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11 Important Leadership Lessons from a PIXAR Founder

Our own experiences, successes and failures, are necessary for our learning in how to be better leaders.

But it’s also pretty important to look at other people’s big wins and crashing burns. Though their experiences might not be an exact fit for you and your organization, there are certainly opportunities to take a note, shift your perspective or ponder for a moment. These people can become your unofficial mentors.

I’ve always loved the idea of finding mentors, not only the ones you can physically sit down and talk with, but also those in the world that you can take ideas and cautionary tales from. Barack Obama can be your mentor. Malala Yousafzai can be your mentor. Samantha Bee can be your mentor. Anyone that has lived a life worth learning from, can be a mentor.

One such person I found really insightful is Ed Catmull. He may not be as famous, or at least well know, to many as Steve Jobs, Bob Igor or John Lasseter, whom he worked with as a colleague for most of his career but, as one of the founders of Pixar and current president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, he’s pretty knowledgeable. I’d recommend his book, Creativity Inc., not only as an interesting history of the birth and growing pains of such an amazing organization, but also as a resource on leading teams, managing change and engaging workforces.

I’ve pulled some of my favourite tidbits and takeaways to give you some leadership inspiration.

1) Hire people smarter than you – they’ll make your company and you look good, plus they’ll innovate and problem-solve in ways you hadn’t imagined.

2) Don’t confuse the communication structure with the organizational structure – the flow of feedback and ideas should not have to consider hierarchy.

3) Create a great culture and defend it – put people first, through not just words but by action. And then fight to protect it every day.

4) Pay close attention to ever-changing dynamics in the workplace – the ambitions of both managers and their teams can grow problematic for each other and become unhealthy. See it and guide it, don’t exploit it.

5) Embrace candor – a trait of a healthy culture is one where people feel free to share ideas, opinions and criticisms, regardless of hierarchy. Lack of candor can ultimately lead to dysfunctional environments. As leaders, talk about your mistakes and your part in them. It makes it safer for others.

“There should never be more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy are being hashed out.”

6) Demonstrate trustworthiness, over time, through your actions – an example: respond well to failure.

7) Dedicate a day for business self improvement. – As Ed does in his book, try something like “Notes Day”. This is a day staff tell you how to make your business better and help them engage in the success of your organization.

8) Incorporate “dailies” – provide a regular opportunity for your employees to show what they are working on: projects, programs, whatever. Demonstrate to them that everyone can show incomplete work, and that everyone is free to make suggestions. When that becomes the norm, eliminates ego or embarrassment, people become more creative with new perspectives.

9) Research trips – get out of your office and explore. Nothing is less inspiring than the same work environment you see everyday. It’s why we get so jazzed after attending a really motivational conference, only for that momentum to disappear after a day or tear when you return to your routine.

You’ll never stumble upon the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar.

10) Postmortems meetings – set up a meeting shortly after the completion of a project in where you and your colleagues/employees look at what did and didn’t work, and attempt to consolidate lessons learned. This offers an opportunity to collect what’s been learned, teach others who weren’t there, stifle resentments, force reflection and raise questions that could be used on a future project.

11) Learn what others do –  this can break down silos, offering interactions with new people without hierarchy, opening communication and helping foster respect in the work colleagues do. If we’re all learning something new, we’re all newbies.

What’s a great leadership book you would recommend to help with those unofficial mentorships. Share them below.

Love a good reading list!


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