O.C. Tanner Influence Greatness 2017: Reinventing HR Means Going Back to the Basics

Snowbird—Want to build a better company culture? Stop being scared, stop using HR buzzwords nobody really understands, and stop—gulp—using so-called ‘best practices’ without making absolutely sure they really are just that.

Sounds a little frightening? Good! It’s the advice from Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, at her keynote address during O.C. Tanner’s first annual Influence Greatness user conference. While working at the video streaming giant for 14 years—starting from the ground up—McCord helped create a 124-page document called “Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility,” which has been downloaded over 16 million times and called “the most important document ever to come out of [Silicon] Valley” by Sheryl Sandberg. And what’s Netflix’s so-called “culture deck” about?

“[McCord wrote it] in hopes of hiring what she calls ‘fully formed adults’ into her organization,” said Mindi Cox, SVP of People & Great Work at O.C. Tanner. “… We talk about making things easy, and she’s talking about making things simple. And it’s not easy to get to simple.”

Like any great innovator, McCord started with a genius, but simple, premise at Netflix: what if your organization was a great company to be from?

“What if having Netflix on you resume actually meant something?” she pondered.

Consider—there’s a lot in that question. McCord challenged the audience of HR representatives to think: why are your companies so focused on retention? Virtually nobody in the audience still worked for their first company. Trying to keep all of your employees for no discernible reason makes your company inflexible when planning for the future, says McCord.

“Find joy in transformation. The idea that we own people’s careers and we own them for life and we owe them jobs hasn’t been true for decades,” she said. “If you make the place that you work a great place to be from, then you’ll have accomplished a lot.”

An enemy of transformation, she said, is nostalgia—wanting to keep the same people when your company was small, whether or not their job skills make sense with your company’s current trajectory.

“Is what you love to do, that you are extraordinarily good at doing, something we need someone to be great at?” she asked, adding that sometimes you have to let go of good workers when their skills no longer fit the company. “You want to make sure people have enough freedom to understand where they operate in the organization now, what you’re going to need in the future, and how they fit.”

Transformation is to be embraced if your company is going to flourish, said McCord. That means spending less time on HR-lingo that nobody understands, or utilizing ‘best practices’ that are simply crafted from what “everybody else does” and figuring out what works best for your own company. That treasured employee handbook, says McCord, generally just exists to take away decision-making power from employees.

“Here’s why we [as HR employees] have decided it’s our job to empower people: because we took it all away. That employee handbook says: ‘Don’t make decisions, we’ll make them for you,'” said McCord. “When you require adult behavior from literally everyone in your organization and you expect it and you reward it, and you don’t let the people who act like babies work there anymore, you’ll be surprised how few rules you have to have. You can take your empowerment wand and put it away and use it for something else.”

She challenged the audience to consider what would be good for their company in six months—a tangible deadline, not just “sometime in the future”, and then “create a movie” about what it would take to get there. From there, she said, it’s time to take action.

“In order for that stuff to happen, what do people need to know what to do? What skills and experience would it take for people to do that with in six months? Now, who have you got?” she asked. “Those honest conversations give people the freedom to opt in or opt out.”

The focus of HR should be simple, McCord continued. Attract great talent, give them the tools they need, encourage good communication, and get out of the way.

“One of the ways you can change some of the things you do is you can stop doing them. Here’s the deal. If you experiment and it goes wrong, go back to the way it always was,” she said. “I want you to walk away and feel great about the work that you do. We own really important parts of our business. But until we can articulate how we add to our revenue stream and the happiness of our customers… we’re going to be marginalized. We talk about it in a language that nobody understands. I invite you to rethink who we are and what you do.”