Rethinking what employee experience means for HR by Jeff Wellstead

Over the weekend I was enticed to buy Patty McCord’s new book called Powerful, Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility and was immediately hooked. Many of us have scoured through the Netflix Freedom and Responsibility deck, seeking insight and inspiration as to how to create the next billion dollar unicorn (heck, I’d be happy with 1/4 of that success), and been left with a deep sense of overwhelming awe instead. How could we go about pulling off a fraction of what Netflix has done as a company? Where do we even start?

And rationales abounded as to why this wouldn’t be remotely possible in our particular circumstance – I mean Reed Hastings and Patty McCord basically started when the company was almost brand new and was therefore like a blob of clay waiting to be shaped into the monster it is today.  Then I started to read Patty’s book, mostly because I couldn’t possibly let this famous deck go unexplained.  I haven’t been able to put it down since. Why?

Because it’s dead honest. It’s not the ego-centric tripe put out by most so-called business gurus patting themselves on the back for having pulled off an unsustainable economic coup, and trying to capitalise on it before the whole thing comes crashing down as a result of some financial shenanigans.

It’s about evolution, hard lessons learned, mistakes made, constant experimentation and illuminated thinking (by everyone there, not just Reed or Patty). Moreover, it’s about a set of emerging principles that hone the skills, contribution, creativity, deep persistence and resilience that drives so many human organisations to achieve ‘impossible’ things.

Early in the book, one of Patty’s first epiphanies was that, upon hearing about Reed’s notion of changing Netflix’s business model from a DVD mail service to a subscription model using the internet for streaming movies, everything, I mean literally EVERYTHING, was about to change.  As she was in charge of people and ensuring they were prepared for the oncoming tsunami of change, she mused: “First, I had to deeply understand the new business model and what was at stake. Subscription is a numbers race, and revenue occurs only over time after an up-front investment. Second, the urgency of getting it right meant that I had to help everyone else in the company understand the new business model too.”

They took that literally and undertook a massive effort to educate every person in that business as to what Netflix did, why it did it, how the business ticked inside and out, and what part each person there needed to do in order to achieve success. Without everyone in the business understanding the big picture, and then each of the little pictures everyone had to create in order to paint that bigger picture – there was no hope in Hades Netflix would have become what it is today. What does this have to do with Employee Experience? Everything.

Thinking first about how your people will get your company to the Promised Land is the notion of human-centred design. There was no hardware, software or magical internet business model that was going to unfold unless everyone at that company had full and complete knowledge of the vision, and their individual missions, that would be required to get there. The notion that we need to trust in the power of our people, and share the problems and challenges out amongst them to get them solved and delivered, is central to the Freedom and Responsibility mantra. This might sound basic but how many of you can tell your friends and family what your company’s business model is, what products and services you produce, what your financial position is and where you, in particular, can contribute to achieving the lofty vision your CEO has set out?

For the first half of my career – I hadn’t the first clue what the companies I worked for did for a living. Only that we made loads of money in the stock market, or by charging consultancy fees. It wasn’t until I came to the UK to work for my first tech startup that I realised what we were actually trying to create and sell. Even then, the algorithms and background technology were well beyond me as a non-engineer. But one drunken night playing billiards in the CTO's home garage back in 2004, I noticed an ageing white board with black marker scribbles all over it. I asked furtively, not really caring about the answer: “What the heck is all that mess then?”. My CTO stopped mid-shot to look where I was pointing and said, “Oh that? It’s the technical model we first came up with 10 years ago that ultimately became our core architecture for today’s product.” And he went back to wipe the slate clean, leaving me wondering if I’d ever win a snooker match in my lifetime.

I was intrigued and asked him to tell me more. My CTO patiently walked me through how he and another engineer, drinking too many bottles of Stella Artois, playing billiards on a cold, rainy night, decided to build the first cloud-based, machine learning tool to capture viruses and spam in corporate emails before they were delivered to their intended receivers. The idea was that any code resembling either a virus or malware (or spam or pornography) would be captured and quarantined before it could do any damage. “It was a bit of a joke at first,” he said, “then it evolved into a debate, then an idea, then a product and eventually a company.” This was in the 1990s, well before machine learning and cloud-based software were actually things. The company was MessageLabs which sold in 2008 for $695 million in cash.

That night was magical to me. I instantly understood all I needed to know to get deeply into the workings of MessageLabs and to help prepare its people for success. It became my narrative – my story I would share with anyone who would listen – from candidates to new hires and my co-workers, to my friends and family members. I was never so proud of working for a company. Every day I hopped out of bed (hungover or otherwise) knowing I was doing something important that day, something that would make a difference. I was hooked.

Employee experience isn’t just a nice-to-have afterthought that we do to people because we think they don’t care as much as management about where the company is going. Employee experience is about helping everyone get behind the purpose of the company journey they’re attached to and find their own source of meaning in what they do. It’s about sharing out all the problems, the issues and barriers that need solving.  It’s opening the books and making clear the goals and targets that the company needs to achieve.  And it’s about sharing stories – ever-changing and constantly evolving – that everyone carries with them. This becomes a powerful, tribal glue that keeps the intensity and motivation driving forward even when you hit walls.


The Business Transformation Network has posted this article in partnership with The Pioneers Blog


Jeff Wellstead is the founder of - an employee experience design consultancy.  

As an Employee Experience Designer who brings the promise of the "future of work" today, Jeff works with businesses of all sectors and maturities, who are urgently seeking rapid adaptation and digital transformation.

He engages with a number of human capital, agile, OD, recruitment, product & innovation and productivity specialists who have been schooled in lean startup and lean enterprise methodologies.