A few years ago a colleague of mine shared a slide deck with me that completely transformed my perspective on leadership and building culture. I was new to a leadership position and much like a friend might give you a book, this friend shared the slide deck knowing that I had different views on leadership, but lacked experience in leading a transformative culture shift.

I went through the slide deck fast the first time, nodding my head in excitement, but also wondering what it looked like behind the scenes to build a culture on these principles.

Even more intriguing, is that the company whose culture I was reading about, was a company whose product I used every single week: Netflix.

I’ve read (and re-read) this entire slide deck multiple times over the past few years, and since August it has been sitting on my desktop, as I told myself again and again that I needed to write an article on it.

I’ve taken the slides that impacted me the most and annotated them below with what I learned and took away as important.

I’m so interested to hear your thoughts and also what has shaped your ideas around culture and leadership (please share in the comments).

Also, I’ve shared the entire slide deck in it’s entirety embedded at the bottom of the post.

Netflix’s Guide to Culture

This opening slide is a preview of what is to come. The slide deck was meant for reading, yet it is interesting that the beginning has two pieces of culture that often clash: Freedom and Responsibility.

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Now we dig into Netflix’s definition of not only culture, but what culture means to their company. As a school we can think about culture as a collection of sub-cultures (district, school, department, grade level etc). However, if each sub-culture is focused on moving towards what gives the best chance of continuous success (instead of right now success) it will bleed into each sub-culture that surrounds it.

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There are many people who want to bring goals and priorities down to “just one thing”, but it is interesting to see Netflix’s breakdown as seven different aspects of their culture. Similarly, I believe schools are built on multiple aspects of culture.

A few of the below aspects are a bit more controlled in the public school setting, but don’t let that sway you from seeing their views on each.

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What do we value as educators?

What do we value in our colleagues and our staff? What behaviors are we not only looking for, but also praising in our fellow employees?

Answering those questions are your true values. Everything else is words with no real meaning.

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Netflix employees want to work with other employees that embody these nine values. As a school leader I see two benefits to this exercise.

First, taking these values and then breaking them down into what actions/behaviors go along with them is specifically identifying values that can be seen, modeled, and praised.

Second, as a teacher knowing that high performing companies are looking for employees with these values helps fuel the conversation around what “future ready” students really might look like.

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I sat on this slide for a while each time I read through the entire deck. It’s not about the perks of the job, it’s about the relationships we have in our jobs. That’s what makes people stay in a school, in a district, and feel an intrinsic connection to the community.

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Lots of folks might disagree with the below statement. I’ve heard the family metaphor quite a fair share in my years in public education. Yet, as a former football and lacrosse coach, I relate to the team analogy a bit more. Here’s why: Teams rally around a common goal, families rally around a common circumstance (you were born into the same family). I’d rather work with colleagues and for a leader that is helping us push together towards something, rather than being complacent in my role in a “family” just because we all work together.

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Who doesn’t love a hard worker? I think we all do. Yet, the work needs to relate to effectiveness not just work.

This is hard in a school because our “effectiveness” is often measured indirectly. Whereas in a company like Netflix the effectiveness is tied to the end goals of your department and company revenue/growth.

Still, I wonder what things we tend to value in schools that aren’t directly relevant to effectiveness.

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Also known as the “best person in the world” ha. All of these traits are great, but it is hard to expect these out of every colleague all the time. Yet, having them as an expectation might set the tone for what we’d like to see from ourselves. I’d like to be this person each and every day in every interaction, but it’s difficult.

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Ahh, think about that! Increasing employee freedom, rather than limiting it. Long term continued success is about having the right people, with the right values, and then giving them freedom to innovate.

Easier said than done, yet something we could strive for.

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One of the most important points from the deck. When we focus on near-term outcomes, we optimize process and don’t leave space or room for folks to create, innovate, and think differently.

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Then, as we see time and time again, change happens. In Netflix’s case, it is the market. In our case, as educators, it could be many things (technology, curriculum, standards, policy etc).

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When the market shifts you are out of luck if you spent all your time building processes and creating step-by-step curricula with no room for flexibility and original thought. Netflix believes in a rapid recovery model where mistakes will happen (due to creative and innovative work), but they can be fixed quickly.

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Context, context, context. Again, something I’m only learning (and making a lot of mistakes) as a leader. Context is key to outcomes, not control.

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Great chart that breaks down the difference between context and control (from a leader standpoint).

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Hmm, this slide confused me at first. But I’ve come to realize what it is all about. On the one hand, if you truly build the culture that Netflix is describing, it seems to be a place you would not want to leave, and a place where you’ll have room for growth.

Yet, it doesn’t always happen that way. Life doesn’t work that way. Celebrate growth of employees even if it is outside the company/school/district is about being a good human, and wanting what is best for people (regardless of how it may impact you).

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Yes! Training will always be needed. But development is a bit different. Think about the last time you really dove into a new subject, tool, resource or technology and learned the ins and outs. Chances are you were working with a great team, trying to tackle a challenge that motivated you. Netflix’s view on personal/professional development is that allowing, making time, and supporting the ability to develop yourself is what is really needed to keep up with change.

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There is always going to be tension between accountability and innovation. Between fidelity and flexibility. But when you want to grow as a school, team, or company innovation and execution both have to happen – even if they often pull from opposite sides.

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Similarly, there is tension between the teamwork aspect of culture.

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Preach! This slide is towards the end of the deck but it always speaks to me. When we are rigid, when we are playing the game of politics, when we fall into a pattern of mediocrity and complacency, that is when we do our students the biggest disservice. Each of these must not only be avoided, but actively worked towards eliminating from all people in the organization in order for culture to thrive.

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Patty McCord helped craft this culture at Netflix as Chief Talent Officer, and then she had a very public departure from the company. When asked now about her time at Netflix and specifically thoughts on their culture and values she says:

“No pain, no gain. No risk, no reward. Everything I’ve ever done was embracing the idea of risk. When I coach startups now, I say, to me the ideal next culture that one of you is going to create is one where people is like, ‘oh we’re changing everything? Cool! That will be so fun! You mean we’re starting over? How great will that be?’ And then people will look to embrace change instead of hanging on to what happened before.”

“Netflix was always a company that took risks. And they turned out right most of the time and the ones that didn’t turn out right, you never hear about. Same with any other company.

In fact, McCord says the risk itself isn’t the biggest deal. It’s the “picking yourself up and trying again, that’s the great lesson,” she says. “Companies get strong from—it’s like anything else you do—it’s the hard stuff that makes it stronger.”

For those of you that are interested, here’s the entire slide deck:

One last thought:

Change is an acquired taste, even if it is for the betterment of everyone involved. Much of culture building is creating an environment for dealing with change and embracing the new, even when the old worked just fine.

So, what were your thoughts? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments section below!

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