The skills Shannon Deegan brings from ice hockey to human resources include "focus and hard work. … How to treat players. How to build good teams." Deegan says he picked up his management style from his hockey coach at the University of Vermont, Mike Gilligan.
Deegan played all four years in college, then spent two seasons playing minor league hockey before returning to his native Canada to work for the government in the first of two foreign policy positions. In between them, he picked up his first master's degree in Dublin—and acquired a taste for travel.
After assignments in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Tokyo, he came to New York City in 2001 to work at McKinsey & Co., where he occasionally ran into Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president of People Operations. They stayed in touch even after Deegan moved to Toronto.
In 2007, Bock gave Deegan his first human resources job, in line with Bock's philosophy of building an HR department made up of equal parts people from engineering, "analytical folks" and people from consulting, Deegan explains.
Consultants "love ambiguity" and strive to resolve it quickly, Deegan says. "That's the way Google approaches issues—to get really smart people in a room and have them try to figure it out."
What Bock was doing in HR for the burgeoning search engine company was "intriguing," and Deegan "decided to take a chance and do something completely different."
Now, as a director in People Operations, he oversees HR strategy, operations and central staffing. His responsibilities range from mergers and mobility (relocating people) to executive searches, worldwide staffing, and managing external vendors and contractors.
Last year, Google hired a record 8,000 people—increasing head count by one-third to more than 33,000 in more than 70 offices in more than 40 countries. A spokesman says Google is not expecting to break that record for 2012 but continues to hire, particularly engineers and salespeople. One internal team manages that process, albeit with hundreds of contract recruiters. A custom applicant tracking system and fabled reliance on analytics drive their work.
Nice Job if You Can Get It
Google's attractive work environment has become legendary. It offers high salaries, generous benefits—cutting-edge technology, meals, job flexibility—and a relaxed campus in Mountain View, Calif.
With all those perks, the competition among job hunters is fierce, and they face a demanding recruitment process. Deegan said at a presentation at a 2011 HR conference, "The manager can't just say, 'I want to hire Sue.' A committee looks at it, then another committee. By the time we finish, we're comfortable with who we want to hire." Candidates typically go through four interviews, usually during one visit. They may submit writing samples but do not take personality or skills tests. Chief Executive Officer Larry Page has final say on every candidate extended an offer. It's "an incredibly difficult process," Deegan told attendees.
In the name of diversity, last year Deegan's team identified 100 black women completing doctorates in engineering. Of those, Google recruiters wanted nine but ultimately hired only three, with the others going elsewhere.
Of course, Google no longer operates only a search engine; it has expanded into many high-tech services. Deegan helped bring its latest acquisition, Motorola Mobility, into the fold.
Deegan reports to Bock, who reports to Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette. In addition to Deegan's Central Staffing and Business Development team, other HR teams within People Operations include Benefits, Compensation and HR Analytics.
Deegan shares with HR peers a preoccupation with engagement—as measured, of course, by surveys. In particular, he studies employees' perception of the company as being "innovative" and "a fun place." The famous "20 percent time"—when some employees work on special projects outside their job descriptions—contributes to an innovative spirit. Myriad events and a relaxed atmosphere add levity to workdays.
How can a manager thrive in an environment where everyone is so smart? Deegan's answer: Be comfortable and confident. "I have seven direct reports all smarter on issues they deal with on a daily basis than I am. You want 'A' players—to hire people who have confidence. I want my people to be hugely successful and have great careers. I can bring certain things to the table.
"We tell employees, 'You own your career,' " Deegan adds. If an employee loves part of a job yet wants to do it on a different team, "it's cool," he says.
Hundreds of professional development classes, many taught by Google staff members—or "Googlers," as they are called—support growth. Among HR staff, a yearlong leadership program is popular.
Yet even with relentless effort to hire and train talent and analyze their worth, measuring productivity remains "tough," he admits. Managers must "set ambitious stretch goals, put users first and spend a lot of time with their teams."
Within his realm, examples of such goals include boosting engagement as measured by the confidential "Googlegeist" survey. Year to year, he sees improvement in, for instance, the proportion of workers who say the company fosters a "creative environment" and offers opportunities that would not require them to change employers for advancement.
Another facet of Google analytics requires that every worker, including Deegan, receive a 360-degree review. "My manager, and all my direct reports and others, complete a survey about how I am as a manager," he explains.
"In my 360, I was very surprised and pleased to find that I am self-aware and have a good idea of what my team thinks of me," he notes.
"I am very much an anti-micromanager. I view my role as a manager is to support folks. I ask them what they need help with—what bogs them down. I want to hire and build a team of superstars and let them build a really fun team."
Mike Gilligan's effective hockey coach management style "works with my team," Deegan says.
The author is editor of