Leadership 101

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November 2014
by Christopher Robbins

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Confident business partners walking down in office building andWe know SEO strategies are important, of course, along with things like understanding how to use social media to increase discoverability, how to work with a distributor, how to provide metadata, and how to understand Amazon algorithms. But management and leadership principles and tactics are at least as important, although they may not get as much attention.

Some of us have at least one employee and others have many more. And even if you don’t have an employee, ensuring that you have clear goals, clear expectations, adequate resources and training, and some form of feedback is healthy. As entrepreneurs, we need to lead ourselves and our teams to the destinations we consciously choose as the president, the CEO, the Head Honcho, the boss, or whatever else we call ourselves.

My entire leadership philosophy revolves around one simple statement: Teach people correct principles and let them govern themselves.

To succeed with this philosophy, a leader needs to communicate a clear destination or goal, clarify expectations and levels of authority, provide resources and training, and give consistent and appropriate feedback.

Pixar as Polestar

Over the years, I’ve read some of the many, many books that claim to help people become better leaders. My favorites include Daniel Pink’s Drive, Jim Collins’ triumvirate Built to Last, Good to Great, and Great by Choice, and the Arbinger Institute’s Leadership and Self Deception, published by Berrett-Koehler. I recommend a careful reading of all of these.

But of all the books I have read about leadership and management, one stands out for me when I consider the publisher’s role. Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, aligns with my leadership and management philosophy more than any other book I have ever read, maybe partly because it illuminates the special relationship between art and business that drives the publishing industry.

Ed Catmull grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, territory settled by pioneers who walked almost 2,000 miles to start a new life beyond the Rocky Mountains. His dream was to work in movie animation. As a graduate student at the University of Utah, he developed the first computer animated image by animating his hand.

Eventually, Catmull found himself working with Lucas Films. Then the division was purchased by Steve Jobs, who was interested in using the technology for computer software. Although that did not work out, Catmull, Jobs, and John Lassiter (a film illustrator fired by Disney) went on to form Pixar, which revolutionized the animated film industry.

Catmull says that every number one film Pixar ever created “started out as crap.” At this point, Pixar has invested approximately 1.4 billion in “crap” that became fantastically innovative and awesome feature length films. The return on investment? Fifteen consecutive number one films, which grossed more than $7.4 billion in box office sales. This is 7.4 billion in box office sale only. Add the revenue from DVD sales, download sales, and the massive subsidiary rights sales for licensing use of characters on backpacks, lunch boxes, and toys, and you get a serious picture of their ROI.

I’m quite sure that every IBPA member would streak naked through the Javits Center in New York at BEA for an ROI of almost seven times investment. But that’s a digression and a frightening image.

Primary Principles

Here’s the deal: Pixar, like any other creative company (like a book publisher), starts out with an idea and takes it through development, rework, and production. Ignoring the obvious differences between books and movies, the difference between Pixar’s Midas touch and many publishing companies’ ability to achieve consistent greatness in the context of our industry is in Pixar’s leadership principles.

Listen to what Ed Catmull says in Creativity, Inc. about his role as a leader and the leadership principles that guide Pixar.

  • “I began to see my role as a leader more clearly. I would develop myself to learn how to build not just a successful company but a sustainable creative culture.”
  • “My aim at Pixar … has been to enable our people to do their best work. We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.”
  • “My job as a manger is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it.”
  • “I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear …”
  • “Successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.”
  • “Every person there, no matter their job title, felt free to speak up. This was not only what we wanted, it was a fundamental Pixar belief: unhindered communication was key, no matter what your position.”

Do you see some common denominators regarding his role as a leader? Developing sustainable culture. Helping people do their best work. Identifying and destroying obstacles. Creating fertile ground. Listening to those closest to the problem. Understanding that your model may be wrong.

Contrast Catmull’s statements with a paragraph I read recently from a 1990s leadership text: “Leadership can be defined … as directing the thoughts, plans, and actions of others … so as to obtain and command their obedience …” Wow!

Most publishers, I suspect, find the thought of commanding and obtaining obedience from staff distasteful. But, how often do we communicate messages that amount to, I have the answers; Do it my way, or Don’t question our processes? If you are like most mortals, I’d bet that you frequently default to behavior that is inconsistent with your values and principles.

Some people argue that Catmull simply benefited from being with two geniuses in the right place at the right time. But plenty of companies didn’t succeed even though they had geniuses plus tremendous capital resources. Steve Jobs’ Next is an example, and Disney struggled mightily even with John Lassiter there.

My belief is that Pixar’s greatness is not in its storytelling or its capital or its computer graphics. Yes, the company had competitive advantages but maintaining control over the number one spot in animated film required much more. It required an obsessive dedication to removing obstacles and fear from the company culture and letting its talented, intelligent, creative people innovate and solve problems.

About Entropy and Excellence

What to do? How does this translate to publishing? After 25 years of reading, studying, and practicing leadership principles, I’m confident that entropy has a firm grasp on my character. Without constant reminding, diligence in direction, and continual review of correct principles, I default to behavior that undermines my goals. I fail to consistently teach people the principles I believe in.

Roger Moss, one of the book industry’s storied reps, taught me that publishing is a trade, something that you practice every day so you can be better at it the next day. Leadership is the same.

Leaders aren’t born; they are made through their experiences. And the best leaders create exceptional companies and contributions.

I don’t think I can communicate the creative objective and requirements better than Catmull did. His closing paragraph in Creativity, Inc. simply states: “Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.

Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.”


Christopher-RobbinsChristopher Robbins is the founder and president of Familius, a publishing company focused on helping families be happy. He is also the CEO of AWB, one of the premier wholesalers to Costco, Sam’s Club, and Wholefoods.

He is married and has nine children. You can reach him at christopher@familius.com

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