3 Ways Pixar Gains Competitive Advantage from Its Culture

As seen on Fox Business.

To infinity and beyond: That’s where Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Animation Studios are headed, provided they maintain the type of leaders that have gotten them this far. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Animation Studios, describes what he’s learned about leadership and corporate culture in his excellent new book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.

Pixar has been phenomenally successful with the likes of Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and Up, to name but a few of its films. In 2006, Disney bought Pixar to boost its struggling Walt Disney Animation Studios unit. Catmull and John Lasseter, Pixar’s CEO, were appointed to lead the unit as president and CEO, respectively.  With the leadership change, Disney began to produce hits such as Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph.  If any doubt existed that Disney’s magic was back, it was put to rest with the 2013 release of the blockbuster movie Frozen.  Having earned well over a billion dollars in revenue at the box office in its first six months, Frozen became the highest-grossing animated feature ever and moved into the top-10 worldwide highest grossing movies of all time.

The success of Pixar and Disney Animation begs the question: what’s the secret sauce? In a word, it’s “culture,” i.e. the shared attitudes, language and behavior that consistently produce excellence in a given endeavor.  With 70 percent of American workers disengaged today, Pixar and Disney Animation provide a model for engaging and energizing employees by making culture a competitive advantage.

Here are three ways Catmull and his leadership team create a culture that consistently makes great films.

Practical Advice for the New World of Business

Age of The Customer Book CoverJim Blasingame’s new book, The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance, provides a practical guide to help business leaders prepare for the shift from the age of the seller to the age of the customer. What makes this book stand out from others is the thoroughness with which Blasingame has thought through this shift and what businesses need to do to survive and thrive.

Blasingame is well positioned for this task. He is the host of the nationally syndicated “Small Business Advocate” radio program where he interviews a wide-variety of experts. (I’m a regular guest on the show as an expert on employee engagement.)

This is a book you will want to read with a pad of paper and pen handy to write down the ideas and actions you learn. The sheer breadth of topics Blasingame covers – branding, communications, globalization, marketing, organization culture, outsourcing, processes, quality, sales, social media, etc. – is impressive. He effectively connects the dots of what he’s learned from an army of experts, makes sense of it and explains it in clear, concise language.

I could not recommend this book more highly. For a business owner, it’s not one to be missed.

Great Resource for Personal Strategic Thinking and Planning

Create Your Future Book Cover At the beginning of each year, I take time to step away from day-to-day activities and assess the big picture. In other words, I reflect on where I want to go over the next 5-7 years, the progress I’ve made over the prior year and what I would like to prioritize in the year ahead.

Peter Drucker’s writings have always stimulated my thoughts during times of reflection and strategic thinking. He was a master at studying current trends and predicting where the world was headed.

This year, rather than reading Drucker, I read Create Your Future the Peter Drucker Way: Developing and Applying a Forward Focused Mindset by Bruce Rosenstein. The author is an expert on Drucker and author of Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life. He is also managing editor of Leader to Leader, the well-respected, award-winning leadership periodical.

Rosenstein’s book includes a variety of Drucker’s ideas that are especially applicable to personal strategic thinking and planning.  Throughout the book, Rosenstein elaborates on Drucker’s ideas and insights and suggests complementary resources.  In reading Rosenstein’s book, I was introduced to new ways of thinking.  I also discovered new books and websites that I’ve found valuable.

Create Your Future the Peter Drucker Way is a helpful resource that I highly recommend.

A “Must-Read” on Innovation

Myths of Creativity Cover

David Burkus’ new book, The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas, is among the best business books I’ve read this year.  It provides a valuable review of research and practices related to the process of innovation. It’s impossible to read The Myths of Creativity and not come away with new, useful practices that will improve your ability to innovate.   I highly recommend it.

Readers of this book will gain a newfound appreciation for just how difficult innovation is.  Fortunately, Burkus equips readers with practices to help individuals and organizations overcome the biases and potential pitfalls that frequently derail innovation.  For example, Burkus shows how conflict is a necessary part of the process and represents a risk to innovation if it gets personal.  He then goes on to provide a solution by describing the practice Pixar developed that employs conflict in a constructive way while keeping it from escalating into internal combat.

I liked the way Burkus organized the book into ten myths about creativity including the Eureka Myth, the Lone Creator Myth and the Constraints Myth. I also appreciated that the book is under 200 pages in length, and is easy to dip in and out of.  Today’s readers of business books, many of whom suffer from time poverty, will enjoy Burkus’ straight forward, cut-to-the-chase, high value-added writing style.


A Wise and Practical Career Guide for Gen Y

Years ago, a friend told me about a book that would help me understand how to advance my career by making headhunters aware of me and my work.  I read the book, applied much of the advice and it made a difference. Promote Yourself, Dan Schawbel’s new book, is one of those difference-makers for Gen Y.  Really, its message is relevant to all ages in today’s work environment. The book is full of wise and practical ideas and advice to help you develop so that you will become a better employee and better known in your field of interest.  Both are important for career advancement.

Promote Yourself covers all the relevant areas:  the hard, soft and online skills you need to develop; how to raise awareness of you and your work without coming off as a self-promotional jerk; what managers look for in promoting people; developing cross-generational relationships; building a network; turning your passion into a new position; moving up, sideways or moving on; and how to work toward starting your own business.    

