Your Student Affairs Office isn’t Run Like Netflix, but Maybe it Should Be

Is this how you view your work?
Is this how you view your work?
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What are the priorities of the student groups that you advise/supervise?  Student activities, housing, new student programs, and so on – what are the rules of your department?  How does your division of student affairs communicate expectations of employees?

Is it like this?

  • Effort does not matter, results do.  If you happen to be talented and efficient enough to produce great work with minimal effort, raises and promotions will come your way.  If you work more hours than everyone else, pour your heart and soul into your office, but just produce average results, prepare to be fired.
  • Take as much vacation time as you want.  You can take as much or as little time off as you see fit, as long as you do excellent work.  By the way, the same goes for sick time.
  • Organizational values are reflected in who is “rewarded, promoted, or let go,” not in a value statement riddled with buzzwords.  The qualities of employees that are rewarded for their work are the real reflection of what an organization sees as important. If a supervisor doesn’t view an employee as someone that they would fight to keep (should another job opportunity tempt them to leave), then that employee should be let go.
  • “Brilliant Jerks” are not worth keeping.  The chances of you “teaching” someone a positive attitude are slim to none, so why allow egomaniacs that ruin team morale to stick around?

If you work in a Division of Student Affairs, some of the above may seem quite removed from your organizational reality.  Our best of intentions have led us to a place where certain traditional values are embedded in a way that seems permanent.  For the same reason, going through Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ 2009 company presentation on their corporate values (called a “Culture Deck”) can seem quite jarring.  The above bullet points, along with the below are all adapted from Hastings’ presentation, and I believe that they have major relevancy for student affairs.  The presentation slide deck (presented in full at the bottom of this post) is no secret, as it is widely cited and has been called “[possibly] the most important document ever to come out of the Valley” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.  I say we take a moment to look beyond our student affairs silos for inspiration in hopes that we can find some new ways of approaching our work.

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Six highlights of the Culture Deck that should give us pause (and help us rethink our own organizations):

  1. Honesty Always. A fantastic supervisor of mine from my first year as a student affairs professional (David Pittman, I tip my cap to you) had a rule in our office that really stuck with me: No surprises.  He wouldn’t surprise us, and we wouldn’t surprise him. So, if a potentially problematic issue was seen on the horizon, we let him know ASAP and he would do the same for us.  Too often in an organization, a small problem can become a big one if it goes unaddressed (or worse, hidden).
  2. Consider your coworkers to be teammates, not competitors.  Cutthroat behavior is “not tolerated” at Netflix, because it works counter to the notion that by supporting each other, everybody wins.
  3. Look for ways to increase employee freedom.  Allow staff to feel trusted and they will become personally invested in the organization.  Innovative minds do not thrive in an environment that sets up boundaries and restrictions at every turn, and these environmental limitations will be visible to potential employees during the hiring process (and VERY off-putting).  Allowing for this freedom can be increasingly difficult as an organization grows, according to Hastings, which adds increased importance to bringing in the best employees from the start.  In student affairs, since salary may not always be an available incentive, putting forth a trusting, skilled workplace can serve as a valuable incentive to a potential hire.
  4. Vacation flexibility can serve as a tangible reinforcement of some of the aforementioned values.  Now, I know that there are MANY complications to this one (state institution rules, varying levels of employment that require different hours/office coverage, and so on), but I think there are ways supervisors can think about ways to allow for some flexibility.  In his slide deck, Hastings speaks of the revelation that employees may have semi-set office hours, but they still end up working nights and weekends both in person and online (sound familiar?). One employee took this thought one step further and pointed out the strange practice of counting vacation days but not hours worked per day (or week).  This realization led Hastings to remove vacation restrictions altogether.
  5. Context is more important than control in management.  By setting institutional context and communicating that context to staff members (through clear and inspiring statements of priorities, stakeholders, overall goals, and what defines “success” within the organization), the need for an organizational leader to control everything evaporates.  Micromanagement can’t (and shouldn’t) survive in this environment.
  6. Keep a person’s position in the organization tied closely to their performance.  Hastings notes that, “if a manager would promote to prevent an employee from leaving, the manager should promote now instead of waiting.”  There are often ways to add responsibility, shift work around, and (sometimes) increase pay/title to show a staff member’s value within a division of student affairs.  There are also going to be times when it simply isn’t possible to promote or otherwise compensate a staff member, but actively looking for the next possible way to make such a move on someone’s behalf can still show an employee that they are valued.

Even taking all of the above into account, I do think it is necessary to address some caveats in adapting the Netflix Culture Deck into student affairs.  We should be honest about what is and isn’t possible (or even what we don’t want to be possible), and we should consider:

  • A major tradeoff of the Netflix ethos is that is not necessarily a “stable” environment, and job security can be seen as tenuous at best for some.  Bringing elements of the Netflix workplace into higher education comes with tradeoffs, and this instability would certainly not be for everybody (and could drive off some skittish current and potential employees).
  • There isn’t an endless supply of amazing staff members out there – but there are superstars, and they are worth fighting for to keep on your staff.  Recruiting for a giant tech company is very different than recruiting a staff member to a student affairs job.  The candidates that come through job interviews in student affairs do, however, often share the widely-cited Silicon Valley trait of being extremely passionate about their work.  It just takes a great deal of work and care to identify those employees that will excel in your organization.
  • There isn’t an endless supply of money in higher education to pay salaries that remove financial concerns.  I left the salary section of the slide deck (mostly) out of this post for a reason.  Despite some sections of popular media declaring higher education’s administrative bloat to be out of control, the reality is often that offices are not equipped to pay staff members with any sort of excess.  This speaks to the importance of working to positively affect the elements of an organization that are within a staff’s control.
  • Netflix’s policy on expensing, entertainment, gifts, and travel is simply, “act in Netflix’s best interest.”  No qualifiers, no rulebooks, just five words to summarize all of it.  Of course, within higher education, it would be wonderful to have such discretion over just travel expenses, but it is safe to say that most universities will never be able to simplify spending policies to this level.

There is much more to this slide deck than is outlined above, and I encourage you to give it a look below.  It may change your views on how your organization can, and should, operate.