July 27, 2023

TPL Insights #181 – Understanding the Why Behind Netflix-Its Mission, Values, and Screaming Success Part 2

By Rob Andrews

 

By Rob Andrews with italicized content from Netflix

Dream Team

A dream team is one in which all your colleagues are extraordinary at what they do and are highly effective collaborators. The value and satisfaction of being on a dream team is tremendous. Our version of the great workplace is not sushi lunches, great gyms, fancy offices, or frequent parties. Our version of the great workplace is a dream team in pursuit of ambitious common goals, for which we spend heavily. It is on such a team that you learn the most, perform your best work, improve the fastest, and have the most fun.

To have an entire company comprise the dream team (rather than just a few small groups) is challenging. Unquestionably, we have to hire well. We also have to foster collaboration, embrace a diversity of viewpoints, support information sharing, and discourage politics. The unusual part is that we give adequate performers a generous severance package so that we can find a star for that position. If you think of a professional sports team, it is up to the coach to ensure that every player on the field is amazing at their position and plays very effectively with the others. We model ourselves on being a team, not a family. A family is about unconditional love, despite, say, your siblings’ bad behavior. A dream team is about pushing yourself to be the best teammate you can be, caring intensely about your teammates, and knowing that you may not be on the team forever.

We have no bell curves or rankings or quotas such as “cut the bottom 10% every year.” That would be detrimental to fostering collaboration, and is a simplistic, rules-based approach we would never support. We focus on managers’ judgment through the “keeper test” for each of their people: if one of the members of the team was thinking of leaving for another firm, would the manager try hard to keep them from leaving? Those who do not pass the keeper test (i.e. their manager would not fight to keep them) are promptly and respectfully given a generous severance package so we can find someone for that position that makes us an even better dream team. Getting cut from our team is very disappointing, but there is no shame. Being on a dream team can be the thrill of a professional lifetime.

Given our dream team orientation, it is very important that managers communicate frequently with each of their team members about where they stand so surprises are rare. Also, it is safe for any employee at any time to check in with their manager by asking, “How hard would you work to change my mind if I were thinking of leaving?” In the tension between honesty and kindness, we lean into honesty. No matter how honest, though, we treat people with respect.

One might assume that with dream team focus, people are afraid of making mistakes. In fact, it’s the opposite. We try all kinds of things and make plenty of mistakes as we search for improvement. The keeper test is applied as a judgment of someone’s overall expected contribution.

Within a dream team, collaboration and trust work well because your colleagues are both exceptionally skilled at what they do, and at working well with others. In describing selflessness, we say “You make time to help colleagues. You share information openly and proactively.” We want new colleagues to feel very welcome and get all the support they need to be effective.

People like loyalty, and it is great as a stabilizer. Employees with a strong track record at Netflix get leeway if their performance takes a temporary dip. Similarly, we ask employees to stick with Netflix through any short-term dips. But unconditional allegiance to a stagnant firm, or to a merely-adequately-performing employee, is not what we are about.

On a dream team, there are no “brilliant jerks.” The cost to teamwork is just too high. Our view is that brilliant people are also capable of decent human interactions, and we insist upon that. When highly capable people work together in a collaborative context, they inspire each other to be more creative, more productive, and ultimately more successful as a team than they could be as a collection of individuals.

Succeeding on a dream team is about being effective, not about working hard. Sustained “B” performance, despite an “A” for effort, gets a respectful severance package. Sustained “A” performance, even with a modest level of effort, gets rewarded. Of course, to be great, most of us have to put in considerable effort, but hard work and long hours is not how we measure or talk about a person’s contribution.

Being on a dream team is not right for everyone, and that is OK. Many people value job security very highly, and would prefer to work at companies whose orientation is more about stability, seniority, and working around inconsistent employee effectiveness. Our model works best for people who highly value consistent excellence in their colleagues.

To help us attract and retain stunning colleagues, we pay employees at the top of their personal market. We make a good-faith estimate of the highest compensation each employee could make at peer firms, and pay them that maximum. Typically, we calibrate to market once a year. We do not think of these as “raises” and there is no raise pool to divide up. The market for talent is what it is. We avoid the model of “2% raise for adequate, 4% raise for great”. Some employees’ market value will rapidly rise (due both to their performance and to a shortage of talent in their areas), while other employees may be flat year-to-year, despite doing great work. At all times, we aim to pay all of our people at the top of their personal market.

Note that if our company experienced financial difficulty, we wouldn’t ask our employees to accept less pay. A sports team with a losing record still pays top of personal market for the players they hope will get them back into a winning position. On the other hand, if the company does well, our broadly distributed stock options become quite valuable.

Ultimately, your economic security is based on your skills and reputation, not on your seniority at one company. At Netflix, you learn a lot working on hard problems with amazing colleagues, and what you learn increases your market value. Knowing that other companies would quickly hire you if you left Netflix is comforting. We see occasional outside interviewing as healthy, and encourage employees to talk with their managers about what they learn in the process.

While our teammates are fantastic, and we work together very well, we know we can always do better. We strive to have calm confidence, and yet yearn to improve. We suck compared to how great we want to become.

Freedom and Responsibility

There are companies where people ignore trash on the floor in the office, leaving it for someone else to pick it up, and there are companies where people in the office lean down to pick up the trash they see, as they would at home. We try hard to be the latter, a company where everyone feels a sense of responsibility to do the right thing to help the company at every juncture. Picking up the trash is the metaphor for taking care of problems, small and large, and never thinking “that’s not my job.” We don’t have rules about picking up the real or metaphoric trash. We try to create a sense of ownership so that this behavior comes naturally.

Our goal is to inspire people more than manage them. We trust our teams to do what they think is best for Netflix — giving them lots of freedom, power, and information in support of their decisions. In turn, this generates a sense of responsibility and self-discipline that drives us to do great work that benefits the company.

We believe that people thrive on being trusted, on freedom, and on being able to make a difference. So, we foster freedom and empowerment wherever we can.

In many organizations, there is an unhealthy emphasis on process and not much freedom. These organizations didn’t start that way, but the python of process squeezed harder every time something went wrong. Specifically, many organizations have freedom and responsibility when they are small. Everyone knows each other, and everyone picks up the trash. As they grow, however, the business gets more complex, and sometimes the average talent and passion level goes down. As the informal, smooth-running organization starts to break down, pockets of chaos emerge, and the general outcry is to “grow up” and add traditional management and process to reduce the chaos. As rules and procedures proliferate, the value system evolves into rule following (i.e. that is how you get rewarded). If this standard management approach is done well, then the company becomes very efficient at its business model — the system is dummy-proofed, and creative thinkers are told to stop questioning the status quo. This kind of organization is very specialized and well adapted to its business model. Eventually, however, over 10 to 100 years, the business model inevitably has to change, and most of these companies are unable to adapt.

I sincerely hope this piece has been helpful. Sign up for our blog for complementary resources and explore our website for additional tools. Give us a call and let us help you build your own peak performance culture.

Warmest Regards,

Rob