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How to properly define a company’s culture

Company culture is a concept which, while incredibly difficult to explain or measure, is very important to a company’s well-being and employee morale. Too often, it comes in the form of vaguely written out “corporate mission statements” or never-ending lists of feel-good, mean-nothing “company values”. Oh joy, you value “teamwork” and “making money” – that was so insightful…

It was thus very refreshing for me to read the Netflix company culture document (sadly no longer embed-able, but you can find it at this Slideshare link).

Slidumentation aside, I think the NetFlix presentation does three things extremely well:

  1. It’s not a list of feel-good words, but  actual values and statements which can actually guide the company in its day-to-day hiring, evaluation. Most company culture statements are nothing but long lists of virtues and things non-sociopaths respect. “Teamwork” and “honesty”, for example, are usually among them. But, as the Netflix presentation points out, even Enron had a list of “values” and that wound up not amounting to much of anything. Instead, Netflix has a clear state of  things they look for in their employees, each with clear explanations for what they actually mean. For “Curiosity”, Netflix has listed four supporting statements:
    • You learn rapidly and eagerly
    • You seek to understand our strategy, markets, subscribers, and suppliers.
    • You are broadly knowledgeable about business, technology, and entertainment.
    • You contribute effectively outside of your specialty

    Admittedly, there is nothing particularly remarkable about these four statements. But what is remarkable is that it is immediately clear to the reader what “curiosity” means, in the context of Netflix’s culture, and how Netflix employees should be judged and evaluated. It’s oftentimes astounding to me how few companies get to this bare minimum in terms of culture documents.

  2. Netflix actually gives clear value judgments.  I’ve already lamented the extent to which company culture statements are nothing more than laundry lists of “feel good” words. Netflix admirably cuts through that by not only explaining what the values mean, but also by what should happen when different “good words” conflict. And, best of all, they do it with brutal honesty. For instance, Netflix on how they won’t play the “benefits race” that other companies play:

    A great work place is stunning colleagues. Great workplace is not day-care, espresso, health benefits, sushi lunches, nice offices, or big compensation, and we only do those that are efficient at attracting stunning colleagues.

    Netflix on teamwork versus individual performance:

    Brilliant jerks: some companies tolerate them, [but] for us, the cost to teamwork is too high.

    Netflix on its annual compensation review policy:

    Lots of people have the title “Major League Pitcher” but they are not all equally effective. Similarly, all people with the title “Senior Marketing Manager” and “Director of Engineering” are not equally effective … So, essentially, [we are] rehiring each employee each year (and re-evaluating them based on their performance) for the purposes of compensation.

    Within each of the three examples, Netflix has done two amazing things: they’ve made a bold value judgment, which most companies fail to do, explaining just how the values should be lived, especially when they conflict (“we don’t care how smart you are, if you don’t work well with the team, you have to go”), and they’ve even given a reason(“teamwork is more important to delivering impact for our customers than one smart guy”).

  3. They explain what makes their culture different from other companies and why. Most people who like their jobs will give “culture” as a reason they think their company is unique. yet, if you read the countless mission statements and “our values” documents out there, you’d never be able to see that difference. Granted, the main issue may just be that management has chosen not to live up to the lofty ideals espoused in their list of virtues, but what might help with that and make it clearer to employees about what makes a particular workplace special is explaining how and why the company’s culture is different from another’s. Contrast that with the Netflix presentation, which spends many slides explaining the tradeoffs between too many rules and too few, and why they ultimately sided with having very few rules, whereas a manufacturing company or a medical company would have very many of them. They never go so far as to say that one is better than the other, only that they are different because they are in different industries with different needs and dynamics. And, as a result of that, they have implemented changes, like a simpler expense policy (“Act in Netflix’s best interests”) and a revolutionary vacation policy (“There is no policy or tracking”) [with an awesome explanation: “There is also no clothing policy at Netflix, but no one has come to work naked lately”].

Pay attention, other companies. You would do well to learn from Netflix’s example.

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Slides done properly

After about a year of slide-umentation, it’s nice to finally see a business person use slides the way they were meant to be used. And, no, this wasn’t at my client, it was at this past week’s Apple WWDC. Take it away, Mr. Jobs (all pictures are from Engadget’s liveblogging):


Simple. Unwordy. Clear in meaning. What is he saying in this slide? He’s saying that Apple rests on 3 major product groups: the Mac (PC), Music (iPod/iTunes), and the iPhone. That’s all you need in a presentation, people!!


Bam! We know that the iPhone 3G has several enterprise features: Push Email, Push contacts, Push Calendar, Auto-Discovery, Global address lookup, and Remote Wipe. Notice how we can tell its about the 3G, because there’s a big picture of the 3G that takes up the left half of the slide. Notice how the right slide just has big text, not tiny text to describe what “Push Email” and “Push contacts” mean, or the little technical specifics on everything.


