Computer Programming Management

Powerful – what we can learn from Netflix’s culture book

August 5, 2020

I’ve been studying management and company cultures for a while and one of the books suggested to me was “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility” by Patty McCord.

The book talks about their employee culture, their values, how they handle building teams, how they see communication, how HR connects with management, and more.

Reading it was effortless as it is so well written and organized in such a way that you can pause after each chapter and think about the subject. I had my pencil and paper to take notes (yup, I’m not digital at all times), I discussed many of the points with my manager and I decided to write about it.

First, some context

I’m a Brazilian iOS developer and I have been working with technology for almost five years now. I worked in software houses and companies with one main product. I went from creating screens to being a team leader, to a mobile platform team. I am also very plural on my work and I do other activities besides coding. I organize events, I host a podcast, I do diversity-related things, I write a lot, tons of stuff.

When reading the book I connected with so many points and I also could see how a country/nation culture can influence how people behave in the work environment.

Transparency

The thing I liked the most about Netflix’s culture was the commitment to be transparent at all levels. Sharing bad news and possible demissions, listening to people’s ideas and complaints, debating different views, and especially, giving negative feedback.

We are not used to sharing what we don’t like about something or someone, at least here in Brazil, afraid of the person’s reaction or afraid that it will backfire on us. However, I’m pretty sure that in an honest environment with emotionally intelligent people, the work-life is way more productive and mature.

“We wanted people to practice radical honesty: telling one another, and us, the truth in a timely fashion and ideally face to face.”

As Patty wrote on the book, this is a skill to be developed. It might be interesting to practice your speech first or try it out with your manager, absolutely remove the emotions, have specific examples or even suggest solutions.

Anonymity

I detest anonymous comments, in most contexts, it gives people the idea that they can say whatever they want in whatever tone and there won’t be any consequences. It also gives the idea that “it’s best to be more honest when people don’t know who you are”.

Being transparent with your employees should give them the security to being truthful in return, knowing that it’s safe and encouraged behaviour.

People already have power, don’t take it away

A phrase highly repeated in companies is “we need to empower our staff” or “we need to develop a sense of ownership on teams”. I always felt weird about those comments, you know when something reaches the ear and it sounds funny?

I believe that for a person to develop power and ownership, they just have to be given the opportunity. Of course, it’s a manager’s responsibility, *together* with the employee, to dose how much power is given. There’s nothing worse than not having space to talk.

Look at your team, are you actually listening to people or do you pretend to listen and then dismiss everything they said? Do you have too much bureaucracy or is your company structure too vertical that people aren’t heard?

Being five months into working from home, quarantined alone, I can definitely say that being heard jointly to a clear purpose of what has to be done and a team of capable truthful people, is much more important than free drinks or snacks.

All employees should understand the business

“Great teams are made when every single member knows where they’re going and will do anything to get there.”

It doesn’t matter how long an individual has been in the company or the position they occupy, from the HR team to development to customer service, everyone should be aligned with the company’s mission.

Of course different people will have different levels of interest. Some might want to understand how everything is connected while others are only interested in what directly impacts their work. Still they must have the same objectives for the product.

According to Patty, you should be able to stop a person in the hall and ask “What are the five top most important things the company is working on for the next six months?”. If someone is not able to answer that, chances are you’re not sharing enough information or requiring everyone to deeply understand the business.

Thus, constantly share information about your company’s motivations and how it’s doing in the market, the good and the bad numbers. It can be on an open page for employees or a monthly meeting with graphs. Choose your model, just don’t hide things.

Building a team

“Excellent colleagues, a clear purpose, and well-understood deliverables: that’s the powerful combination”

I’m an advocate of diversity and heavily talk about how companies should do their part in changing the patriarchal and racist culture that we live in. And for me, one of the things I believe companies should be doing is hiring and evolving people from minorities. Despite not agreeing with all of Netflix’s culture on hiring and lay-offs, there are some points that I do agree with. Let’s talk about that.

Hiring people for specific needs

Depending on the product your company is developing, there might be moments when you need a very specific set of skills to solve a problem. Together with “time to market”, training your current staff to acquire those skills may not be the best option. However, I strongly believe people with talent and willingness should be given the opportunity to learn and grow with the business.

You should also continually evaluate what are your teams’ weaknesses and needs. Rarely more is better, instead, focus on hiring people that will be able to help you with your current and future challenges, and not just to fill out spaces.

Another quick quote that I loved and praise: “We were also determined not to make the incredibly common mistake of promoting into management roles strong performers who are simply not well suited to managing.”

Give people the job they are good at, not the one you need them to do.

HR and management must work together

I, particularly, believe that HR should have a deep knowledge of what candidates are supposed to know. Let’s say I have an open position for a senior iOS developer, my HR person will have to know what are monorepos, or that we manage it using Buck which is a build tool, created by Facebook and so on. It’s not enough to send a list of bullet points the HR person will try to check in a phone conversation. Sit down with your hiring team and explain to them what you do, the tools you use, and what is expected from interviewers.

On the other hand, managers and other involved personnel should deeply understand how the hiring process works, every step, what is expected from, and who’s responsible for each one of them.

Give constant feedback

There are many ways to deliver constant feedback. It might be through one-on-one meetings, online tools, kudo cards, you name it. What is relevant is to keep your staff aligned with the company’s purpose, listen to their complaints, find issues early, and fix them as soon as possible.

This is already how I’m used to working and I cannot think about doing it differently. It just does not make any sense to have problems with an employee and only tell them six months later, on an evaluation where they will do poorly and probably be fired because of it.

Some of the book’s suggestions are to decouple your performance reviews from the compensation systems, having regular meetings instead of only an annual review, or even use a dynamic where teams say what are the things the should start/stop/continue doing. If you have any experience with scrum, the latest can be correlated to a retrospective ceremony.

Retention

“The measure should not be simply how many people you are keeping but how many great people you have with the skills and experience you need”

Throughout my years of working with technology, I have met people with way different views of what they want a job to be, what kinds of challenges they like to pursue, what motivates them to stay at a company, and even what will make them leave. Good retention cannot be represented by a simple formula.

Patty says that Netflix’s team culture can be compared to a sports team. When someone is not performing well and is not helping with business growth, they are let go. It sounds harsh and I was skeptical at first, but if you think of the opposite, a person who is driven by turning chaos into a well-organized process, it will have a limited amount of assignments at each company they work at and will then move to their next challenge.

Conclusion

Crafting a company’s culture is not an easy process at all. It has to be thoughtful, adaptive, evolutionary and it has to be throughly aligned with the business values.

What I took from this book and I think you can take with you as well, is to be truthful, transparent, to listen to people, and value the power they already have within them. Having a clear open purpose will motivate your employees to help build a very successful business.

Cheers!

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