George Lucas hired you to start the computer division at Lucasfilm in 1979. Seven years later, that division was sold to Steve Jobs and became Pixar. The rest is history. What was it like running Pixar in the early days?
My leadership mindset actually started to form before that, at the University of Utah, where I studied computer graphics at the Graduate School of Computing. It was this totally open, sharing environment with a remarkably innovative, long-term vision that allowed me to combine my passions for animation and computers. We were on the frontier of an entirely new field, and those years had a profound effect on me. I knew I wanted to be in that kind of environment for the rest of my life. At Lucasfilm and then at Pixar, I absolutely loved the technical problem-solving aspects of the work, but I also became fascinated by the way people interact in a creative environment. I recognized quickly that I wanted to create a culture where people felt like they were all peers and equally necessary. From the very beginning, we talked about how we treated each other and how we valued people. These became core values for the company — and for me.
In a culture of innovation, experimentation and failure are critical. Describe how you built a ‘fearless’ environment.
Pixar people have always loved high-risk ideas. When you do something new and original, by definition you’re doing something that has never been done before, which means you’re going to face problems. That’s certainly true with making films. However, we rarely used the terminology of failure. The mindset was more about constantly asking, ’Okay everyone, is this working?’ If the answer was no, then it was ‘Let’s try this’ — and so on. Think how easy it would have been for a movie about talking toys to feel sappy, or how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could have been. We dared to attempt these stories, but we certainly didn’t get them right on the first pass — not by a long shot. In meetings, if there were three people in the room with more power than the others, for the first 15 minutes, they knew they had to remain silent. If they spoke first, they would set the tone, and we didn’t want that. That’s part of creating a fearless environment. It tells people, ‘We support you and want to create a safe environment where we can all benefit from a sense of inclusion.’ Candour has been absolutely critical to our culture and success. You can’t address problems if people are afraid to say they exist.
You can’t address problems if people are afraid to say they exist.
Pixar has some unique practices that reflect these values, including Braintrust meetings. Please describe how they work.
That’s one of the ways we tried to institutionalize candour, and it has been our primary delivery mechanism for straight talk. The Braintrust meets after a screening of a film-inprogress to help solve problems. The premise is simple: put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems and encourage them to be candid with each other.
All of our storytellers are at these meetings: the directors, writers, problem-solvers and people from the story department. The truth is, early on, all of our movies suck; our job is to make them go from suck to not-suck. Every director, no matter how talented, gets a bit lost somewhere along the way. So we screen the movie in its current form and the team picks away at it. We want people to be honest, but we also want them to get comfortable with candour. If I could distill a Braintrust meeting down to its essential ingredients, they would be frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love. Over time, that’s a big part of how our culture was built.
Describe the ongoing struggle between what you call ‘the beast’ and ‘the baby’ at Pixar.
After all the success of Disney Animation in the 1990s, each new Disney film created a fierce hunger for more. And as the company’s infrastructure grew, the need for more product in the pipeline only expanded. That’s where the concept of ‘feeding the beast’ came from. The problem is that originality can be very fragile, and in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. That’s why I came to call early mockups of films ‘ugly babies.’ They all needed nurturing, in the form of time and patience, in order to grow. But that meant they would have a hard time coexisting with the beast side of the organization.
After The Lion King was released in 1994, Disney Animation began a slow decline, and I believe that was the direct result of its leaders thinking their job was to keep feeding the beast. I knew if we weren’t careful at Pixar, the same thing would happen to us. Our job was to protect our ‘babies’ from being judged too quickly by people who didn’t understand that, in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of ‘not-so-greatness.’
After Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, our first task was to restore an understanding of the delicate needs and challenges of new ideas, without getting overwhelmed by the need to keep everyone else busy. We also felt that the studios needed be treated as separate groups, so the ownership for each movie was fully within each studio.
Writing about your personal leadership style, you say, “Be patient, be authentic and be consistent. The trust will come.” Can you elaborate?
I’ve spent my career thinking hard about how to help smart, ambitious people work effectively with one another. The way I see it, my job is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy and watch for things that can undermine it. Everybody has the potential to be creative — whatever form that takes — and in my mind, encouraging such development is a noble thing.
