Dealing with a difficult manager is the worst. How do you improve your relationship without questioning their authority? How do you solve problems without sounding like you’re complaining? With your job on the line, there’s a lot at stake—and few employee training sessions that prepare you for this. On a recent episode of How To!, Patty McCord, former chief talent officer for Netflix and author of Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, revealed how to stand up to a seemingly impossible manager—without getting fired. “All of us have been in this situation where it’s like, Who is this person they hired to be in charge of us? They don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” Patty said. But Patty knows exactly what to say to improve your relationship with your boss and, moreover, your career. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David Epstein: Patty, could you start by telling us about Netflix’s famous slideshow on work culture? I know you worked on it during your time there as chief talent officer.
Patty McCord: It took 10 years to write. Reed Hastings would come into my office and go, “I’ve got an idea. What if we had just high-performance people?” We floated the slideshow by the rest of the company and it became a document that we used for onboarding. So whenever we hired 10 or 15 people, we’d show them the slide presentation and, over time, we would build on it. We had [values like] high-talent density and freedom and responsibility. And then Reed just released it to the internet and that’s how the Netflix culture became viral. I said to him, “Why did you do that? That’s the ugliest document known to humankind and you’re going to scare away all of our candidates.” And he said, “Only the ones we don’t want.” The hardest part about the Netflix culture was keeping it as the company grew.
I mean, part of the slideshow was telling people to criticize each other.
Right. But the secret sauce to that—that is easy to say and hard to do—was that you have to train people how to do it, especially when you’re coming in from another organization. So to be honest with you, reprogramming was one of my least favorite jobs at Netflix—taking the person who had been the director at, say, Amazon and undoing him. I once had hired this very senior person from a very large, well-known company to come in and solve a problem that we didn’t have anybody on the team that could solve. This person came in and I happened to go to their first meeting and he put up a slide deck of all the things that he, as a customer of Netflix, thought were screwed up. Somebody in the room said, “Hey, first of all, welcome. We’re so excited that you’re here. We can’t wait to pick your brain about the stuff that you’ve seen in the stuff that you’ve done. But you know, these slides, you think we haven’t thought of this? This team has been working on this particular stuff for 10 years now. I could go back through and tell you how we solved it, so what would be super helpful is if you could use this time to talk to us about what we’ve done on each of these things.” [The new employee] said, “Thank you very much” and when the [other employee] walks out of the room, he goes, “Who the hell was that guy? Who is he to talk to me like that?” And I said, “He’s someone that wants very much for you to succeed. And you would be wise to spend the next couple of days listening to him.” That person didn’t work out.
Sheryl Sandberg called that slideshow arguably the most important document to come out of Silicon Valley. Why do you think she said that? What’s so different about the work culture Netflix proposed?
There’s nothing in there that’s wild or crazy. It’s all pretty much straightforward and logical. What’s different about it is that it’s the hidden stuff that nobody says. We dress everything up with all this stupid management; most people still operate their companies under command and control as if we’re a bunch of factories with the smart people at the top and the not-so-smart people are at the bottom. We have to make rules so that they don’t screw it up or sue us. And we’ve done it the way we’ve done it since the ’60s or ’70s. And we’ve done it so often that we now call it “best practices.” I mean, I’m loving what I’m doing right now because I’m on podcasts with people talking about what’s happening in the pandemic. And they’re like, “Patty, you talk to so many people, who’s doing it right?” Nobody. Nobody!
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What would you say to someone who is struggling to get along with their manager? How do you be honest without getting fired?
You can say, “Hey, at our next one-on-one, I want to talk to you about how I think we could be a more effective team.” I think you should represent yourself [rather than your team]. And then you should go back to your teammates and say, “You should try this, too” because when [your manager] hears from each individual teammate a similar pattern, they’ll say, this is real. If you’re representing everybody else, then you [come across as] just whining. This is for the rest of your life—be the person that is the problem fixer and not the problem finder. The problem finders are useless. I tell this to managers all the time. The people who see how something’s screwed up, that’s not helpful at all. The people who say “that’s screwed up, and I’ve got a couple of ideas about how it could be better”—that’s a helpful person.
