What's Netflix Hiding?

Please enjoy this free sample of our premium content featuring Eric Jackson. To get all of Jackson's premium content free for a limited time, please register here.

NEW YORK ( RealMoney) -- Last week, I got invited to co-teach a class on top management teams at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. The subject of the class was Why Smart Executives Fail. It addressed why really talented executives who lead market-leading companies can sometimes get themselves into hot water by making a bunch of deliberate and unconscious strategic moves.

At the end of the class, during a question-and-answer session with the students, one asked me how to spot some of the flaws in a CEO so as to avoid investing in the company they lead. I told him that my favorite approach was to listen to the CEO give a speech in which he had to answer questions on the fly. Another approach was to listen to the quarterly earnings calls and pay special attention to the question and answers.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings

I explained that CEOs today are typically protected from saying anything on a spontaneous basis. They have a phalanx of lawyers and public relations people who typically scrub any public speech they make, including the prepared remarks during the earnings calls. It's likely that they are also coached on how to answer many possible questions that they get.

However, you cannot prepare for every question. There are going to be some occasions when someone asks a CEO an unexpected question for which he must think on his own. It's in those moments when you truly get to assess a CEO's competence.

Can They Think on Their Own?

I first knew I was going to short Research in Motion ( RIMM) when I listened to co-CEO Jim Balsillie answering analysts' questions about 18 months ago. It was simply a hot mess. You couldn't follow Balsillie's thinking after two sentences. He rambled on, ending in a place far different from where he began.

That was important to me as a potential investor because, if I can't make sense of the guy, how is his management team going to do so? How will people five or six positions removed from Balsillie make sense of his orders? By the time the game of broken telephone is applied to Balsillie's instructions, no one will be able to make any sense of them.

After class, another student approached me and asked me what it means then that Netflix ( NFLX) doesn't even answer analyst questions. It's a very good point. Every quarter, analysts have a chance to submit their questions in advance. Investor relations collects the questions, shares them with management to prepare a response, and then Reed Hastings gets to deliver the official response.

The problem with this, of course, is that it gives Reed lots of time to be coached on this. Where's the real Reed? How does this guy form decisions and strategy? We don't know. As such, this policy on the part of Netflix is really a red flag for investors.

Netflix has done some strange things from a communications standpoint in the last 10 months. First Reed decided he wanted to write a Seeking Alpha response to short seller Whitney Tilson, who had posted the short case against Netflix. That Reed was taking time to essentially pump his stock -- and that he was doing it on Seeking Alpha -- was very puzzling. More recently, we saw Netflix's price increases for their customers, followed by a sophomoric apology five weeks later.

So, if CEOs like Reed Hastings are not ready to stand and deliver -- answering legitimate analysts' questions on their feet -- you should be very careful.

At the time of publication, Jackson had no positions in the stocks mentioned.

Eric Jackson is founder and Managing Member of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd. In January 2007, Jackson started the world's first Internet-based campaign to increase shareholder value at Yahoo!, leading to a change in CEOs in 2007. He also spoke out in favor of Yahoo!'s accepting Microsoft's buyout offer in 2008. Global Proxy Watch named Jackson as one of its 10 "Stars" who positively influenced international corporate governance and shareowner value in 2007.

Prior to founding Ironfire Capital, Jackson was President and CEO of Jackson Leadership Systems, Inc., a leadership, strategy, and governance consulting firm. He completed his Ph.D. in the Management Department at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York, with a specialization in Strategic Management and Corporate Governance, and holds a B.A. from McGill University.

He was previously Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at VoiceGenie Technologies, a software firm now owned by Alcatel-Lucent. In 2004, Jackson founded the Young Patrons' Circle at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which is now the second-largest social and philanthropic group of its kind in North America, raising $500,000 annually for the museum. You can follow Jackson on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ericjackson or @ericjackson.

You can contact Eric by emailing him at eric.jackson@thestreet.com.

If you liked this article you might like

7 Essential Rules for Investing in Tech Stocks

Politics Hang Heavy Over FCC's Review of Sinclair-Tribune Media

Microsoft's New Xbox One X Shows It's Done Trying to Please Everyone

Cord Cutters Aren't Just Leaving Pay-TV Because of Price

Netflix Shares Could Rise 16% on Big Boost in Subscribers