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How to Become a More Fearless HR Leader

Step out into the unknown to find career challenge and fulfillment

A businessman jumping over a cliff.

Steve Cadigan began his HR career as a recruiter for a small fashion startup. A transition into a generalist role with a commercial insurance company provided a larger playing field and an opportunity to excel in a corporate environment. As a destination company (where employees often worked their entire careers) there was less concern about turnover, so when he moved to the more volatile world of tech, he found that he needed a more strategic approach to talent acquisition and development.

Cadigan honed his strategic thinking skills in a mergers and acquisitions role at Cisco Systems. When Cisco moved him to Singapore to help run its Asia operations, he added international experience and cultural acumen to his career portfolio.

"If you really want to get ahead, you have to sit in as many spots as possible and find your expertise. It doesn't matter whether you start out as a recruiter or a generalist, you can learn from any position," Cadigan said.

He wasn't actively job hunting when a friend convinced him to interview with LinkedIn. The company was not yet a household name, and he was anxious about working for another startup. That changed after a series of interviews with the entire executive team.

"I fell in love with the people and the culture. I thought it had the potential to change the world," he said.

During the nearly four years he worked as their vice president of talent, LinkedIn grew from 400 employees to 4,000, largely by building its brand and its culture.

"We were competing for talent with companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. We couldn't match their salaries so we decided to create a culture that offered our employees a transformative experience," Cadigan said.

After nearly four years of intense, nonstop activity, he was ready for a different kind of adventure. Having been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, he moved on to co-found ISDI Digital University in San Francisco and started his own consulting firm.

No Pain, No Gain

Cadigan is that rare breed of HR leader who isn't afraid of stretch goals—career challenges that "cannot be achieved by incremental or small improvements but require extending oneself to the limit to be actualized," according to "Expressed in the saying: 'You cannot cross a chasm in two steps.' "

In a survey of 2,187 CEOs and business leaders, the leadership consulting firm of Zenger Folkman identified "establishing stretch goals" as the No.1 competency gap among HR leaders.

"HR leaders can be overly risk averse to their own detriment. Fear drives mediocrity. It's necessary to take risks to move forward," said Steve Rice, CHRO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.

Rice encourages forward-thinking HR professionals to eschew a passive wait-and-see approach in favor of a bolder, show-no-fear attitude.

He attributes his own success to his willingness to challenge assumptions and, if necessary, jettison programs and processes that are no longer working.

It may initially be easier for some newcomers to the profession to think outside that proverbial box; this is, in part, because they haven't accumulated a lifetime of professional experience working inside the box. More experienced people have the advantage of expertise. But it's only an advantage if it doesn't lead to complacency.

Rice spent the first 25 years of his career at Hewlett-Packard. His familiarity and comfort level with technology laid the groundwork for his later success. At Jupiter Networks, he championed the "personalization of technology" as a signature feature of many of his accomplishments. Regardless of whether he was revamping performance management systems, learning systems, or employee surveys, he always focused on tailoring the content to the user.

Regardless of where you are in your career, it is beneficial to approach each situation and relationship with fresh eyes.

"We can't be satisfied with the easy ways of doing things," said John Hudson, business partner with Slalom Consulting in Chicago. "We have to challenge assumptions. We can't just make knee-jerk decisions based on what everyone else is doing."

Growth typically involves some risk as well as some failure. Don't be so afraid of making mistakes that you're unwilling to try something different.

"It sounds like Orwellian 'doublespeak' to say, 'Failing is good.' But modest levels of failure can promote a willingness to take risks and foster resilience-enhancing experimentation," said Sim Sitkin, faculty director of the Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke University.

Author Peter Sims suggests making a series of "little bets" to determine what might be a good direction, gather information, and test out ideas.

"Little bets are a way to explore and develop new possibilities. Specifically, a little bet is a low-risk action taken to discover, develop and test an idea," said Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Build a Strong Support System

"It's important to build an ecosystem of people you can turn to for advice and who challenge you to move outside your comfort zone," Cadigan said.

Zella King recommends creating a personal boardroom that functions much like a company's board of directors.

"People say it's important to have a network. But what does that really mean?" said King, CEO and co-founder of Personal Boardroom in the UK. "It's not about random connections with a lot of people. It's about a few high-quality relationships with people who can help you succeed."

She recommends creating a personal boardroom with three categories of contacts:

  • Informational connections. Provide knowledge, information and expertise to help you address challenges and solve problems.
  • Power connections. People who are in positions of influence who can open new doors for you.
  • Development connections. People whose primary function is to help you grow and learn.

Following King's lead, ask yourself: Who are you surrounding yourself with? Do these people have the knowledge, experience and desire to help you grow and succeed? If not, you begin to think more carefully about who you might want to ask to join your personal boardroom.

"You can never predict exactly what skills will be needed in the future," Cadigan said. "So invest the necessary time in nurturing your network and helping your network solve problems so that you can leverage it when you need it."

Associations like the Society for Human Resource Management offer a treasure trove of information and access to thousands of HR professionals in all different kinds of organizations and with a wealth of complementary expertise to help you navigate unfamiliar territory.

Cultivate a Vision

The HR function touches everyone in an organization. This gives HR leaders a unique opportunity to become true business partners, team leaders and employee advocates.

At Slalom, Hudson is working closely with senior leadership to foster a culture where people are not afraid to experiment with different approaches.

"We want our organization to become a culture of learners, not a culture of knowers, so we try to give our people space to grow and learn, to fail and try new things without retribution," Hudson said. "Even more than that, we reward people for taking risks."

Meaningful feedback is viewed as essential to that process.

"If you are trying to build a culture of feedback, an HR leader must lead the way in providing peers and colleagues with direct feedback given with care and the intent to help that person grow," Hudson said. "Trust is the foundation of performance management and relationships.

Leaders need to model the behavior they want to encourage in others. For example, Slalom leaders are encouraged to share stories that show their vulnerabilities, so that their struggles are made visible and others can relate to their challenges.

"Leaders go first," Hudson said.

Cadigan likens his role as an HR leader to that of a sports coach: "In its purest form, what I love about HR is what I love about being a coach in sports. In HR you are looking to put together the best teams and the best possible organization. This takes constant assessment and awareness of the qualities of every member of your organization. If you love this, you will love HR. The art of coordinating people to achieve something great is about as good as it gets."

It takes courage to become a great leader. But it's a misconception to assume that courageous leaders don't get scared. What they tend to do differently is to leverage their fear in order to accomplish their goals.

"When I'm scared, that's when I feel most energized and alive," Cadigan said.

Or as the late psychologist Susan Jeffers wisely advised: "Feel the fear and do it anyway." 

 Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.  

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