Leadership: What can we learn from Silicon Valley?

What can we learn about leadership from the big IT organisations in Silicon Valley?

The cynical side of me thinks that whether it’s Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, etc., whenever we hear a “we do leadership better” it’s more of a marketing ploy than a real piece of referenceable material.  In other words, if we think they are good at leadership and hence their workforce is “happy,” are we more likely to buy their product or service?

An alternative (and hence the reason for this blog) is that these organisations have something very useful and relevant to say. They are successful, and this success will be due in part (potentially a very large part) to their workforce motivation and enabling a culture of innovation and success.

In the research I have done, I haven’t really seen any large pieces of conflicting information but, rather, different levels of emphasis on particular principles. Some organisations have some very specific points that can be a little extreme (e.g., Netflix). Whether the actual principles are adopted is not really the point, though; it’s more to sit up, listen and consider which principles could be relevant.

What risks have you taken?

I am starting off with Google. Google has 5 principles, with the lead one being “Psychological Safety”:

Psychological safety: Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

Source: https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/ 

This is often cited as the most critical of areas, primarily because most people are quite reluctant to do things that could negatively influence how others perceive their ability. This is heightened even more when organisations are going through staff reduction exercises and cutbacks. A really good working practice to promote psychological safety is, at the beginning of each meeting, to ask team members what risks they have taken.

AWS has 14 principles. I wouldn’t say there is anything particularly startling with this list.  They focus on “customer first” and in fact go on further to infer their process is “write the press release first” and then work from there. They do practice what they preach and clearly have a very strong level of innovation.

Facebook has 10 principles. Not surprisingly, a number of their principles are on sharing and making a single community. I wonder how much is actually shared within the organisation.

Microsoft has 3 principles. Each is broken into three sub-principles. Having three top-level principles is good as it allows clarity (which is in fact their first principle).

Harvard Business Review (HBR) has defined “Top 10 Principles” grouped into 5 themes.  According to HBR, the most “important” leadership competency — which ought to transcend into a principle — is “has high ethical and moral standards.” Of course no one is going to argue with this, as this then becomes a discussion on the bedrock of an organisation’s cultural values.

People over process

I am going to finish off with Netflix. This is an organisation that digitally disrupted the marketplace even before the term “digital disruption” existed. There are a number of very interesting articles on Netflix’s culture. I bring these out as in order for Neflix to be such a disruptor, it is clear they had to create a relatively unique organisation.

I particularly like the articles on Netflix (here is one) with its one single philosophy: people over process. Netflix has 10 core values. As an example of their leadership principles, here is a direct quote:

We have no bell curves or rankings or quotas such as “cut the bottom 10% every year.” That would be detrimental to fostering collaboration, and is a simplistic, rules-based approach we would never support. We focus on managers’ judgment through the “keeper test” for each of their people: if one of the members of the team was thinking of leaving for another firm, would the manager try hard to keep them from leaving? Those that do not pass the keeper test (i.e. their manager would not fight to keep them) are promptly and respectfully given a generous severance package so we can find someone for that position that makes us an even better dream team. Getting cut from our team is very disappointing, but there is no shame. Being on a dream team can be the thrill of a professional lifetime.

Source: https://jobs.netflix.com/culture

Furthermore, Netflix states, “Our goal is to inspire people more than manage them.” This means they have removed the majority of processes that are the normal employee’s main criticism of an organisation. For example:

  • Expense policy is: act in the company’s best interest
  • Vacation policy is: “take vacation”
  • Parental leave policy is: “take care of your baby and yourself”
  • A few exceptions to the anti-rules: strict on ethics and safety, and security of course

Netflix is not unique, of course, and as stated in their core philosophy, focusing on people is key. What do people want, then? It’s to not be over-burdened with unnecessary processes, but it’s also “clarity.” Whether people agree with this is another matter altogether.


“It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.” — Steve Maraboli

Empowering the individual

Before we all pack our bags and leave for Netflix or arrange a meeting with our chief HR director on some changes you think should be considered, let’s pause for one moment. I am sure the vast majority of people reading this will go, “Wow, that’s fantastic. Why won’t my employer adopt such leadership techniques and principles? As Eiji Toyoda of Toyota says (quoted in HBR): “Doing the right things, when required, is a calling from on high. Do it boldly, do as you believe, do as you are.” So why can’t every organisation adopt this type of leadership and cultural style?

A number of reasons exist. CEOs will find it difficult to reinvent their corporations rapidly enough to cope with the new market/technologies they require. Much harder, though, is how they get their employees to adhere to the values and ethics. A CEO writing a set of values and ethics and simply cascading them through their organisation will fail very quickly.

The prevailing question an employee will ask is, “What’s in it for me?” Looking at this philosophically for a moment, there is a tendency, in the West, following Plato, that if a theory isn’t working there must be something wrong with reality. People will tend to behave less ethically when in groups or organisations, rather than as an individual.

So it’s not surprising, then, if we re-review a number of these leadership principles that are undisputed leaders in their field, that a core theme does emerge: a focus on the individual and allowing the individual to focus on the customer of the organisation. Executed correctly, a more successful organisation will emerge. Executed badly will mean more CEO shelfware and a staff base that becomes less and less aligned with the company’s success.

I finish with a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Neil Fagan is CTO of the UK Government Security and Intelligence Account in Global Infrastructure Services. He is an enterprise architecture expert, leading teams of architects who work on solutions from initial concept through delivery and support. This post originally appeared in Neil’s blog@neilfagan



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