Talking to Patty McCord is a bit like running a conversational sprint—but for hours at a time. She talks fast, she doesn’t mince words, and there’s little to no filler in her language.
She tells me up front, “I’m done being nice. I’m about to be shrill, aggressive, too assertive, unkind, mean and nasty.” What follows is not mean or nasty, but it is blunt advice and no-holds-barred observations about the workplace from a woman who has had an over 35-year career—including 14 years as a very powerful executive at Netflix—that has required her to be tough, develop a thick skin, and swallow some of the discomfort and insulting treatment that come with being one of the few women at any table.
She wants to leverage that experience—both the good and the bad—to make change in the workplace, particularly for women. That means she calls powerful people on their bullshit when they suggest they can’t hire for diversity because it’s too hard. She has little to no patience for men who feel victimized by the #MeToo movement. And she’s candid about the compromises she had to make to get to where she is today.
“I’m about to be shrill, aggressive, too assertive, unkind, mean and nasty.”
The author of Netflix’s famed 124-page culture document, McCord has a very clear point of view on how we can and should treat each other at work. She’s parlayed that thinking into a book calledPowerful: Building A Culture of Freedom and Responsibility and can be found on some of the most impressive, intimidating stages in the world, sharing her wisdom and advice.
Ahead, a free version of that advice, shared with the intention of passing the baton to our generation. McCord feels the full weight of that responsibility on her shoulders, telling me, “I can’t let you fail. I mean, I can take the bully pulpit for this, but the readers and supporters of Girlboss are the people who are actually in the trenches doing it now. And it’s hard.”
How can we involve men in the push for equal pay and a better balance of power in the workplace?
“I just told a friend of mine who is a leadership business guy—he’s a tech vice president—I said ‘We need you this time.’ I told him, ‘We tried doing it by ourselves and it didn’t work. We can’t do it without you, you know, just listen to the ways you can help. You gotta help make this world a better place. I know you want it to be better and you’re doing a bunch of stupid stuff that you don’t even realize you’re doing, and you’ve gotta stop because if no one sees someone doing it right, it will never get fixed.’
So, you’re a firm believer in the idea that we can’t do this if we leave half the population out of the push to make change?
“Every day, I interact with men who want this to be a better world and they really are sincerely reaching out to figure out how. It makes sense to people that we should have equal opportunities, but we have to keep telling them what that looks like. A person similar to the person I was describing just now recently told me, “Well we’re doing really well, you know, we’ve got two woman on our team.” And I’m like ‘Wow that’s great, how big is the team?’ Sixteen. And I’m like ‘What numeral divides into equal when the denominator is 16? You’re the one with the Phd in math. Two isn’t half of sixteen. Just running the math by you there.’”
Do you really say that, in the moment? When you see bad behavior or people letting themselves off the hook too easily?
“We’ve got to get as close to in the moment as we can. And we’ve got to start really early in our careers. Say we’re having a conversation and you’re looking at my body not in my eyes and that makes me really uncomfortable. Say it then: ‘Please stop doing that.’ And when you’re young and you’re at work with someone who likes and respects you, they will say, ‘Oh I’m sorry I didn’t realize I was doing that’ and they’ll stop.”
What if they don’t stop? How do we make institutional change? Does it have to start with HR? Is it somewhere else?
“I am so worried that the solution to this problem [of sexual harassment at work] becomes the HR mom cop. You tell HR then they’ll think about it and then the rest of the management team will say well, we’re in these programs and we have diversity training, and we have an inclusion officer. Done and done. Check. So what I say is, if you experience sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior, you should go to anyone in your company that you trust in management and say ‘This is what I experienced.’ And then, everyone [in management] should own the response that we don’t tolerate this. It’s a tolerance issue.
“I got ahead by convincing the men I worked with that my ideas were theirs.”
And the other thing we can do is ask all the men in our companies to really examine [the workplace dynamic] in the same way that we as women have done our whole careers. We look around us and say ‘OK, what’s the game to make me successful?’ When I started in my career, I got ahead by convincing the men I worked with that my ideas were theirs.”
Wow. How did that actually play out?
“I would say, ‘You’ve probably heard about this’ or ‘I know you’ve probably thought about this because you’re just so smart—but I was thinking the other day, what if we did this…’ And the men would say to me, ‘You’re right, I absolutely had thought of that’ even though they hadn’t at all, and they would steal my ideas as if it were their own. We both knew what the game was but they remembered that having me around meant that they would have better ideas.”
