The importance of culture doesn’t apply to just companies — great culture is critical for all organizations, including schools, sports teams, nonprofits and clubs. For HashtagNYU, a small division of New York University’s Student Affairs office, a Culture Code is just what they needed to help show the university and beyond what they were all about.
The tiny team — just four employees, plus a group of interns, that focuses on meaningfully connecting students with the large university — published a Culture Code in 2013 that listed their initiatives. “We succeed and fail together,” “we work until it works” and “we bleed purple” are some of the values they listed.
“As a new and small office within a larger division at NYU, we felt that it was important to be intentional about our culture, and about how we approach projects, from the start,” says Guido Ditto, creative strategist at HashtagNYU.
The deck has received almost 50,000 views. In June, HashtagNYU will discuss the importance of creating an intentional culture at NASPA Region II Conference, a higher education conference. HashtagNYU’s deck was a big part of their proposal to speak, Ditto says.
“Our Culture Code has encouraged our team to focus on specific goals and to share those priorities with our colleagues,” Ditto says. “We’re all just trying to get people on the same page.”
HashtagNYU wanted to make known its start-up mentality since it functions differently than many of the other NYU offices that offer student positions, Ditto says.
“[We created a Culture Code to show] not what we do, but how we operate and our office’s ethos,” says Nick Jensen, marketing manager.
Much of this ethos can be attributed to NYU’s student body. HashtagNYU puts students — who, naturally, make up the fabric of NYU — at the center of all their projects. As a result, HashtagNYU’s culture seeps into the broader NYU community, too.
“We’ve seen our interns become more active members of the NYU community and continue to radiate our culture beyond their time with us,” Ditto says. “More and more, we’ve also seen our student audience embody our last and most important code — ‘We Bleed Purple’ — by proudly sharing our content with friends.”
HashtagNYU went on a full-day retreat to create their Culture Code and answer questions like, “What kind of place do you want to work in?” The results were then brought back to review and revise, ultimately creating a Culture Code over a period of about four months.
“I think what was very successful about this was that we didn’t go to two interns and put this document together. We started with a blank canvas with everybody in the room,” says Senior Director Erin Callihan. “It would’ve been completely different if we had, as administrators, done this on our own.”
Here are 3 tips the team gave for creating a Culture Code:
1. Don’t be a Hallmark card
Avoid general terms like “innovation.”
For example, HashtagNYU expanded on “innovation” to, “We’re unafraid to be different.” When some team members wanted to use the word “transparency,” interns told them it was overused. Instead, the team came up with the value, “We want our partners to become pioneers with us.”
2. Focus on the end game
“Your first purpose should not be a marketing tool,” Callihan says. “What is the end game, what is it that you’re after, what do you want the Culture Code to be? You can figure it out and create it and every new person who cycles in is now a part of it.”
Ditto adds, “We always wonder, ‘where do we want to be?’ — in a few months, next year, etc… With our Culture Code, we knew we wanted to connect students to one another and to the university by sharing the NYU story. Creating the code helped us identify the kind of culture that could help us focus on the day-to-day tasks to share the student story. It holds each of us accountable and also defines who we are as a team. And as we continually bring in new interns, it helps us maintain our office integrity — attracting and retaining students who are both talented and a great fit.”
3. Be aspirational, but make sure you’re honest, too
HashtagNYU says there are aspects of their Culture Code which are aspirational (for example, they say there is always room to grow in how they “invest in making people awesome”), but that it serves as a reminder to how they want to move forward. Every aspect needs to be genuine.
“It’s ok to be aspirational — but if they’re [creating a Culture Code] to be part of a trend, it won’t work. It really needs to be in the DNA of culture,” Jensen says.