We continue our Scale Up fireside chat series with Jessica Neal. Jessica has enjoyed an incredibly successful career in recruitment, having gone from Vice President of Talent at Netflix, to Chief People Officer for Scopely and the Head of People for Coursera, before returning to Netflix and ultimately becoming their Chief Talent Officer (CHRO). She’s now a Venture Partner at TCV, which led BenchSci’s $63 million Series C along with Inovia Capital.
I find it fascinating how Jessica’s unique perspective on scaling up both complements and expands upon themes that have continued to come up throughout this series. Here are five points that stood out to me:
Culture starts with leadership
Netflix has built a reputation for having an amazing work culture. Jessica was quick to note that this isn’t easy to do—it requires dedication to really living the company values, especially on the part of the CEO and the rest of the leadership team. She explained that often with companies, you’ll see lots of words written on walls or in documents that are meant to define the culture, but you won’t see those values being lived day to day.
“But at Netflix, you really did, and that was because CEO Reed Hastings lived them better than anyone else,” Jessica shared. “Because he did it, everyone did it, so it really was pervasive throughout the company.”
As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
“Of course, no one can be at 100%, 100% of the time,” she added. “But it’s the effort everyone puts in that makes it truly come to life.”
Not everyone will fit your company’s culture and that’s okay, just be honest
Jessica wanted us to understand that the relationship between employee and employer is just like any other relationship; some are better than others, and sometimes they don’t work out. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. Everyone is different and your organization will be a better fit for some people than it is for others. It’s in the interests of both the employee and employer to be clear about where each stands.
“If one organization isn’t a great fit for you, there’s another one that will be,” Jessica advised. “I’m a firm believer that life is too short, so you should find what’s right for you and pursue that.”
To help prospective hires determine if they are a fit for your organization, Jessica suggested not only having a culture deck detailing what working at the organization is like but also making that deck publicly available. It’s a great way to excite the people who would fit well at the company, while also giving enough information for people to decide if they might fit better within a different organizational structure. It’s also exactly what we’ve done here at BenchSci.
Align, communicate, and agree to disagree
For a company to function with agility, Jessica told us that alignment and communication are key. When you have several teams working on various projects there are a few factors that need to be balanced. First, every team needs to be aligned on the goals of the company and really understand how their project contributes to those goals. But second, and equally important, is that different projects often warrant different processes, so teams need the freedom to determine their best approach. Jessica shared a phrase they used at Netflix to describe this balance: “highly aligned, loosely coupled.” Think seriously about when and where your teams need to keep each other informed versus workflows that depend on each other.
In addition, she explained how a company needs decision-makers who have a view of the bigger picture and can keep teams out of each other’s way. Other opinions and feedback are welcomed, but ultimately the final decisions are theirs to make, and everyone with a dissenting view has to agree to disagree and commit to moving forward.
Trust should be implicit
Another concept from Jessica’s Netflix days that she discussed was the practice of hiring adults and treating them as such. “We used the term ‘fully formed adults,’” she said. “Which isn’t about age—there are 19-year-olds that are more fully formed than some 45-year-olds. It’s about things like maturity, responsibility, honesty, and communication.”
So, if you’re hiring adults they deserved to be treated as such, and that means trusting them to make appropriate decisions and not hindering them with unnecessary rules. Trust empowers people to do the best work of their lives.
“When you truly trust people it empowers them on a whole different level,” Jessica said. “When I first started working at Netflix, I wasn't holding back. I was giving everything that I had to the company because they trusted me. I felt amazing. I felt like I had the support to fail, and I felt like I had the support to thrive.”
Listen to every voice in the room
Jessica openly shared a story about a time when she dealt with imposter syndrome while she was Chief Talent Officer at Netflix.
“I had come back to Netflix and we were having dinner. I was the only woman at the table and the other gentlemen had been working together for a while and had a rhythm and dialogue,” she said. “When I tried to break into the conversation, they didn’t hear it, and when I tried again, they just talked over me.”
“I remember getting in the Uber to go home and starting to cry. I was so disappointed in myself. I felt like I had let every woman executive down,” she continued. “I didn’t think they were intentionally trying to ignore me or hurt my feelings, they just weren't aware of what they were doing. So the next meeting, I said to myself, ‘forget it, I’m going after it.’ And when they weren’t listening to me again I put my hand on the table and I said, ‘I'm trying to say something and you all keep talking over me. You need to listen.’ And they never did it again.”
I think there’s a great lesson here for everyone—listen and pay attention to the people in the room. Be aware of who is talking, and whose voice hasn't been heard. Making people visible and seen is so important. And if you’re the one that’s feeling ignored, always remember that you earned your place, so don’t be afraid to speak up. There’s a good chance that people don’t realize how you feel and will change their behavior once they understand.
BenchSci is scaling quickly. Our big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG) is to bring novel medicine to patients 50% faster by 2025. To do so, we're hiring over 200 new team members by the end of 2022. This kind of change can be difficult to manage, especially while maintaining our culture. That’s why I appreciate hearing from champions like Jessica. I’m grateful she made time to share her thoughts and answer questions from the whole team.
Subscribe to our blog to get future insights from our Scale Up series in your inbox. You can also follow me on Medium for more of my experiences founding a startup.