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.

loving and leaving linden lab

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)

I love Linden Lab.  Over the past four years, I’ve poured everything I had into the company.  Leaving was a tough decision.  But at the same time, it was easy to see that it was time for me to go.

Departure missives are a tricky thing.  This is actually my third for this same departure:  I said goodbye to the company internally, I posted to the company blog, and now here’s one for my own blog.  Why so many?

I’ve studied the art of the departure memo, it’s really quite interesting.  The business world sees many comings and goings, and in certain companies, internal communications are destined to get leaked – and you can see that the authors know this.  Compare two examples from the same company, Yahoo:

  • Stewart Butterfield’s resignation was bizarre, funny, and ultimately a scathing indictment of a place that overdiversified and lost the love of innovation.
  • Sue Decker was more restrained, with a classic and classy goodbye that nevertheless could be read as a defensive listing of all the progress made under her watch.

In their own way, each goodbye note took pains to remind people of the author’s special qualities and accomplishments.  I avoided doing that in my earlier announcements.  It’s not that I’m especially modest –  I just didn’t want to muck up messages to colleagues, customers and company commentators with shameless self-promotion.  There’s a time and place for self-promotion.  Like right here, on my own damn blog.

Ah, but I’ve never been great at claiming credit.  I’m struck by the wisdom that one mentor told me earlier in my career, which I’ll paraphrase as:

Success has many fathers, and even more virgins trying to claim paternity.  No one who wasn’t there can really understand the full story, and even the ones who were there didn’t see everything.  But you’ll know what you did, and so will the people that matter.  Let the others play their guessing games.

So then here’s a game to play.  When success really does have many fathers, how do people claim any successes for their own?  I thought about what successes I’d want to highlight from my time at Linden, and I realized that any of them could have at least two opposing interpretations.

my would-be claim one idea opposing idea
key exec in managing company growth from early revenue to profitable phenomenon can spot and guide a winner just along for the ride
lead exec in many areas through company history: international markets, legal, finance, HR, developer relations, enterprise segment, business and corporate development multifunctional business executive short attention span to the point of personality disorder
led finance through early revenue, raising $15+ million equity and debt financing, accurately projecting 2+ years of revenue growth within 10% talented early-stage financier and prognosticator wild-ass guesser
early leader of international growth from 30% to 70+% of audience makes worldwide progress with limited resources strained the organization beyond its ability to grow
established basic legal and regulatory policy and strategies, with humor insightful thinker on social and governmental issues paper-pushing policy dork, with wicked streak
architected Linden Dollar as unique virtual currency and multimillion real dollar business fearless and creative new product innovator reckless and dispiriting goon
wrote, tweaked, and rewrote the Tao of Linden sensitive guardian of company culture feckless appeaser of management fads
executive sponsor of startup-within-a-startup initiative for enterprise segment constant pioneer in new markets and strategy focus-diluting disruptor
negotiated and managed acquisition and integration of several businesses accomplished M&A dealmaker heartless crusher of helpless entrepreneurs
helped recruit and integrate new management team before departure selfless assembler of talent ruthless operative in reorg-and-run

Can I claim any of these successes as wholly my own? Where does the truth lie? Would the modesty of my saying that all opposed ideas could be true be undercut by the implication that I would then be claiming a first-rate intelligence?

Ah well, that’s about the best I can do for self-promotion.