Streaming Leadership Derailment

I’m a big movie buff. Since I have young children I rarely get a chance to go the movie theaters anymore to see a film that doesn’t star Woody, Buzz, Lightning McQueen, or a princess of some type. In my 5+ years of fatherhood, Netflix has become a savior in terms of feeding my movie addiction. For me and 20 million other subscribers, seeing that a new movie is available for streaming online or getting that red envelope in the mail is one of life’s simple joys.

The joy of being a Netflix customer was mightily shaken last July when customers received a brisk, impersonal email informing them that the video subscription service pricing would be increased by as much as 60% per month unless subscribers decided to substantially limit the services they were receiving. In essence, customers were abruptly told that they would no longer be able to enjoy both the streaming movies and DVD-by-mail features. They would be required to choose one type of service otherwise incur the price hike to retain both options.

Netflix customers were outraged by this imposed price increase and/or elimination of service options. This outrage was not only communicated via blogs and Facebook posts. Many customers have truly put their money where their mouth is by canceling their subscriptions. The company’s stock price is now 42% lower than it was in July before the price hike announcement. An organization that by all accounts changed the video rental industry and was experiencing a fantastic upward trajectory envied by the business world has taken a serious turn for the worse. How did this happen?

The recent events at Netflix appear to be yet another unfortunate example of leadership derailment. The company’s decision to increase prices and the manner in which they communicated the changes to customers has been perceived by many as a bold and arrogant move. In September, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings issued a statement apologizing to customers. However, it is possible that some may view his apology as too little, too late. Even after the initial customer backlash, Netflix at first confidently defended their decision and even announced in August that they expected to gain 400,000 subscribers by the end of September. Recently, Netflix has projected that it will have actually lost 600,000 customers by the end of September. In other bad news, Starz, a key movie content partner for Netflix, ended its partnership with the organization. The company has decided to rebrand their DVD-by-mail service as a separate company called Qwikster. The effectiveness of this strategy is being questioned by many and could further stoke the flames of the fire started earlier this summer.

Two months after the initial controversy, Reed Hastings’ blog post apology stated that the July announcement “lacked respect and humility” and indicated that he should have personally communicated in more detail the reasons for the changes. He went on to say, “In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success.” Hastings ends his statement by saying that he and his team will work hard to regain customers’ trust. Interestingly enough, his actions and choice of terminology strongly parallel the leadership derailment research findings of Hogan Assessment Systems.

High potential leaders assessed by Hogan tend to be seen as confident, assertive, ambitious, and visionary. Some of these very characteristics are likely present in the senior leadership team at Netflix and surely contributed significantly to the company’s hugely successful rise. However, during stress or heavy workloads, when leaders aren’t paying attention, or during times of change, this confident style may emerge as counterproductive behaviors viewed by others as arrogant, lacking humility, setting unrealistic expectations, and ignoring negative feedback. In his own words, Hastings acknowledged a very similar behavioral pattern. Furthermore, derailing behaviors related to arrogance often lead to the inability of leaders to be seen as trustworthy and sincere, hence Hastings’ comment that Netflix is now committed to regaining customer trust.

Leaders that allow their natural confidence to descend into arrogance rarely admit when they are wrong, learn from mistakes, or take responsibility when things go wrong. This recent statement by the CEO appears to potentially demonstrate a realization that a mistake was made and a willingness to take ownership of the misstep…however the pricing increase was not rescinded and only the poor communication of the policy change was addressed. Will the apology and Qwikster rebranding strategy be effective in retaining customers and attracting new subscribers? Can Netflix and its leaders get back on track after derailing so drastically? Stay tuned!