fighting the good fight

Bernard Moon pointed out these slides on the culture at Netflix, which may be the best presentation on company culture that I’ve ever seen.  But does that mean that Netflix actually has an effective culture?

Of course not, you can’t tell from a slideshow how a company really operates.  Employee comments are helpful, but not conclusive – Netflix has public reviews at Jobvent, Telonu and Glassdoor, which show a mixed approval rating.  But from the outside you never know if the complainers are malcontent underperformers, or if the fans are deluded Kool-Aid drinkers.

At Linden Lab, we spent a lot of time on company culture, creating and periodically revising the Tao of Linden.  That document was similar to the stated Netflix culture in emphasizing a high degree of both choice and responsibility.  I loved the culture we built, as did many employees, but I can’t say that it’s a culture that works for everyone.  And I won’t say that there’s any single best way to run a company (though there are many undeniably wrong ways).

I’ve worked in some centralized, command-and-control environments, and cultures based on internal competition and depersonalization to the point of dehumanization.  And I’ve had plenty of fun in most of these places.  I’ve come to believe that the single most important thing about a company culture is whether or not management truly believes the culture matters.

Every management team will give at least some lip service to company culture.  The companies that stop at mere lip service end up with hollow words engraved in the lobby – these are the truly miserable places to work.  The companies that put real time and thought into their culture, in the firm conviction that a great culture is required for enduring success – these are always great places to work, almost independent of the actual values of the culture.

Commitment to the culture, a genuine determination to fight the good fight to make the company a place with a certain cultural identity – this always leads to a great place to work for some set of people.  A culture of choice and cooperation works well for certain kinds of people.  A culture of command and competitiveness works well for others.  Even a culture based on greed and amorality can work, depending on the industry.

Which is not to say that anyone can work in any culture – in fact I’m saying just the opposite:  you should understand what preferences and constraints your own personal values carry, for this determines what kinds of cultures you will enjoy.  And then it will be easy to identify the companies that express your cultural values.  The hard part will be determining whether the leadership is really committed to fighting the good fight.

culture wars

From the Department of Unsolicited Advice:  Jack Flack gives Carol Bartz six pieces of advice as she tackles the Yahoo CEO job.  Blodget likes all but the first, about reducing the friggin’ moxie, since a little pseudo-profanity makes his own job more entertaining.

To add my own unsolicited advice, which Bartz surely doesn’t need:  only the second point, about the folly of stalking leakers, has a lot of merit – but Blodget already said it much better.  It’s the fifth point that inspired me to post, because it’s truly terrible advice:

5. Ignore the current company culture. Courting the employee masses will have limited upside. Many Yahoos still actually bleed purple, but the percentage of destructive malcontents in Sunnyvale, Calif., rivals that of even the cheesiest reality show. Consequently, the best way to get early traction will be to create a small inner circle of people who want to win, and build from there. As you make decisive moves that are applauded, your support base will grow quickly.

I’m not sure exactly what he means by “ignore the current company culture,” but any way you read it, it’s bad advice.  If he means that the current culture is that of destructive malcontents, then why would you ignore that?  Fixing that poisonous culture should be a top priority.  If he means that cultural change is accomplished by anointing an inner circle of true believers, that’s wrong too – instead it’s a sure formula for creating (or reinforcing, if it already exists) a toxic culture of self-interested politics.

The worst interpretation would be that Bartz should ignore whatever remains of the passion that first made the company succeed, the purple blood that so famously runs in the veins of the devout Yahoos.  That’s exactly the opposite of what the CEO should do.  A great CEO would find and nurture that spark, because it is the only hope of returning the company to any semblance of greatness.  It is eminently possible to revitalize that culture while still weeding out the malcontents and malingerers; in fact, doing the latter would go a long way to accomplishing the former.

Establishing and reinforcing a great company culture is one of the key jobs of any CEO.  The only exception would be if the CEO really was only hired to sell the company ASAP – while that may end up as the outcome, I don’t think Bartz would have come out of retirement if that were her only possible objective.