In 2015 I was going on a short vacation and needed a good book to read by the pool. Creativity, Inc. seemed to fit the bill. A book about the birth of Pixar? SOLD!
What I didn't realize is that this book would have the biggest impact any book has ever had on my views of leadership and building company culture. I highlighted so much that I'm amazed there was any white space left.
Ed Catmull (currently President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios) is an unlikely source of business advice. This is nothing against him, there are just others out there with bigger names who've cornered the "business guru" market. Yet, his humble approach to motivating people and fierce dedication to creating meaningful stories is extremely compelling. I couldn't stop reading. It was like crack for creatives and business leaders alike.
The book traverses Ed's early career as a computer scientist, through the creation of Pixar, their partnership with Disney, and eventual acquisition. It describes how they built a culture where each employee was a guardian for the brand, as well as the stories they told. There are some nice nuggets about Steve Jobs along the way.
Here are some of my takeaways.
1. Assume positive intent.
This has been my greatest lesson as a leader. Flipping the paradigm of "so-and-so has a bad attitude" to "what's really going on, and how can I help fix the problem?" is a crucial step to understanding where the bottlenecks lie and freeing up great people to do what they do best. If we start with the presumption that we will always be unintentionally strangling our employees' ability to be effective, then our objective is straightforward: clear the path.
2. Get buy-in.
As a business leader, it doesn't matter how awesome my idea might be if I can't get anyone on the bus. And I know from experience that pulling from in front (or pushing from behind) is not the way to Happy Employee Land. Whether the idea is mine or someone else's, it's important that we find a way to communicate it so that our employees a) understand it, b) know why we've chosen it, and c) feel like they're an important part of executing it (in a positive way, not a "holy crap this is intense" way). This may involve varying degrees of weigh-in as the idea evolves, which means you have to understand the types of personalities on your team. I have failed to secure buy-in many times by standardizing a message for a group instead of personalizing it based on who I'm talking to.
3. Promote candor.
Many people confuse candor with curtness or attach other negative connotations. In fact, the definition of candor is as follows:
the quality of being open and honest in expression; frankness.
At its heart, candor means being real--being open about what you think, even if you might be a dissenting voice. But the essence of candor also aligns with positive intent. It doesn't give you a license to be rude to someone else. I admit that I've often been guilty of being too blunt when I should have been candid. In each case, it was because I cared deeply for what we were talking about, and didn't stop to think if I was being candid or just brutally honest (emphasis on the brutal). Candor is a necessity in business, and when effectively utilized, it can elicit valuable feedback and ideas.
4. Be transparent, especially about problems.
The old adage "never let them see you sweat" has slowly been shifting out of use in business. I can point to multiple times in my career when I recognized a major problem and barreled forward, confident that I could get to a solution without involving others. I'm sure it won't come as a shock that I crashed and burned. More and more as teams work closely and have to quickly adapt to change, vulnerability at all levels, especially management, becomes of vital importance. Involving your people in problems as soon as possible not only allows them to see you as a normal human being, but gives them the opportunity to be a part of the solution.
I won't lie, though. There are still times when I have to remind myself that showing vulnerability is ok. Years of white-knuckling through issues are hard to unwind.
The few topics I included here are just a sliver of the amazing story you'll read if you pick up Creativity, Inc. If you decide to read it (and I hope you do), please do come back here and tell me what you thought.
I'll leave you with this final note from Ed: