People frequently tell me they've modeled their creative organization after Pixar, or that they want me to share my Pixar knowledge and experience with them so they can do so.
I get this it all the time, even more so now that Ed has published his book:
These people all claim that they want Pixar's (and Ed's) success, and are willing to do what it takes. Usually that scale of success has eluded them not only because Pixar level success requires massive amounts of luck (and investment by a Steve Jobs type), but because their business philosophies render them incapable of actually following-through on implementing a Pixar model of success.
When they find out what it takes at a personal and practical level, they usually are unwilling or unable to do it. Factoring out luck, these people still don't have what it takes to be "the next Ed" or create "the next Pixar".
Many fail on the first criterion: humility. When Ed says his policy is to hire people smarter than he is and let them make decisions, he's only being slightly hyperbolic. The people he hires and allows to do their jobs with minimal interference may not be smarter than he is about everything, but they are about the thing they were hired to make decisions about.
A willingness to let go, to not be a control freak, eludes many of the founder personality types -- especially in a creative business, which takes some ego to even consider. But when it comes time to be a leader, one must check a substantial amount of ego at the door and admit that nobody can be the best at every piece of something as complex as filmmaking or game development.
The other part of humility -- admitting that you do make mistakes -- is often easier for people now that we have a "mea culpa" culture. Unfortunately, too many leaders make the same vapid admissions of error that put-on-the-spot politicos and celebs do. They talk the talk, then run like hell from the walk. When it comes to creating a successful organization, the ability and willingness to identify and admit mistakes is essential to correcting them. In business, especially a volatile business selling subjective products, false humility can be fatal.
Another big area where many wanna-be Eds fail is a willingness to actually attempt and embrace change, and be willing to make mistakes while trying new things. The word I'd use to sum that up is "courage". Unlike some places I've worked Pixar is not afraid of its competitors, of change, or of itself -- and not in an arrogant way. Pixar is willing to try things not because it is successful (it was most daring when it wasn't) but because the culture is in the main proactive and ruled by enthusiasm, not reactive and ruled by fear.
Pixar is not perfect, despite what a thousand hagiographies may try to claim. The first to admit that is Ed, and he has made many difficult, painful, even friendship-ending decisions to keep Pixar on course as best as possible during the bad times, and extend the good times as much as he can. Sometimes the attempts to make things better fail, and he admits it, and then the company tries something else.
My twelve years at Pixar coincided with the company's apex thus far, and yet during that high point there was as much emphasis on improvement and innovation as during the lower points of my tenure. We were always trying something new, and not always succeeding at it -- which was okay, because more than anywhere else I've been Pixar truly did not punish failure but rather rewarded the vision and courage to try something that failed. In other words, Pixar is encouraging (and also forgiving; but that's the wrong way to look at failure -- they encourage people to try crazy stuff and thus failure doesn't require forgiveness, just a rational assessment that something was tried and didn't work so it's time to move on).
That constant striving didn't always yield results, but the times when morale and productivity were lowest were periods when people saw problems not getting addressed -- not when comfortable things were changing (that just resulted in run-of-the-mill grousing).
Let's be frank now -- another area where too many wannabe Eds fail is in the "don't be an asshole" department. Ed can be stern and decisive when necessary, but I have never seen him be (or heard anyone accuse him of being) capricious or belittling.
Treating people well is essential to a creative organization, and at Pixar that culture comes from the top down. Pixar hires only talented people, mostly outstandingly talented, and as a result it is an egomania vortex. There is ample opportunity for it to be a horrible place to work, but it isn't, because of Ed's leadership.
While for various reasons practical and political the company is not capable of offering everyone all the recognition and every growth opportunity they deserve, on the average Pixar tries to value their employees above all else. For real, not just while writing planted puff pieces about themselves on Glassdoor.
Pixar also has boundless vision and ambition, works incredibly hard (while genuinely attempting to avoid employee burnout and maintain work-life balance for all, albeit not always succeeding), and is willing to eat the cost of delaying a project rather than putting out something terrible. Most places don't have those qualities, either.
But there are companies that are struggling or horrible to work for (or both) that also have those qualities. What they lack is the ability to be humble, encouraging, and courageous. They allow their corporate cultures to be ruled by fear, by "me-too-ism", and by fragile egos who rampage through the company ruining great employees by blaming them for mistakes or taking credit for their successes.
To each of the leaders who've come forward with claims that they want Pixar level success, that they want to know "the secrets" and are willing to do what it takes -- but then lack the humility to actually do it right -- I say: you, sir, are no Ed Catmull.