, which is I believe why we’re using the technology – to have a greater experience in life.