If you haven’t already started watching Netflix’s original series, House of Cards, let me suggest you stop reading right now, clear your schedule for the day, and binge watch all 26 episodes. Okay, not really. But once you finish reading, I think you’ll be tempted to start. If not for the entertainment factor, maybe for the practical lessons in life and business.
House of Cards is more than your typical television show. From its unique distribution to lessons in networking, Netflix has exemplified everything a show can and should be. They have separated themselves from the stale weekly television show format and pushed the envelope in strategic fashion. In business, as in life, there is something to be said for breaking new ground. In the words of the show’s power hungry protagonist Frank Underwood, “Hunt or be hunted.”
You can find hundreds of small lessons and valuable tidbits throughout the show, but I’m going to focus on six main themes. Let’s start with a lesson in distribution.
Lesson 1: Differentiation is Key in Crowded Waters
A Forbes.com article calls House of Cards a “seminal event in the history of TV.” It’s the first major show to bypass the typical distribution model of networks and cable operators, as well as the first show to release an entire season all at once. Since leading the charge, Amazon has followed suit and released its own lineup of original series. It appears Netflix has set a precedent that will further crowd the waters of the TV industry. Viewers now have a variety of options including traditional networks, YouTube, cable companies, paid networks like HBO, Apple TV, and now online streaming platforms. It’s proven successful thus far, now we’ll have to wait and see where the tide takes us.
Lesson 2: Location, Location, Location
In the show, Frank Underwood is the Majority Whip – a position of extreme power and leadership. While he may not always use his power for good, he knows where it comes from. He claims it’s a lot like real estate and comes down to “location, location, location.” At one point, he warns billionaire Raymond Tusk about the difference between power and money, saying “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” His point is simple: power fuels leadership. In order to be successful, you need to carefully position yourself and develop power.
Lesson 3: Do Your Due Diligence
Whether you’re raising capital for an investment, purchasing real estate, or schmoozing a congressman, due diligence is always important. In the show, Zoe Barnes – the ambitious young journalist – provides a perfect example of how effective due diligence can pay off. Her ability to research the facts, discover the details, and leverage knowledge allowed her to climb from inexperienced journalist to Capitol Hill icon. Due diligence is equally as important in the business world. Whether you are entering a new industry, developing a new product, or hiring a new staff, do as Zoe Barnes did. Just watch out for the train.
Lesson 4: Know When to Walk Away
For those that negotiate for a living, there is perhaps no better example on television than Frank Underwood. He is the king of negotiations. He knows how to stay calm and rarely loses his cool. But most importantly, he knows when to walk away. It’s easy to lose sight of things in a heated negotiation, but the most effective business people are the ones with the ability to set boundaries and end the discussion when conditions are not met. Walking away from a negotiation is less about ending talks and more about showing a position of power. Underwood walks away because he knows it will help his positioning in the future.
Lesson 5: You Need the Keys and the Gatekeeper
If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve heard the recycled phrase “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know” more times than you can count. It’s regurgitated over and over because it’s still true. Underwood provides viewers with a case study in networking. The entire show is about his networking (we’ll forget about the scheming for the moment) to accomplish his ultimate goal. I think his quote in the clip above is pretty powerful, though. He says, “You not only need the keys in your back pocket, you need the gatekeeper.” His point is a valid one. When you network, don’t simply chase the keys without understanding the value of the person with the keys. You will likely need both to accomplish your goals.
Lesson 6: Develop a Core Team
As strong and independent as you may be, you cannot obtain significant levels of success without a strong team of people around you. Underwood – despite his allegiance to no one – grasps this concept. Whether it’s Zoe Barnes, Peter Russo, Doug Stamper, or his wife, Claire, Underwood is always developing relationships and managing people. He understands the value in people and allows them to cover for his insufficiencies. It’s important to understand your shortcomings and supplement yourself with people who can protect you.
While you may not want your children to model their life after House of Cards’ two-faced protagonist, there are lessons to be gleaned from his character. So, if you’re looking for a little mix of education and entertainment, tune in and pay attention. In business, as in life, the name of the game is improvement. In the words of Frank Underwood, “Treading water is the same as drowning for people like you and me.”
What business lessons have you learned from watching House of Cards?