Before joining Netflix 10 years ago, I had held various leadership positions. In all cases, I was very much a command-and-control style leader. I made what I thought were cogent decisions and expected my teams to unquestionably execute on them. When things didn’t go as I’d planned, I naturally became frustrated and blamed the people on my teams. It never occurred to me that there was a better way to lead.
Then I joined Netflix as a leader and I learned about the notion of context over control. Instead of trying to control people, leaders were encouraged to provide teams with context. I learned that great leaders provide the insight and understanding that enables sound decisions through context.
Inspire through context
Context is about articulating goals and the corresponding strategy to achieve them. Context is generically the what and not the how. The folks closest to the problem oftentimes have a much better understanding of the challenges and opportunities in front of them and can determine a much better solution (i.e. the how). Importantly, their solution aligns with the goals set forth by effective leaders who have articulated the what.
Accordingly, encouraging context over control means that leadership must clearly articulate important concepts like business goals and the strategy to achieve those goals. Importantly, leaders must explain why those goals are important and what they mean to the business. Moreover, leaders should strive to provide transparent decision making, eschewing bureaucratic concepts like committees, management approvals, complex processes that become more valued than goals, and the notion of top-down decision making.
Failure is on you
Once I embraced the notion of context not control, my viewpoint on failure flipped as well. When teams fail to execute according to all the context you’ve provided, rather than blaming them (like I used to do) instead, try to determine what context you failed to provide. In my case, I almost always have been able to determine my ability to convey context needed improving. That is, my teams were acting with the information they had. As I invested in transparency of decision making, I noticed my teams became more effective. They made better decisions.
If you're hiring amazing people, they will do better work if they understand the context behind decisions, goals, and strategy. It’s easier said than done and requires a large investment from leadership! Communication is hard; leaders have to deliberately invest in it. Recognize that some context may make folks feel uncomfortable. But that’s ok if you’ve built a team of adults. Transparent context is not a panacea either: there are certainly times when control is appropriate. Emergencies and a lack of mature team members are examples of those times.
The best leaders facilitate great outcomes by setting appropriate context for their teams as opposed to trying to control them. For years, I drummed up developers giving orders to do the work I felt was important. Once I switched to inspiring developers to yearn for lofty, but achievable goals, I saw new levels of impact and success. If only I had learned this lesson earlier in my career.