Former Netflix CTO Reveals Key to Fostering a Team in Uncharted Territory

Innovating in business can often feel like being charging into uncharted, hostile territory.

Searching for the path to your objective, while surrounded on all sides by fierce competition, you must be able to expect change, and be prepared to adapt at any given moment.

Some make it through. The rest fail.

What makes the difference isn’t what you might think. It’s not vision. It’s not courage. It’s not even experience

So what is it?

Few are better equipped to answer that question than Patty McCord. Joining Netflix in 1998 alongside CEO Reed Hastings, McCord took on the role of Chief Talent Officer, and was with the company for 14 years.

If you know her name, it’s likely because you saw it on the front of the Netflix Culture Deck, the revered guidebook often referred to as the most important document to ever come out of Silicon Valley.

The culture deck was only meant as an internal document, designed to provide new employees with an exact understanding of what to expect, and what was expected of them, in their new job.

It’s now, in 2018, that McCord has bundled together her insights and approach in a book for public consumption entitled Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility.

Powerful provides an overview of how McCord deconstructed the traditional command-and-control management style, and introduce strategies considered radical even two decades later, such as the abolition of performance reviews.

With great candor, she takes us on a journey through the halls of Netflix to reveal that the company’s pioneering of subscription-based streaming services came down to a key focus: greater teamwork.

“Here is my radical proposition: a business leader’s job is to create great teams that do amazing work on time. That’s it. That’s the job of management.”

McCord makes a compelling argument, taking the reader back to the bursting of the dotcom bubble to reveal how she came to realise that so-called “engagement strategies” were actively disengaging and disincentivising employees.

To counter this, she devised a culture through which to give employees the freedom to tap into their power, and the responsibility that would ensure they exercised it effectively.

The Netflix we know today is entirely a result of this culture.

For Netflix fans, there’s some interesting facts to be found within the pages of Powerful.

McCord tells of how bringing engineers to a presentation on original content development led to the decision to release seasons of television shows all at once, and how the infamous Qwikster debacle was handled by the executive team.

It’s in the broader context of these stories that the true value of Powerful is to be found, however.

Everything that McCord talks about is scalable and may, in fact, work best in smaller businesses. It took over a decade for Netflix to enact all the culture shifts found in Powerful, and larger organisations are likely to experience a similar timeframe, even if they follow her advice to the letter.

Smaller companies have more flexibility to make big changes that will completely redefine their business. And, judging by McCord’s success, unless they have perfect systems already in place (unlikely), they should.

The reason is simple:

“Netflix may be an especially stark example, but all companies, from start-ups to corporate behemoths, must become great adapters. They need the ability to anticipate new market demands and to pounce on remarkable opportunities and new technologies.

Otherwise, the competition will simply innovate faster.”


Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility is available in bookstores and on ebook now.

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