That brings up a similar problem that’s pretty common: You say an idea out loud. Nobody really reacts to it and the conversation moves on. You say it another time it’s acknowledged. Then, another man in the room shares the same idea and suddenly it’s brilliant. What’s the right course of action there because if you say ‘Hey that was my idea!’ it sounds petty. But if you don’t say anything, you never get credit for your work.
“I have absolutely experienced that exact situation as an executive. What it took was another woman in the room to say, ‘By the way, just want to float it out there that, this person’s brilliant idea was actually Patty’s idea last week.’ It takes all of us. And again, the closer we can get to pointing it out in the moment when these things happen, the more we’ll be able to effectively and systemically change behavior. It’s ultimately supporting each other, men and women, in work situations, that will make things change.”
What about the issue of hiring women and diverse candidates to begin with? What do you say to people who throw their hands in the air and just say it’s too hard, that the pipeline just isn’t there?
“A woman CEO said to me recently, ‘I don’t think you understand how difficult it is to attract tech talent these days, the pool is so small and it’s just difficult to get great people, what’s your advice on doing that?’ I said, ‘Just hire women for a year,’ and she said, ‘Qualified women don’t walk across my desk.’
I’m like, ‘Qualified men are walking across your desk?? You really mean that HR isn’t giving you resumes of qualified female candidates. But why is this their problem? How many employees do you have in your company?’ They says, ‘Oh I have 150 people.’So, the answer is, you speak to 150 people and ask ‘Who’s the best woman you’ve ever worked with?’. They will all have an answer. Nobody has never worked with a qualified woman.”
I want to go back to sexual harassment for a moment. Because this ugly thing is starting to happen where we’re having the conversation that a lot of women feared we would end up having— this outcry that we need to end the witch hunt, that innocent men are suddenly paying the price for just associating with woman, that men no longer feel they can mentor women or spend them with them because something could be misconstrued. How do we combat that?
“Men don’t know the difference between behavior at work and at a bar? Really? Grown men don’t know that? That’s just being stupid. Do I feel bad that men are feeling uncomfortable at work? Awww…because I’ve never felt that, how about you? Seriously, get over it.
“They’re fighting so hard because they have so much to lose. This is it. This is the last gasp and it’s going to be ugly.”
That’s my first response. But second, we’ve gotta fight this with our actions. In some ways we’re going to have to stomp to death the last, you know the last, wailing, flailing breath of the old white man. They’re fighting so hard because they have so much to lose. This is it. This is the last gasp and it’s going to be ugly.
It’s just another reason for this to be our moment. I think we’re doing all the right things to combat this stuff. Running for office. Demanding power. It’s not easy and we can’t let down our guardswe can’t put up with this stuff.”
What’s one thing you wish you had done differently during your time at Netflix?
“I wish I had paid more attention to what it took to make woman in the organization successful earlier in their careers. Regardless of whether it would’ve made them more successful at Netflix or somewhere else, I probably didn’t do as much as I could have to really help coach everyone on the skills they needed to be successful. In the early days, it was pretty easy because you just hired as many women as possible. Like hires like hires like hires like, so if you start with a pretty diverse company you end up with a pretty diverse company—it works the right way.
But then, when we started having to reach into technology, which was primarily male dominated, we started recruiting from Toshiba and Samsung and Motorola to find pretty senior people. And literally, there weren’t any women to choose from to promote in those companies. That’s when it became really hard. But if I had a do-over, I would’ve been more thoughtful about making sure that women [internally] got more exposure, that way they would get more leadership opportunities, because people could see [their value].”
As a society, do you think we have a problem with woman of a certain age holding positions of power? How do we get people to stop treating women as though they have an expiration date?
“We’ve just got to persist. we fought so many battles, part of it is that successful woman of my generation—I’ll call Hillary and Elizabeth Warren my generation—we had to be so tough. The way we moved up the ladder to be successful was we embodied all of the characteristics that men have. So, we are tougher. We’ve been burned a lot and we have very thick skin.
It’s happened our whole lives so we don’t have the graceful gentleness in positions of power that people expect from women. It breaks the stereotype because you’re supposed to ease into your old age ’gracefully’ and we’re like, ‘Shit we’re done with graceful— we were never good at that anyway.’ We succeeded because we were elephants, not gazelles.
So I think it’s absolutely and totally real and the way we get over that is to rely on each other and recognize as women that wisdom matters. We’re gonna live longer than they are. I heard Gloria Steinem speak once, when I was like 30, and she said, ‘OK let’s just look at the facts. [Men] are going to die off we’re going to rule the world. It’s a waiting game.’ So let’s just keep the good ones around and outlive them and then rule the world. It’s persistence.”