Should NGOs leaders heed the advice from the former head of HR at Netflix, in their efforts to remain relevant as well capable of innovation and scale?
In an era of anxiety about remaining relevance – at least in some quarters of ‘NGO land’ — I would venture that it is worthwhile to listen in to this podcast with Patty McCorden, who headed HR at Netflix until recently, and now consults with many startups and other companies. Her thoughts and positions are stimulating and at times provocative. Mark C. Crowley, author of the book “Leading from the Heart” as well as the corresponding podcast series, interviewed Patty recently. I appreciate Mark’s podcast interviews, with their focus on the crucial role of emotional intelligence in leadership. And kudos to Mike Harold at Greenpeace, who put me onto Patty McCorden’s book “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility” in the first place!
Here are counter cultural recommendations that NGO leaders should heed:
HR too often is backward looking (‘how was your performance in the past year?’); instead, it should be be forward looking: what kind of people does our organization need in 1-2 years? This may be quite different from what we have at the moment.
HR should not be focused on retention but on the match between where the NGO will need to go soon and the people (skills, competencies, attitudes etc.) that it will need correspondingly. When current staff – including those who may have been ‘star performers’! – no longer match what the organization needs, it is the role of HR to start conversations early on about changes that are on the horizon, and support HR can give to staff in the form of connections, references, job search support, etc. for people for whom there may soon not be a match anymore. These conversations and support systems will optimize people’s chances for a good next career move.
it is important for NGOs therefore to be fully transparent about the state of the organization, what key organizational level performance indicators are indicating about changes that may be needed in role, strategy, business models etc. NGOs need to share this data transparently with staff. This way, people can prepare their minds for impending changes and take action accordingly.
Anecdotally, the culture of many INGOs that I interact with seems to make it hard to discuss these aspects openly. Some scholars and practitioners think this is due to the passion that NGO staff frequently bring to the cause their organization represents, and the amount of identity that people thus have caught up with this. I will write more about this aspect in future blogs, because I see this to cause some real problems – which we do not talk about openly enough in our sector, and which causes plenty of ‘dishonesty in our discourse’ in my view.
Our NGO sector should therefore heed some of these HR approaches, because not doing so ultimately limits the impact of our organizations, which is not in line with what we say we are about – maximizing impact. Doing so is also ultimately unfair to staff, because it does not prepare them for necessary and successful transition in this era of disruption, including because of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (a term coined by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, about the seismic disruption purportedly impending due to digitalization, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, biotechnology etc. ).
So, what are you taking away from Patty’s recommendations for your NGO?
And what do you think of Patty’s phrase that HR leaders are the “COO of the organizational culture?” What does this imply for you as HR or OD leader, on a daily basis?
Here are some links to help you dig deeper, as a start:
Lead from the Heart interview by Mark C. Crowley with Patty McCord: http://markccrowley.com/patty-mccord-parting-ways-with-traditional-leadership-rules-is-how-netflix-built-its-hugely-successful-culture/
Netflix’s culture story: https://jobs.netflix.com/culture
Article in Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr
The Transnational NGO Initiative, which Tosca headed for 10 years, specialized among others in helping NGOs learn about what makes for effective change leadership and management. This assessment of Amnesty International’s organization change process [HYPERLINK] is one such example. Amnesty’s transparency in making this public sets a standard.
Bruno-van Vijfeijken, T., Lux, S., Neupane, S., and Singh, R. Final Assessment: Amnesty’s Global Transition Program, Maxwell School, Syracuse University, May 2017. ]
Tosca was the team leader of a Maxwell team that was invited by Amnesty International to independently assess its Global Transition Program (GTP), both from a change management perspective, but also to assess any evidence of how GTP affected human rights outcomes on the ground. Her brief reflections [HYPERLINK] on this comprehensive and technically complex assessment about a change process that was broad in scope, highly political as well as emotional for many Amnesty staff.
The UK Magazine ‘HR’ interviewed Tosca, along with Richard Eastmond, Amnesty’s Senior Director for People and Services, for a short article as part of their series “Checking in on Change Programmes”. Our main observations ‘from the trenches’
For another example of our work on change management, Tosca co-wrote a case study on Save the Children’s organizational transformation process. Save the Children generously allowed the Maxwell School to produce a public (teaching) case study [HYPERLINKED].
Lux, Steven J. and Bruno-van Vijfeijken, Tosca. 2013: From Alliance to International: The Global Transformation of Save the Children. Teaching Notes. Syracuse: Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC).
During a recent Global Perspective meeting of the International Civil Society Center, Tosca was interviewed informally, via Facebook Live, about NGO organizational culture: how can we see culture? And can we make any generalizable observations about NGO culture?
There can be a gap between what NGOs say their values are, and what their real in-use behaviors are, as reflected in their culture. On the request of CIVICUS, as part of their ‘State of Civil Society’ annual report in 2018, which was devoted to ‘Reimagining Democracy’, Tosca wrote up some provocative observations
Internal democracy in transnational NGOs: Are we as democratic as we think?
As NGOs increase their ambitions regarding outcome measurement, some have started experimenting with ‘agency level measurement’. Tosca co-write a white paper on real NGO experiences (good and bad!) with this approach to measurement (initiated and commissioned by InterAction members), and captures some lessons learned about the complexities, value and limitations of such an approach
Levine, Carlisle J., Bruno-van Vijfeijken, Tosca and Jayawickrama, Sherine. 2016. Measuring International NGO Agency-Level Results. InterAction. (pp 1-48)
Tosca has co-delivered many senior leadership training programs as part of her work at the Maxwell School and beyond. One of these is currently delivered as an e-course on Agile Leadership Behaviors, through a partnership with Humentum. This pilot course will be followed up with several other e-courses once testing has confirmed there is a demand for such a series. For a ‘taste’ of the content on Agile Leadership Behaviors, see this brief promotional video: