Edwin Catmull is a thin man in his mid-sixties, with a Ph.D., wire-rim glasses, and graying beard. In interviews he comes across as soft-spoken, almost pensive, although one can read years of wisdom behind a kind expression. He is earnest and straightforward, talks patiently, and, in most every way, resembles your favorite college professor.
But Dr. Catmull is not a professor.
He is the President of two of the most powerful and well-respected companies in the world: Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, the company who literally created computer-generated animation.
On September 1, 2008, the Harvard Business Review published an article written by Dr. Catmull entitled How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity. In this article, Catmull states some seemingly backward approaches to bringing in new talent to an organization:
“Successful organizations face two challenges when bringing in new people with fresh perspectives. One is well-known—the not-invented-here syndrome. The other—the awe-of-the-institution syndrome (an issue with young new hires)—is often overlooked.
The bigger issue for us has been getting young new hires to have the confidence to speak up. To try to remedy this, I make it a practice to speak at the orientation sessions for new hires, where I talk about the mistakes we’ve made and the lessons we’ve learned. My intent is to persuade them that we haven’t gotten it all figured out and that we want everyone to question why we’re doing something that doesn’t seem to make sense to them. We do not want people to assume that because we are successful, everything we do is right.”
How many companies do you know who practice this philosophy? Where the President of the company, first of all, shows up at new employee orientations? And then he doesn’t just make an appearance or sit in the back, but stands up and tells stories about company screw-ups, to help reinforce a culture that respects ALL ideas, even if they come from a first-day-on-the-job newbie?
The list of organizations coming to my mind isn’t very long.
I watched the documentary film The Pixar Story this weekend (and highly recommend it). As you’re surely aware, there’s a certain magic about Pixar. What you may not know is that most of the fairy dust resides within their unique culture—and this is something they’ve fought very hard to protect.
There are so many things we can learn from an organization like Pixar, but for today that’s all I want to say: great company culture may emerge through serendipity, but it doesn’t stay great by accident. People—real people who care enough to put some skin in the game—have to get involved, stand up, get a little dirty. People like Ed need to do some “crazy” things.
Don’t kid yourself that a great workplace “just happens.” Like growing a garden, it requires a lot of work and a bit of mess. It takes time and effort—and this means having people who have enough time built in to their jobs to actually focus on it. There’s simply no other way to build an amazing work environment.
How many Dr. Catmull’s does your company have?
Are you one?