How Pixar Powers Its Creativity through Employee Engagement

by Michael Lee Stallard

At the technical Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, the Associated Press reported that it wasn’t the gorgeous host, actress Jessica Biel, who attracted the most attention. Instead, it was an understated, bespectacled, computer engineer named Ed Catmull. When Catmull’s name was announced to receive an Oscar for his lifetime of work in computer animation, the crowd went wild, whistling and whooping. And rightly so. The impact of Catmull and his collaborators on Hollywood may last for decades to come. I’m not referring to his contributions in computer animation though. More lasting will be his contribution to improve corporate cultures.

Catmull, of course, is the president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. He has rejected the pixar corporate culture on inclusion boost employee engagementHollywood star system and replaced it with a community environment. Catmull described it this way in a Harvard Business Review article he wrote last year: “[Pixar has] an environment that nurtures trusting and respectful relationships and unleashes everyone’s creativity…the result is a vibrant community where talented people are loyal to one another and their collective work, everyone feels that they are part of something extraordinary, and their passion and accomplishments make the community a magnet for talented people…”(italics mine).

What is it about Pixar’s environment that attracts talented employees and helps them produce outstanding movies such as the blockbuster hits Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E that have made Pixar the envy of Hollywood?

The element that Pixar’s environment that sets it apart is it’s intentional inclusiveness toward all employees. In most organizations only 20 percent of employees – managers and the stars — feel included.  At Pixar the percentage of employees who feel included is certainly much, much higher than the norm.

Inclusiveness begins with what management says about its employees. Catmull says that great movies are made from the tens of thousands of ideas that go into them from beginning to completion. As such, everyone needs to contribute their ideas and opinions, everyone’s work matters and everyone makes a difference in the quality of a film. Pixar employees know senior management values their contributions whereas in most organizations the overwhelming majority of employees feel their contributions are not valued by senior management. As a result, Pixar employees are more engaged in their work than employees of the average organization. And because they are more engaged Pixar employees put more effort in their work, they are more trusting and more cooperative, all factors that affect productivity, quality and innovation.

Another aspect of Pixar’s environment that contributes to inclusiveness is the Pixar University. It offers numerous courses related to filmmaking, the arts, health and other topics of interest to Pixar employees. Employees can take up to four hours of classes each week. In class participants develop acquaintances across the firm that strengthen their ties to the organization.

Pixar’s office design also contributes to developing loose ties across the organization. The cafeteria, meeting rooms, employee mail boxes and restrooms are centralized to make it more likely Pixar employees will interact with one another.

As a leader and advisor to leaders I have learned that practices, such as those above, are not sufficient to produce an environment that will help make an organization great. It’s more than just what leaders do that matters. Just as important is who leaders are. Ed Catmull doesn’t just talk and act inclusive. He deeply believes in it. His business partner John Lassiter, Disney and Pixar Animation’s Chief Creative Officer, does too. They in turn select leaders who embrace these values such as director Brad Bird and his business partner, the producer John Walker (who worked together on “The Incredibles”).

Late last year I met John Walker at Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville, California. Listening to Walker it was clear to see that he embodies the values of inclusiveness. He has a the sort of bridge-building personality that helps people amicably resolve conflict and keep them feeling like a part of the community. During the course of our conversation, Walker told me how he insisted on gathering the entire team of more than 200 people who worked together on a movie at least once a week so that the extroverted artists and their more introverted technical counterparts came together as a community. In the meetings, Brad Bird, Walker and others keep team members informed about the film’s progress get them thinking about how to solve the present set of issues facing the team.

So long as Pixar’s leadership preserves its environment, I would expect it to continue leaving the rest of Hollywood in its wake. In time, Catmull and Lassiter will return the magic to Disney Animation too.

Sadly, research shows that approximately 75 percent of employees are not engaged in their jobs, which clearly indicates that the importance of the work environment is not on the radar screens of most leaders. That’s tragic. Work environments need to be healthy today, perhaps more than ever. Pixar’s example has awakened Hollywood’s leaders from their slumber. It should be a wake up call to leaders in other industries too.

What are you doing to make all of your organization’s employee feel like a valued member of your organizational community?

Michael Lee Stallard is the president of E Pluribus Partners, a leadership training and coaching firm. He is the primary author of Fired up or Burned Out.  For additional information, see

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