As a leader, you see things that other people don’t, but your employees also see things that you don’t. That is the case everywhere. Too often, leaders think their job is to always know the answer, but it’s not. It’s to figure out the right thing to do — and that requires listening to the people around you who see all those things you don’t see. People don’t always have to agree with each other. The fact is, they are all smart, professional people; they know they can’t have everything go their way, but they do want to be heard. So, I have always taken the time to listen. You can respect a person, but just happen to disagree. Acknowledging that is important, because it builds trust.
Ed’s Tips for Managing a Creative Culture
Give a good idea to a mediocre team and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are that they’ll get the ideas right.
When hiring people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level. What they will be capable of tomorrow is much more important than what they can do today.
Try to hire people who are smarter than you. Always take a chance on better, even if it seems like a potential threat.
If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere.
Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active, ongoing process. As a manager, you must coax ideas out of your staff and constantly push them to contribute.
There are many valid reasons why people aren’t candid with one another in a work environment. Your job is to search for those reasons and address them.
Likewise, if someone disagrees with you, there is a reason. Your first job is to understand the reasoning behind their conclusion.
If there is more truth in the hallway than in meetings, you have a problem.
Sharing problems is an act of inclusion that makes employees feel invested in the larger enterprise.
If you don’t always try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.
It is not the manager’s job to eliminate risks. It is their job to make it safe to take them.
A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.
Imposing limits can encourage a creative response. Excellent work can emerge from uncomfortable or seemingly untenable circumstances.
Does the least powerful person in the room feel safe speaking up? If the answer is no, you’ve got a problem.
In addition to being a legend yourself, you’ve worked with pioneers like Bob Iger and Steve Jobs. What did they teach you?
Bob was incredibly smart and took big risks. The first thing he did as the new CEO of Disney was to tell Steve he wanted to buy Pixar. But Bob admitted to Steve, “Disney Animation is not in a good state right now and I don’t know how to fix it.” Steve was blown away. He valued Bob’s honesty so much that it was the beginning of a deep and long friendship. In the early days, Steve had a reputation. People love to write about it to this day — but in my mind they’ve missed the real story. Steve really lived the ‘hero’s journey,’ and went through a remarkable personal transformation. Over time he became more empathetic and changed the way he interacted with people. After this change, the people who were ‘with’ Steve stayed with him for the rest of his life. The key to his success, I believe, was that he kept people around him who knew how to disagree with him. That was invaluable to him.
If you tried to match Steve in terms of thinking-speed in the moment — no one could do that. But contrary to what some might think, he didn’t need to be right all the time. If an idea didn’t work, he had a remarkable ability to switch on a dime. I witnessed this first-hand at Pixar. I worked for Steve longer than anybody in my career, and we never had an argument, even though we sometimes disagreed strongly. You don’t need to argue to disagree.
If you can embrace the fact that you are probably wrong half of the time, it will open you up to ideas that can transform your company.
Every organization aspires to be as creative and successful as Pixar. What are the key takeaways for readers?
First, if you can embrace the fact that you don’t (and can’t) see and know everything, and that you are probably wrong half the time, it will open you up to ideas and possibilities that can transform your company. Over the years I have frequently spoken with people in the computer industry who saw a big change coming, but their leaders just wouldn’t listen to them. Being a public company, it was more important for them to hit the quarterly numbers. People think they have to be right, right now, but what you really want is to be right in the long run. Second, it’s incredibly important to recognize the human dynamic behind every business. Your employees are all emotional beings with their own aspirations and desires. My goal as a leader has been to train people to listen to their colleagues and make a habit of genuinely helping each other. Working on difficult problems can be messy and there is always a temptation not to share the responsibility. Without a doubt, my happiest times at Pixar were when the studio’s top leaders met as a team and we owned a problem together. If I can leave people with one ‘pearl of wisdom,’ it would be this: We are all in this together. And by ‘this,’ I mean owning hard problems and striving to solve them.
Dr. Ed Catmull is the Co-Founder of Pixar Animation Studios and the former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. He is the co-author of Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Random House, Expanded Edition, 2023). Pixar has produced hits including Toy Story, Frozen, Cars and The Incredibles, grossing more than US$14 billion at the worldwide box office and winning 18 Academy Awards, 10 Golden Globes and 11 Grammys.
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