Netflix CFO Neumann: Are You Good At Saying No?

In this edition of our Corporate Competitor Podcast, Maxwell Leadership Thought Leader Don Yaeger sits down with Netflix CFO Spencer Neumann to discuss the former Harvard football player’s belief that the best leaders are master simplifiers.

In high school, Spencer Neumann’s football coach, George Conti, had a book full of plays, but his favorite was the end sweep, which he drilled over and over again at practice. The repetition might have bored some players, but one who appreciated the focus was Neumann because, well, the play worked. And in a way, the play is still working for the Netflix CFO who says Coach Conti offered him a life lesson in the power of focus and simplicity.

“I think the best leaders and business folks are those who are simplifiers, as opposed to the complicators,” he said in a recent episode of Corporate Competitor Podcast. “The world is complicated, and clarity can be a hard thing to come by, so when you can boil something down to a priority or small set of priorities, you create clarity for your team that unifies its members and provides direction. That’s super powerful.”

By focusing on repetition and saying “no” to every “shiny new bauble” that came its way, Neumann’s high school team got good enough at the end sweep to “punch above its weight” in a competitive league. Many years later, Neumann points to a documentary film his company, Netflix, featured that perfectly captured this sports lesson. The documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” captured the 85-year-old Japanese chef Jiro Ono’s focus and passion for his craft. Considered the greatest sushi chef in the world, Jiro nonetheless worked out of a humble, 10-seat restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station.

“It’s hard to have the discipline to focus on getting a little better every day for something you’ve been doing for five or 10 years—in Jiro’s case, much longer,” noted Neumann. “But you can improve, and over many more years than 10 if you cut out the distractions and focus.” One way to do this, says Neumann, is simplify your metrics to support your priorities and goals. Do you track hundreds of metrics under the assumption that more is always better? “Or do you boil it down to the two or three that really matter?” asks Neumann.

In the podcast, Neumann, a two-time All-Ivy defensive end at Harvard who held senior positions at Walt Disney Company and Activision Blizzard before coming to Netflix, explores the habits and mindset needed to say yes to the things that matter and no to those that don’t,  including:

• Why the first, and often most difficult question to answer is “What business are we in?”

• The leadership lesson Neumann learned when his Harvard football team lost to Yale in the famous contest known simply as “The Game.”

• The danger of viewing “culture” as a static entity rather than a process of adapting to change.

“For a culture to thrive, it has to be lived,” noted Neumann. “It’s not just something you can put up on a wall or in a PowerPoint. Culture is a living and breathing thing that grows and adjusts. And it begins with the leader.”


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