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Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility – Patty McCord

14th January 2021
powerful book cover


Powerful is about the work culture of Netflix. It is not a memoir of building Netflix but a guide to building a high-performance culture, written for team leaders at all levels. I would like to learn a thing or two from this fast-growing company.


Patty McCord is a human resources (HR) consultant and executive. She spent 14 years at Netflix experimenting with new ways to work. Making the Netflix culture deck become reality for the people who work there. She is frequently in the media with interviews and articles from Harvard Business Review, NPR, Fast Company and The Wall Street Journal.


Powerful has an introduction (A New Way of Working: Foster Freedom and Responsibility), 8 chapters, and a conclusion.

Chapter One is The Greatest Motivation Is Contributing to Success: Treat People Like Adults. The next chapter is Every Single Employee Should Understand the Business: Communicate Constantly About the Challenge. Chapter Three is Humans Hate Being Lied To and Being Spun: Practice Radical Honesty. Chapter Four is Debate Vigorously: Cultivate Strong Opinions and Argue About Them Only on the Facts. The following chapter is Build the Company Now That You Want to Be Then: Relentlessly Focus on the Future. Chapter Six is Someone Really Smart in Every Job: Have the Right Person in Every Single Position. Chapter Seven is Pay People What They’re Worth to You: Compensation Is a Judgment Call. The last chapter is The Art of Good Good-byes: Make Needed Changes Fast, and Be a Great Place to Be From.

Every chapter has a summary known as In Brief and Questions to Consider at the end.


Powerful talks about the culture code of Netflixers that the author helped to develop. It is a culture of freedom and responsibility that supports adaptability and high performance. It is also a people-centric management where the management wants the employees to challenge them and each other. At its core, it means to be ready at any moment to cast aside the original plans, admit mistakes, and embrace a new course.

What employees most want from work is to be able to come in and work with the right team of people – colleagues they trust and admire – and to focus like crazy on doing a great job together. They will be truly happy with this and from knowing that the customer loves the product or service they all have worked so hard to make.

The powerful combination of excellent colleagues, a clear purpose, and well-understood deliverables will make a great work. The management should never underestimate the value of ideas, and the questions, that employees at all levels may surprise you with.

It is not cruel to tell people the truth respectfully and honestly. The most important thing about giving feedback is that it must be about behaviour, rather than some characterization of a person, and the feedback must also be actionable. Failing to tell people the truth about problems in their performance leads to an undue burden being shouldered by managers and other team members.

She dislikes annual performance evaluation and mentions that there is no generic formula for what makes people successful, despite a lot of effort and all sorts of assessments to try to come up with one. Metrics in work are not fixed, and should be fluid, continuously revisited and questioned.

Her evaluation algorithm to decide if someone should stay at a job: Is what this person loves to do, that they are extraordinarily good at doing, something we need someone to be great at? Otherwise, it is better to let that person go and flourish elsewhere. Keep in mind that more people will not necessarily do more work or better work; it is often better to have fewer people with more skills who are all high performers.

A business leader’s job is to create great teams that do amazing work on time. Vital skills for team leader are training well and spotting growth potential. Being totally honest and supporting the employees in finding new opportunities is the best way for both the managers and employees.

Her advice for working people is to stay limber, keep learning new skills and considering new opportunities, regularly taking on new challenges so that work stays fresh and stretches us. All workers should be prepared to make moves periodically, whether within a company or to a new company, to work in the way we love and do things we are passionate about. We should also be given feedback when we are not performing well enough, so that we can either make speedy corrections or move to a new firm.

A challenge faced by every company to some degree is that change has to happen and new people will be needed to bring it about. The management should foster the commitment to achievement, instead of the expectation that as long as you are working hard, the company will have your back.

The author does not want the readers to blindly follow the Netflix culture but to create their own version of freedom and responsibility culture. Nonetheless, transforming a culture is not a matter of simply professing a set of values and operating principles. It is about identifying the desired behaviours that should become consistent practices and then instilling the discipline of actually doing them. It is a slow and maybe painful process. The author comments that the key to changing practices is to proceed incrementally. Start with small steps and then keep building, just like Kaizen.

According to the author, there are two foundations of successful culture change. The first is to make sure HR people are your partners, true business-building partners. The second is to be honest about the challenges and the nature of progress along the way. It is important to prevent cynicism at workplace by being honest. Cynicism is a cancer and creates a metastasizing discontent that feeds on itself, leading to swarminess and fueling backstabbing.

The author intends this book to be a lively debate and she foresees that some points may annoy the readers and we may agree emphatically with some other points. Overall, I agree with most of her points but there are something that I do not totally buy it. However, this book does expand my view on management, especially regarding the performance review.


  1. A company’s job isn’t to empower people; it’s to remind people that they walk in the door with power and to create the conditions for them to exercise it.
  2. Which step you start is no matter; what matters is starting.
  3. Great teams are made when things are hard. Great teams are made when you have to dig deep.
  4. Because you are absolutely not always going to be right, and the satisfaction of being right can be very dangerous.
  5. Candidates are evaluating you just as you’re evaluating them; people forget that.


3 out of 3 stars

Interested in Powerful?

You may get the book from through the link below*.

Get the print book from Kinokuniya Malaysia here

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