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Book Review: Powerful: Building A Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord
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Book Review: Powerful: Building A Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Powerful: Building A Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Powerful: Building A Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord

If Patty McCord’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, there’s a good chance you’ve read her work anyway. She is the co-creator of the Netflix Culture Deck, a slide deck intended for internal use at Netflix that went viral (more than 15 million views) far outside the streaming content provider’s office walls. The former Chief Talent Officer joined Netflix early in its history, invited by founder Reed Hastings to work with him at what was then a radical startup.

In her new book Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility (Silicon Guild, 2018), McCord expands upon the concepts in that slide deck, illustrating her points with first-hand narrative experience in the startup world and (later) as a consultant to other firms. Some of her assertions sound revolutionary in the business world. She comes right out of the gates insisting that a company’s employees already have freedom and power, and that they are motivated to use them responsibly, like the adults they are. Cynical readers will have trouble with the adjustment, but McCord holds firm and provides examples from her time at Netflix.

For example, Netflix famously established a no-vacation-policy policy, by which employees were not told how much vacation they were allowed to take or when they could take it. “Take as much time off as you need,” the company encouraged. As McCord explains, “We told people to take the time they thought was appropriate, just discussing what they needed with their managers. And do you know what happened? People took a week or two in the summer and time for the holidays and some days here and there to watch their kids’ ball games, just as before … Trusting people to be responsible with their time was one of the early steps in giving them back their power.”

The rest of the book is a lot like this, although about a quarter of the way through, it begins to sound somewhat like other radical company culture books, such as Pixar president Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. In both books, the authors explain that hiring good, smart people and then trusting them to make their own decisions fearlessly makes for better productivity and buy-in all around. Where McCord really moves away from these others is in the second half of the book, with her approach to management not as a family but as the coach of a sports team. With families, everyone belongs and everyone’s on aboard forever, but with sports teams, the coach adds and subtracts personnel according to changing needs, and McCord hammers home the point, using herself as the example of having worked herself out of a position at Netflix.

If you lean in more touchy-feely directions, these middle chapters can be a tough sell, but team development is a huge topic, and McCord puts the best spin on the concept of hiring the right people, then letting them move on when it’s time, always building toward where the company wants to be. “We should all be prepared to make moves periodically, whether within a company or to a new company, in order to work in the way we love and do things we’re passionate about,” she writes, and she highlights the power of being a “great place to be from.” Equipping employees to be aware of their roles and then to seek new ones elsewhere, now armed with the experience and awareness to find good opportunities best suited to them makes the whole hiring and firing thing more mutual than it first comes across.

One of the book’s unexpected blessings is that it’s not especially long. Stylistically, it’s already a pretty quick read, thanks to the author’s conversational style (she reads as if she’s presenting a TED Talk), but at only 228 pages, it’s especially efficient in getting through. Each chapter comes with a TL:DR bulleted summary, plus some discussion questions great for group reading. It may seem at times like our reviews are stuck on the concept of books as group activities, but here’s one we can recommend eagerly specifically for this purpose. Most groups, no matter their composition, will find this an easy read, challenging more in its ideas than its structure or style, and the discussion questions should facilitate some good thinking.

McCord’s relative brevity and easy style comes at one small price: it’s not especially resonant. It does what it’s supposed to do, but it feels more functional than pleasurable, and perhaps it’s asking a bit much to want both. Still, one feeling the reader is left with upon completing this book is one of listening to a good, interesting, effective sales pitch.

That may be good enough. It’s at least worth a look.


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Book Review: Powerful: Building A Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord - Executive Leadership Articles

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