New Insights on Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

In Untangling the Mind: Why We Behave the Way We Do, D. Theodore George, M.D., a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, describes a new model for understanding America’s surge in emotional and behavioral disorders.  Earlier this year, a report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies found that comparing a peer group of 17 wealthy countries, Americans under 50 now have the lowest life expectancy and fall at the bottom (i.e. were the worst) of nearly every morbidity category from deaths by substance abuse, sexual-related diseases, infant mortality, violence and sedentary lifestyles that contribute to diabetes and cardiovascular problems. The report points out that in the years following World War II, America was near or at the top of the peer group.  It rightly concludes that something clearly is wrong but, unfortunately, fails to provide a satisfactory explanation.  The problem has become so acute that earlier this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released figures that show suicide rates haven sharply increased so that more Americans now die from suicide than from motor vehicle accidents.

Fortunately, Dr. George’s book helps us understand what’s going wrong.  In his view, traumas experienced by 75 percent of the population result in faulty brain wiring that makes people vulnerable to the stressors, threats and fears we experience in modern life, including the chronic stress many people experience in today’s workplace.  The faulty wiring misinterprets threats and fears by blowing them way out of proportion.  This results in emotional and behavioral disorders.  When people don’t feel well emotionally – i.e. they are angry, anxious, withdrawn, bored, depressed, etc. – they frequently cope in ways that result in addiction (e.g. substance abuse, promiscuity, porn addiction, eating disorders, cutting).  Although these addictive behaviors provide temporary relief, they hijack the brain’s reward system and eventually kick in the anti-reward system so that people need a fix of the coping behavior to feel better from the unpleasant sensations of withdrawal.   

Malcolm Gladwell, Atul Gawande on Connection

Several writers at The New Yorker understand how important the force of human connection is to help people thrive.  I’ve previously written about Ken Auletta’s masterpiece “The Howell Doctrine,” and, of course, there’s Jim Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.  Two other writers at The New Yorker have made significant contributions on this topic.

In Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, we learn that disconnection (the failure to communicate and connect) is the primary cause of aircraft accidents and a major contributor to medical errors.  Gawande, a surgeon, prescribes checklists to help improve performance as the work we do becomes increasingly complex.  Here’s one example.  Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital learned that surgical teams performed better when, prior to surgery, each member of the team introduced him or herself and shared any foreseeable concerns.  When surgical teams did this, lower status members were more likely to speak up if they saw mistakes being made.  This became a step on Gawande’s checklist he and his team developed for the World Health Organization.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success, connection is a theme throughout.  In the introduction, we learn that several research studies found residents of the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania were healthier and lived longer solely because they were a more relationally connected community.  In the next chapter, we learn that 10,000 hours of intentional practice is required with coaching (i.e. connection) to achieve expert level performance.  Although Gladwell doesn’t explicitly make this point, the support of family and friends is necessary to persevere through the inevitable difficulties of  practicing for 10,000 hours, which is 10 years of practicing for 20 hours a week.

In a chapter on geniuses, Gladwell concludes they are often not very successful because they fail to connect with other human beings and it renders them less effective at getting things done.  Similar to Gawande’s book, we learn that the key to airline safety is to reduce human error by making sure pilots, co-pilots and air traffic controllers are connected in both a rational and emotional sense.  Gladwell describes how the crash of a Columbian Airlines flight a few years ago because it ran out of fuel was attributable to a failure of communication between the co-pilot, pilot and air traffic controller at JFK Airport in New York.  The problem was that the plane’s co-pilot used “mitigating speech” to be respectful to those he perceived as having great status and authority.  When he needed to communicate the urgency of the situation he should have been screaming like a New York cab driver to make his point clear.

Finally, we learn from Gladwell about the success of the KIPP charter schools in low income urban neighborhoods.  Eighty percent of KIPP students go on to attend college.  KIPP students learn a protocal called “SSLANT” which stands for smile, sit up, listen, ask questions, nod when being spoken to, and track with our eyes.”  All of these behaviors help kids connect with others.  Brilliant, isn’t it.  KIPP teaches its students academic competence and relationship competence.  It was so inspiring to read how KIPP was giving these kids hope for a bright future, I wanted to stand up and cheer.

I very highly recommend both of these books.  They are utterly fascinating and well written, so much so that I couldn’t put them down.

Five Languages of Appreciation at Work

Five languages of appreciation at work

Let me tell you about a new book that I’m recommending to leaders. It makes a great book for your leaders to read together as part of a book group.

Human Value is one of the elements of a Connection Culture that I teach leaders to create if they want to engage the people they lead to give their best efforts.  The definition of Human Value is when everyone in the organization understands the needs of people, appreciates them for their positive, unique contributions and helps them achieve their potential.  As the definition states, appreciation is essential.

Unfortunately, appreciation is frequently expressed in a language that is foreign to the individual on the receiving end.  This is a source of frustration when one individual expresses appreciation in his or her language (which is usually the case) and the recipient experiences appreciation in a different language.  Learning to express appreciation in ways that resonate with people is an important skill for all human beings, and especially for leaders.

The Heart of Starbucks’ CEO

A leader I know and much admire is Howard Behar, the former president of Starbucks North America and Starbucks International. Howard tells about the time 14 years ago this month when he received a call in the middle of the night at his home in Seattle alerting him that three Starbucks employees at the Georgetown store in Washington, D.C. had been shot and killed, including an 18-year who had just recently begun at Starbucks, his first job.   Behar immediately called Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ CEO, who was in New York on vacation at the time.

What Schultz didn’t do, says a lot about his character.  He didn’t call Starbucks’ public relations people or lawyers.  Instead, Schultz chartered a plane and headed straight to Washington, D.C.  When he arrived, he spoke with the police then proceeded to the store to get the addresses of the three murdered Starbucks employees. He went to each of their homes, told their families he was sorry and shared in their tears.