Secrets, Survival of the Fittest and Unlimited Vacation: Netflix, Amazon, Boeing and Nike Use Culture as a Tool to Attract Talent


The New York Times ran an article/expose a couple of weeks ago on Amazon, pulling back the curtain on the inner workings and machinations that drive the company. They didn't discuss technology systems or infrastructure but instead focused on corporate culture and the operating environment. While it's hard to dispute the commercial success that the company has achieved, the debate concerning the manner in which the company achieved it has captured our attention.

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all, “best practice” corporate culture. What propels and enables one institution might unravel another. But if Amazon represents a distinct point on the continuum, how does it compare to other companies that are leaders in their respective industries?

Amazon, as the New York Times reports, prides itself on being a “bruising workplace” where “workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings…and are held to standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high.’” They base these practices on the theory that “conflict brings about innovation” and that the best ideas win out. That corporate Darwinism is the key to its philosophy, deliberately creating a system of churn and burn, with consistently high levels of turnover.

The company proudly declares that “those departures are not a failure of the system….but rather [lead to a] mass intake of new workers, who help the Amazon machine spin and then wear out, leaving the most committed Amazonians to survive.” The jury is still out on just where those “survivors” will eventually find themselves.  

In contrast to the Amazon thresher, Fast Company reports that “at Nike, you're a rookie if you've been at the company for less than a decade.” The company has found that the key ingredient to keeping the best and brightest professionals engaged is through two related cultural means: underscoring the unique aspects of the company (Nike embraces its history and has elevated its corporate story to almost mythical proportions), and the unique aspects of each person’s work.

“If Nike treats its past with reverence, it represents its present in a different but equally honed way: as ‘top secret.’” Every employee is connected to the company’s “inexhaustible supply” of secret projects (read: every project and the granular task performed). In this culture, “employees internalize their own stories—[believing] that their work is imbued with a value worthy of secrecy” and directly tied to commercial success. “[T]he more exclusive the presentation of those products and brands, the more they are desired.” And the more they are desired, the greater the corporate revenue, and the wider array of new “top secret” innovations that can be funded. 

The Boeing Company
Perhaps the aerospace and defense conglomerate, Boeing is also a prime example of a highly successful, hierarchical, stratified, operating environment. Each disparate business unit focuses on its narrow function or silo, to the greater good. These partitioned functions are then unified by the company’s collective mindset and corporate culture. Boeing's primary cultural mission as defined in its statement of Corporate Vision: “To Operate As One Boeing.” Forbes further underscores that tenet, in an article on Boeing, as “the phrase employees use to describe an enterprise in which everybody is on the same team, and working hard to keep the business way ahead of its competitors.”

In this case, corporate culture is not just a differentiating or aspirational set of behaviors, but more specifically a necessary operating mindset in a company with highly distinct operations formed through major sequences of merger transactions. “After the company bought several big military competitors…Boeing leaders soon discovered that you couldn't just bolt on an alien culture to a preexisting enterprise and expect good results, even if the newcomers are genuinely world class.”

Instead, and critical to its success, its CEO “has devoted much of his tenure at Boeing to fashioning an integrated corporate culture out of the various pieces.” Setting the tone at the top, in an organizational structure that thrives via top-down management, has enabled Boeing to cascade its operating style throughout its multiple operations.

In the same way that Nike is antipodal to Amazon, Netflix can be considered the opposite corporate culture of Boeing. As an institution, the company prides itself on empowering its employees with freedom and unfettered ownership of one’s responsibilities. In plain terms, “this approach posits that a genuinely responsible person who is self-motivated and self-disciplined will function best under a high degree of freedom.” As a company that was born in the crucible of the “new economy” one can understand that “this is meant to keep individual workers satisfied while keeping the entire organization nimble.”

Netflix's policies are basic: rather than having accrued PTO, “salaried employees were told to take whatever time they felt was appropriate. Bosses and staff were asked to work it out with one another.”  And even its most significant fiduciary responsibilities are crisply worded: "Act in Netflix’s best interests.” Netflix transfers the sense of ownership and well-being of the company as a whole from a centralized set of senior executives to the employees individually.   

At the end of the day, corporate culture is an organic phenomenon that can evolve and change over time, in concert with the evolution and change of any organization. Some may appear to be similar to others, but every successful company has its distinct operating environment at the heart of its corporate identity. 

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