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Growing a Team That Embraces Culture of Freedom and Responsibility

Building A Team
Performance

28 October, 2020

Zhenzhong Xu
Zhenzhong Xu

Co-Founder at Stealth Startup

Zhenzhong Xu, Engineering Manager at Netflix, discusses how he grew a team that embraced a culture of freedom and responsibility and how the dream team analogy helped him direct the team toward high performance and overall excellence.

Problem

A year ago, I inherited a high performing team. However, growing a team that would embrace our company culture of freedom and responsibility is nothing but easy. Instilling and celebrating a culture that values people over process, and where trust is at the very foundation of a collective team performance requires a caring approach and strenuous effort. Being with the company for a while, made me not only familiar but also comfortable with the company culture and allowed me to better strategize how to build a team. I was particularly motivated about how to scale the team for higher impact and introduce product management function while continuously improving our engineering practices. For the team to accept this unrivaled growth I had to instigate a renewed sense of purpose and ownership in a rapidly changing environment and to keep the team motivated to deliver at the highest standards.

Actions taken

The dream team analogy

The dream team analogy is used in Netflix’s culture to describe what a high performing team should look like and set up expectations for the team. I leveraged this, already existing, cultural symbol and customized it to fit the needs of my team. Before moving forward I spent some time thinking about the weaknesses and strengths of the team, focusing particularly on the strengths.

The dream team is a team that has clarity on roles and responsibility and is quick to fix gaps and mitigate risks. Their members are selfless and eager to help one another. When the team is operating in a dynamic, ever-changing environment, ensuring alignment is crucial.

The dream team needs to be diverse in multiple dimensions, energized and proud. Members should genuinely care about each other and look to build success together. They should feel valued, included, leveraged, and challenged; all of this would be possible only in a psychologically safe environment. The team should have a solid reputation among stakeholders, won’t tolerate mediocrity and members would hold each other accountable to the highest professional standards. The dream team can make tough calls on what to do/not do, tackle the most complex projects with ease, and collaborate efficiently to achieve success.

The dream team is built on trust. Their members know how to balance freedom and responsibility.

The dream team is built on trust. However, I am cognizant of the role that different types of trust play in building a team. For example, relationship-based trust is prevalent among people of the Eastern background and I would want to encourage them to provide feedback even if it didn’t feel comfortable. On the other hand, to incentivize task-based trust, I would identify projects with a wide scope that would require several people to work tightly together.

The question of measuring trust is often controversial. I would inquire with my reports about conflicts, challenges, and tough decisions they would encounter and if I would notice a re luctance on their part to share their experience, I would be concerned. Also, I would frequently and with great curiosity ask them what we could improve to enhance trust within the team.

It is also important to expand trust by focusing on alignment, discovering pain points, challenges, and potential conflicts, and making sure that the team is not avoiding confrontations and conflicts, and always remaining unbiased in decision making.

Focusing on team strategy vs being buried into tactics while ensuring alignment.

 

One of my main responsibilities is to bring clarity to the team by defining the purpose and establishing North Star goals and then, broadly communicate that. I would make sure to spend enough time understanding the team from a higher vantage point. Much of management ends up being rather tactical, but you have to find time to think about the strategic orientation of the team. To do so, I needed to understand the entirety of the business landscape -- customers, product management, stakeholders, etc. That understanding provided me with clarity to articulate concisely the main challenges, particularly how to improve the product and operations. Clearly articulating the focus would give the team a sense of purpose and identity to drive things forward.

Connecting the dots between what the team is doing and what the organizational strategy is and aligning the team to the company’s needs is of utmost importance. I would empower the team to come up with the technical vision and new initiatives that are aligned. I would step aside to allow the team to come up with the vision since my role is to coach all members to make the best possible decisions.

Lessons learned

  • Building trust is at the foundation of high performance. It is hard, but worth the effort as trust is the most important ingredient of a high performing team.
  • Setting expectations using analogies or storytelling is immensely powerful. If you are drawing upon an existing narrative or symbol, you can always customize it to fit your team.
  • Be aware of silos emerging when trust is only built internally. Make sure to expand trust to stakeholders, sister teams, and customers.
  • Empower to provide freedom in decision-making. Trust but verify -- create an environment where challenges/debates (respectful) are the norm that ensures responsibility and strong ownership.

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