LinkedIn’s Dan Shapero on How ‘More Than Ever, Companies Win or Lose on Their People’

Dan Shapero is vice president, talent solutions, careers, & learning, at LinkedIn. He’s responsible for LinkedIn’s $3 billion+ talent solutions business, as well as products for job seekers, learners, and employers. I caught up with him at LinkedIn’s recent Talent Connect conference in Anaheim, California, and conducted and condensed this interview.

Q: You started your first company when you were 19, and you sold it when you were 20 or 21. How did you manage that? You don’t hear of a lot of 19-year-olds starting something and then selling it within a couple of years.

A: Well, there’s a story that people tell around a college student having an idea and building a business in their dorm room.

Q: That’s the Mark Zuckerberg model.

A. Good for him on the business that came out of that. For me, it’s actually a funny story.

I started thinking I was going to be a professor. In school I always loved teaching, and it’s always been my second career choice. I’d taken all these classes in advanced math, which was my major. I remember a moment where I realized I was getting into some math that was so esoteric that I’d never use it in my life. And I was very depressed about this. I went home and I talked to my Dad about how maybe I should drop out of college and go get a job. And he said, “Well, why don’t you get your degree? Why don’t you find a project to work on that keeps you excited?”

The Internet was just coming around at that time. I had experienced the challenges of being a high school athlete — not the best, but good enough to play in college. Engaging with college coaches was really challenging. So my friend and I built a platform for high school soccer players to get recruited by college soccer coaches. The funny thing about this is that I essentially built a platform to recruit people based on profiles 20 years ago. I didn’t have the big idea that (LinkedIn co-founder and former executive chairman Reid Hoffman) did.

I’d always been attracted to this idea of helping people find the opportunities that could be meaningful to their lives and help find the best paths to pursue their passion. When I graduated, we sold it to a company that was an international soccer conglomerate.

Q: What was the big takeaway from that experience?

A: I don’t know that I have a big takeaway except that I loved it — all of the ups and all of the downs. I loved the experience of building something. In fact, there’s a book — Startup by Jerry Kaplan — and it’s about the tragedy of a startup, a company that raised a bunch of money and miserably failed. At the end of reading that in college, I wanted to be the guy that failed.

The lessons I learned were all about the little things like picking up the phone and calling people. I didn’t know to ask them for help with things like making mistakes on someone’s credit card billing and having to call them and apologize for that. All of those things were completely new to me and very stressful. That taught me what it’s like to build a business.

I had the American Express card woman, because we accepted American Express on our site, show up at my fraternity house to check our card readers to see if they were right. When she showed up, I had to welcome her into the frat house.

Q: Was she surprised?

A: She was in shock. We were a website, so she didn’t even understand. She said, “You don’t have a store.” This is back in 1998.

Q: When you had your first company, did you have employees? What was it like to be a boss at such a young age?

A: It wasn’t so official. It was, “Hey Dan, can you go to this soccer tournament and put flyers on all the cars? Could you use some extra money for the weekend?”

Q: When did you really feel that “I’m a boss of these people?” 

A: It happened during my time at Bain & Company. That was my first real managerial experience.

Bain has a wonderful culture. In fact, several of the cultural tenets at LinkedIn are similar with Bain. The mental model of management needing to tell people what to do is the opposite of what it ends up being in high-performing teams. For me there was a process of learning what great management actually looks like, trying to embody it, and learning it in a high-stakes environment where you’re really helping companies make big decisions.

Q: That probably gave you good lessons for when you joined LinkedIn.

A: Absolutely. But I got lucky in joining LinkedIn. You know when you hit the lottery working for a manager, and I spent my first five years at LinkedIn working for Mike Gamson, who is our head of global sales. He is a leadership and managerial phenomenon, a cultural icon of the company. He exudes belief in his people while holding them to a high standard. How we treat each other and how we do our work is as important as the results we get. Learning leadership under Mike is one of the great gifts in my career. You can’t just mimic what someone else does, but you can learn from what they do.

Q: Having a great boss is something many people don’t ever get.

A: The thing I learned is that the elements of a great leader are, in a lot of ways, the same elements of a great person. Some people have this idea that leaders act a certain way and have a certain bravado about them. I actually think the truth is far from that, and that the people others want to follow are those who are true to themselves, have authenticity in their relationships, and are great people.

You really want to work for great people, so realizing that being a great leader was just being a better person is very liberating in a lot of ways.

Q: Talk about your LinkedIn experience during your 10 years there. What has changed over time?

A: Joining LinkedIn felt very like a return to what I really wanted to do because I found that you learn a lot about yourself. The three things that make me want to work somewhere are 1) I want to enjoy the people I work with; 2) I want to care about the purpose of the company and the mission we’re trying to achieve; and, 3) I want to be learning as fast as possible because I firmly believe that the people who learn the fastest over the course of their careers get the best opportunities and the most interesting experiences. LinkedIn has continued to give me the ability to have those three things. It’s hard to consider doing something else.

I’ve also done a lot of different things while I’ve been at LinkedIn. I spent the first five years building the sales team and our recruiting business. I did it with no sales experience, but my manager made a bet on me and taught me how to become a sales leader overnight. I grew the sales and recruiting business from about $50 million to about a billion dollars four years later.