Now, for something “technical” — but, oh look — the slide makes it again very simple to understand without resorting to an insane mind-numbing wordwall or any overly sophisticated diagrams. It’s just, email pops up in server, is then pushed to the push notification service, and then pushed to the iPhone.


I mean, seriously, using words to describe this slide does injustice to the slide.


Frankly, Jobs could’ve done without the horizontal grid-lines, but again, very simple and elegant chart.


Somebody at a typical consulting firm/business would want to put on this slide the dimensions of the iPhone. Jobs knows, however, that all you need to do is show a picture — so the audience understands how thin it is. How many inches doesn’t stick in one’s head. This image, however, does.

As always, Mr. Jobs, well done. Now, can I please have a free iPhone?

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Life’s Little Victories

My current case is working on high-level strategy work with a tech company, the goal being to help guide their strategic thinking as they attempt to map a strategy for future growth. The case, while very challenging because of its breadth, has been very interesting, not only because of the interesting strategic questions that we are trying to answer, but also because the tech geek in me is literally being paid to learn more about future gadgets and software products.

Oddly enough, though, despite the vast amount of work I’ve done on the case on studying technology markets and technology companies, the work that earns me the highest praise from the partners and stands the greatest chance of being presented by the client’s senior management deals with, of all things, women’s deodorant.

About two weeks ago, I receive a completely unexpected email in the morning from my CTL. Instead of giving me some guidance on my workstream from the previous day concerning profit margins in different technology markets, I was being asked to do research on Procter & Gamble, the large consumer products company. It turns out that the partners on the case are trying to present the client with examples of companies who are able to be more profitable than their peers and explain how they are able to sustain that advantage — and Procter & Gamble was one example of such a company. Our working hypothesis was that P&G was able to be more profitable by effectively becoming the “premium product” in many of the product niches they attempt to play in.

The tricky part was how do we prove this? After a little discussion, my CTL and I decided that the simplest way to do this was for me to drive to the nearest Safeway and go up and down the aisles comparing the prices of P&G goods (e.g. Tide, Pampers, Crest) to their competitors.

Sure enough, I got a lot of weird looks from the store people and from the other shoppers as I canvassed the aisles looking for P&G products and their relevant comparisons. In the hour that I was there searching for products, I learned more about the product diversity of toothpaste, deodorant, detergent, dishwashing soap, than I had ever known (or wanted to know).

Worse was coming back to the office and presenting my preliminary price data to my CTL and manager, both of whom grilled me (although I could see the smirk on my manager’s face and the chuckle in my CTL’s voice as they did so) on whether or not I made the right product comparisons (is Infusium 23 comparable to Finesse? Or Pantene? Are Huggies comparable to Pampers? What’s similar to Tide? Or Secret?)

After begging for help from wiser friends (read: female friends — big shout out to J. Sasaki and K. Teng and V. Liu for all their help!), I prepared a slide showing P&G’s price premium across a number of product categories, and sent the slide out to my CTL and manager, never expecting it to go anywhere or amount to anything.

A few days later, one of the more senior partners in the firm walks by my desk and tells me that the client was very excited about the slide I had prepared and that it stands a decent chance of making it into the CEO’s presentation. Not the other volumes of analysis I’ve done on tech markets, on tech products, on tech companies, on financial forecasts — but the slide I make on women’s de-odorant, women’s shampoo, diapers, and laundry detergent, researched from a couple conversations with friends and a hasty trip to Safeway.

Welcome to management consulting, people.


Presentation Training

For the past few months, my firm has sponsored a series of workshops with a presentation consultant, a woman who helps with presentation style and skills. Not wanting to pass up free training and wanting to see how years without debating competitively had treated my speaking skills, I signed up.

The training was very interesting. It’s one thing to have someone tell you their impression of how you speak. It’s another to have a professional presentation consultant videotape your presentation and then play it back to you while explaining specifically why she said what she did about your speaking style.

The verdict? I speak clearly. I vary my intonations and speed and word choice to fit the story that I’m telling. My gestures aren’t distracting. I convey passion about what I’m speaking about. These are all good things, she said, which many people fail to do.

But, my main problem is that I present too much like a debater. I am too adversarial. My speech tells a logical story, but the story is presented from the perspective of someone trying to convince a skeptic, something which was ingrained in me as a science student but not a tactic which lends itself towards building consensus or compelling action. Instead of establishing a personal connection, on a logical and on a emotional level, I focused on content and delivery.

This she pointed out very well on camera, as even I was shocked at the difference between “debate mode” me and “normal” me — my posture, speaking tone, facial expressions were all suddenly different.

After pointing this out to me, she helped me come up with ways to present the same material but in a more emotionally and logically compelling way, and I was able to practice this a few times before the one hour session was up.

In all honesty, I was very skeptical of what a presentation coach could do, but I am very satisfied by this particular experience, and would recommend this type of coaching to anyone who wants to improve their public speaking.

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