I just went through this situation with my daughter, and her manager is really a crappy manager. We’ve been talking about it for years, and I’ve been saying, “You’re a professional. If you don’t want to work for this person, then don’t, but she’s not going to get better unless somebody says, ‘Hey, this isn’t working out.’” In the end, my daughter just left the company, and so did everybody else on the team. She goes, “Well, maybe now [my manager will] realize,” and I’m like, “No, she won’t. She won’t realize anything. You know what she gets? A brand new team where everybody’s not complaining all the time.” If you’re [wondering] whether I should stay or whether I should go, if that’s the place you’re at, you have nothing left to lose. So your only option if you stay is to try and help it get better. If it doesn’t get better, you’ll leave. When I talk to huge groups of women, I tell them, “Look, when your company does an employee engagement survey, they didn’t put a ring on it. Interacting with other people is not cheating on your husband. It’s time for you to start interviewing.”
Have you had an experience where you’ve tried to make things better at a company, and people just didn’t want your solutions?
Yes, Reed and I did another software company before Netflix, where he was the CEO and he’d never been a CEO before. And so, you know, he was just wrong. I would say to him, “You didn’t ask me about this decision that you made, but if you had, I would have said, ‘I’m not sure that’s the best decision. I might have coached you to do something differently.’” Reed would look me in the eye and say, “Note that I didn’t ask you.” Seriously. But then over time I would be right most of the time, and I never, ever, ever said “I told you so.” A couple of years in, he would come to me and say, “I’m thinking about a decision, but I want to run it by you because I’m not sure I’m thinking it all the way through.” But how long did that take? Years!
So even when he was sort of dismissing you, you were obviously gaining some space in his head.
Yeah but I got to tell you, it’s not that it wasn’t terrifying. Many times I thought, Should I go tell him this? If I have this conversation I think he might fire me. I absolutely had an empty box in case he was like, “I don’t need you anymore. Leave.” But I knew he could do better.
What about if you’ve talked with your manager and you’re not making any progress?
Give yourself some time parameters. What’s not working and what is working? Jot two or three things down, put it in a jar, and don’t look at it. A month later, open it up and say, has anything changed? If not, time for you [to start interviewing.] The reason why interviewing is a good idea is you’re going to do it for the rest of your life, whether you like it or not, and it’s an opportunity to tell a stranger what you want. What you find out sometimes is maybe the grass isn’t greener on the other side. Then, if you decide to stay, you’ll know why. If you decide to stay, you’ll say, I can get through this. The product’s great and the team’s great. The company is great. And I believe in the mission and I think my manager will come around. But it’s not about your manager at this point. It’s about you and your success.
And when it comes to actually leaving your company, how do you navigate that?
You know, this woman that I loved, loved, loved was one of the first 20 people at Netflix, but she didn’t really have a job. She was funny and smart and worked hard, but eventually I said, “I love you to pieces, but you don’t actually have a job. You’re getting a lot of stuff done, but I’m just not sure it’s really important.” She left in a huff. Now this is 20 years ago. And I’ve seen her since then and said “Are you still mad at me?” And she said, “No, I stopped being mad at you five years ago, but I was mad at you.” The reason she felt so terrible was that it was her company. How dare we say goodbye to her since she was part of it from the beginning? What I learned that I didn’t do well with her was to say, “We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for you.” So if you leave, then you want to make sure that you take with you everything you did and everything you contributed. You helped make the company the kind of company that [it is.]
When I left Netflix, it was because I wasn’t the right person moving forward. The company was switching to be an original content Hollywood producing company, and I’m a Silicon Valley tech gal. Did it make me sad? I was there for 14 years. It will always be my company, but it’s fine. What I want to change is the idea that that’s shameful to leave. There’s no shame in moving on.
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