Then based on a conversation with Jeff Weiner, our CEO, where we were talking about my aspirations to one day lead a great tech company, he prodded me to explore a product because he said that ultimately, great tech companies are built on great technology and great products. If you want to lead a great tech company someday you should learn how great tech products are built.

I had had some product experience in college and I’d done a bunch of coding, so I knew a little bit about it, but it had been a very long time. I went from running global sales to becoming an individual contributor on the product team. After a little bit of a test run they started giving me more and more product space where I was responsible for the job seeking experience, the recruiting products, and the learning products. That’s what’s led me to where I am today. I’ve been in that journey for about four years now.

Q: On your LinkedIn profile you describe that journey as your “tour of duty.”

A: Yeah, Reid Hoffman uses that term and I like it a lot because it allows you to think about your career in chunks and then be very deliberate about the different pieces of the puzzle that you’re trying to put together.

Q: How has LinkedIn changed? 

A: I would say that we’re a consumer platform, first and foremost. We think about LinkedIn as a place where professionals come together and help each other to accomplish their business goals to make them more productive and successful. Engagement on the platform is at all time high. In fact, it’s accelerating, so we’re seeing more activity.

Q: How many users do you have now?

A: Over 575 million.

Q: Wow. How many people does LinkedIn employ?

A: I think it’s around 12,000.

Q: That’s a good sized company.

A: It is. We helped over 4 million people get jobs last year.

Q: That’s impressive.

A: The business is doing fantastic, and that is why there’s so much thinking big going on at LinkedIn. It’s a great time to double down on our vision and lay the groundwork for the next phase. What’s interesting about LinkedIn is that the values of the product and the values of the company haven’t changed in that span. Have you read Reid Hoffman’s book The Start-Up of You?

Q: Yes.

A: If you go back and read that book again, you’ll see the road map of the product as it’s played out in an unusually visionary way. Reid had an idea of how the world should work and how people should take control of their careers by thinking of themselves as startups, and the product has followed suit over the last 15 years. In fact, we had a meeting recently where we were talking about how we need to make sure every employee has read that book and that they go back to this first principle because it still applies today as much as it did 15 years ago.

Q: What’s your take on the state of recruiting and talent acquisition?

A: I think that there’s a recognition in the world more than ever that companies win or lose on their people, and we actually are starting to use not just people, but teams, because it’s not just who the people are, but how they come together.

That’s created a flurry of innovation in the talent space, with recruiting being one part, but also in learning and development, and employee engagement, insights and analytics, and diversity. One thing people experience at Talent Connect is a broadening of the way that LinkedIn thinks about participating in the talent space. Whereas once we were really thought of as a recruiting business, we’re now becoming a talent business.

Within recruiting there are a number of challenges that people are trying to address, and the ones that I hear about most are that we’ve entered a world where it’s not hard to find names, but it’s hard to make sure you’re spending time with the right ones as quickly as possible. How do I not spend hundreds of hours sorting through candidates and applicants to get to the right short list?

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We believe that there’s a wonderful role LinkedIn can play in two aspects. One is using AI machine learning to focus you on the right people. The second is bringing the sourcing and managing of candidates together into a single experience.

The third challenge is diversity. We’re (talking) about a role that we believe we can play in helping companies hire more diverse teams.

Q: Diversity is really a big nut to crack that everybody’s been talking about … and struggling with.

A: We definitely don’t have all the answers, but we think there’s a role that we can play. There are a couple specific areas where we think we can help.

One is having data about the gender and diversity of different talent pools. Are you looking in the places where you’re naturally already biasing the results you’re going to get? LinkedIn Talent Insights is a product that’s going to have diversity insights built into it so that when you’re trying to figure out where you’re going to go fish (for job candidates), you can understand the implications of those decisions. That’s a really important thing for us. Also you’ll be able to benchmark yourself against other companies.

The other area where we can help is when you’re searching for candidates. We want to make sure that the people you’re getting back are representative of the population. We’ve done a bunch of work on our end just to make sure that that’s the case. We’ll be sharing more about both these things. We’ll actually be talking about the three ways that we’re infusing that into the product, and we’ve been starting with the gender lens where we feel we’re in the best position to kind of execute all of that right now.

Q: How many members did LinkedIn have when you started?

A: About 20 million, I think. I was there for the 20 million celebration.

Q: Isn’t that amazing to go from 20 million to 575 million in 10 years?

A: Yeah. The whole experience has been awesome.

Q: Ten years at a company is a long time. Where do you go from here?

A: I have a philosophy that I share with people that I work with of being impatient for learning but patient for (a new) title. I’m at LinkedIn because I care deeply about what we do and because I continue to learn at a very fast pace. I really can’t imagine doing anything else as long as those things are there for me because I also happen to love the people I work with.

When people ask me, “how long do you think you’ll be at LinkedIn?” I say “indefinitely.” That’s the word I tend to use when people ask, because I really love what I do.

Q: Nobody knows what the future holds. Sometimes things pop up that are unexpected and take you down a different path.

A: Absolutely. I think serendipity does play a role in everyone’s life. There are lots of people that believe that they need to do something different to move forward. My experience has been that continuing to move the ball forward where you are is often the path that gets you to what your ultimate goals are, and I’ve found that in spades at LinkedIn.

John Hollon

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.