Sheryl Sandberg has called it one of the most important documents ever to come out of Silicon Valley. It’s been viewed more than 5 million times on the web. But when Reed Hastings and I (along with some colleagues) wrote a PowerPoint deck explaining how we shaped the culture and motivated performance at Netflix, where Hastings is CEO and I was chief talent officer from 1998 to 2012, we had no idea it would go viral. We realized that some of the talent management ideas we’d pioneered, such as the concept that workers should be allowed to take whatever vacation time they feel is appropriate, had been seen as a little crazy (at least until other companies started adopting them). But we were surprised that an unadorned set of 127 slides—no music, no animation—would become so influential.
People find the Netflix approach to talent and culture compelling for a few reasons. The most obvious one is that Netflix has been really successful: During 2013 alone its stock more than tripled, it won three Emmy awards, and its U.S. subscriber base grew to nearly 29 million. All that aside, the approach is compelling because it derives from common sense. In this article I’ll go beyond the bullet points to describe five ideas that have defined the way Netflix attracts, retains, and manages talent. But first I’ll share two conversations I had with early employees, both of which helped shape our overall philosophy.
The first took place in late 2001. Netflix had been growing quickly: We’d reached about 120 employees and had been planning an IPO. But after the dot-com bubble burst and the 9/11 attacks occurred, things changed. It became clear that we needed to put the IPO on hold and lay off a third of our employees. It was brutal. Then, a bit unexpectedly, DVD players became the hot gift that Christmas. By early 2002 our DVD-by-mail subscription business was growing like crazy. Suddenly we had far more work to do, with 30% fewer employees.
One day I was talking with one of our best engineers, an employee I’ll call John. Before the layoffs, he’d managed three engineers, but now he was a one-man department working very long hours. I told John I hoped to hire some help for him soon. His response surprised me. “There’s no rush—I’m happier now,” he said. It turned out that the engineers we’d laid off weren’t spectacular—they were merely adequate. John realized that he’d spent too much time riding herd on them and fixing their mistakes. “I’ve learned that I’d rather work by myself than with subpar performers,” he said. His words echo in my mind whenever I describe the most basic element of Netflix’s talent philosophy: The best thing you can do for employees—a perk better than foosball or free sushi—is hire only “A” players to work alongside them. Excellent colleagues trump everything else.
The second conversation took place in 2002, a few months after our IPO. Laura, our bookkeeper, was bright, hardworking, and creative. She’d been very important to our early growth, having devised a system for accurately tracking movie rentals so that we could pay the correct royalties. But now, as a public company, we needed CPAs and other fully credentialed, deeply experienced accounting professionals—and Laura had only an associate’s degree from a community college. Despite her work ethic, her track record, and the fact that we all really liked her, her skills were no longer adequate. Some of us talked about jury-rigging a new role for her, but we decided that wouldn’t be right.
So I sat down with Laura and explained the situation—and said that in light of her spectacular service, we would give her a spectacular severance package. I’d braced myself for tears or histrionics, but Laura reacted well: She was sad to be leaving but recognized that the generous severance would let her regroup, retrain, and find a new career path. This incident helped us create the other vital element of our talent management philosophy: If we wanted only “A” players on our team, we had to be willing to let go of people whose skills no longer fit, no matter how valuable their contributions had once been. Out of fairness to such people—and, frankly, to help us overcome our discomfort with discharging them—we learned to offer rich severance packages.
With these two overarching principles in mind, we shaped our approach to talent using the five tenets below.
Hire, Reward, and Tolerate Only Fully Formed Adults
Over the years we learned that if we asked people to rely on logic and common sense instead of on formal policies, most of the time we would get better results, and at lower cost. If you’re careful to hire people who will put the company’s interests first, who understand and support the desire for a high-performance workplace, 97% of your employees will do the right thing. Most companies spend endless time and money writing and enforcing HR policies to deal with problems the other 3% might cause. Instead, we tried really hard to not hire those people, and we let them go if it turned out we’d made a hiring mistake.
Adultlike behavior means talking openly about issues with your boss, your colleagues, and your subordinates. It means recognizing that even in companies with reams of HR policies, those policies are frequently skirted as managers and their reports work out what makes sense on a case-by-case basis.