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Patty McCord: Now’s the time to rethink the entire HR space

Patty McCord: Now’s the time to rethink the entire HR space

Maria Magdaleena Lamp
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Patty McCord

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You may know Patty McCord as the author of Powerful, the 2018 leadership book that, true to its title, powerfully advocated for honesty and transparency in the people business, and for scrapping the concept of best practices. 

The former Netflix people chief has long been a proponent of common-sense leadership and people management. Indeed, some of her most memorable and salient advice is refreshingly devoid of frills and buzzwords: “If it doesn’t work, stop doing it,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Everybody thinks I did all these innovative things. But I didn’t invent anything. I just stopped doing stupid stuff.”

We sat down with Patty to talk about why she believes in Jobbatical enough to have joined the company as a board member and why best practices are rarely actually best for anyone.

“You're not the first company to ask me to be part of an HR product,” Patty says. “I like being part of a company when I believe in the product, but a lot of the HR technology is trying to solve problems that don’t really exist.”

HR tools that collect data just for the sake of collecting data are one example of such technological clutter.

“The data can tell you what’s wrong in the organization—but the data can't fix it. What I love about what Jobbatical is doing with visas and global mobility is that it's just fixing a real problem perfectly, cheaply, and quickly.”

“Sometimes I think we get lost in measurable, numeric data,” Patty says. To counterbalance the reliance on numbers in a people-centered industry, she stresses the importance of looking at human behavior as data as well. As an example, she brings up a classic HR metric: retention and turnover. When Netflix first moved to streaming during Patty’s tenure, the company went from a data center to cloud-based technology. “The turnover in that team was 90%,” Patty recalls. “Was I freaked out? No. It was a great team. It was just the wrong team for what we were doing. We all knew it, and we had planned for it in advance. One of the board members said, ‘Oh my god, have you seen the turnover? What are you doing? What's going wrong?’ I said, ‘No, everything's going right! That's exactly what needed to happen!’”

That’s not to say Patty doesn’t believe in data. “When you're working with teams of humans, the data can give you some really interesting indicators,” she says. “The data can tell you what’s wrong in the organization—but the data can't fix it. What I love about what Jobbatical is doing with visas and global mobility is that it's just fixing a real problem perfectly, cheaply, and quickly.”

How to grow fast globally without clinging to best practices

If data can’t fix every problem in the people business—in an increasingly globally mobile, pandemic-hardened workforce—what can? The inconvenient truth for anyone looking for clear-cut, one-size-fits-all answers is that there aren’t that many of those around.

“This one size fits all thing doesn’t work,” Patty says. “People ask me which company in the world has really got it right. The answer is nobody. We're all making it up as we go. There are no best practices here. The most important thing is to have an innovative mindset. Only do what everybody else is doing if you truly believe it's going to work.” 

But rapidly scaling startups are already having to innovate every day with their products. And now we have to be HR innovators as well? Pretty much! “This is an unbelievable opportunity for us to rethink our field, and rethink the idea of global employment,” says Patty. “If you’re in a Zoom call with 15 people and only two of the squares ever talk—that's an email. The other 13 squares do not need to be on that call. That’s where I'd want the HR organization to really be paying attention to the tools that we're using and how effective they are.” 

Aside from video calls, there are many other inefficiencies to be ironed out in a workplace where familiar templates for communication just aren’t cutting it anymore. “If the HR team does an employee survey to find out if people feel connected, and the next day you lay off 10,000 people, then guess what? You'd get different results in the survey,” Patty says. “So we have to start thinking about the mechanisms, where we're getting that feedback, and how we're communicating.” 

While some organizations still put predictability over common sense for fear of shaking things up (“It may not be logical, but at least it’s consistent,” is a mantra Patty has heard from many HR people over the years), not everyone has that dubious luxury. “The thing about startups is that speed matters,” Patty says. “You've got to be faster than everybody else. Be really, really, really sure that when you're implementing a process that will slow things down, that you have a longer-term reason to do it.”

Innovation is just creativity in disguise

For all the terrible things that came with the pandemic, Patty firmly believes that it has presented HR teams with an incredible opportunity to learn from the last two years and project those learnings forward. Namely—to take the lead in innovating the way the industry is going to work from now on.

“I talked to a company that had hired a hundred people who have never physically met the other people,” she recalls. “They were onboarded completely remotely and asked how they could do it better. And the answer is I don't know—it's up to you. We have to really internalize being innovators and inventors. Because nothing we did before matters.”

Letting go of the outdated idea of best practices may seem daunting, but it’s where great ideas are born. Patty, who also sits on the boards of nonprofits working with artists to bring creativity back to heal society, simply refuses to think about things the way everybody's always thought about them.

“I call it innovation because that's what companies understand,” she says. “But it’s just creativity. Part of the reason I started doing what I’m doing was because I was surrounded by these people who invented digital streaming. Just made it up! I remember being in the room and thinking, if they can do this, why can't I?”

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