Note: I originally posted this at HBR.org. You can see the original and the 13 comments here and can see all my posts at HBR here. I will continue to devote the lion's share of my blogging effort to Work Matters, but plan to post at HBR a couple times a month.
Pixar is one of my favorite companies on the planet. I love its films, its creative and constructive people (The Incredibles director Brad Bird is among the most intriguing people I've ever interviewed), and its relentless drive toward excellence. There's a pride that permeates that place, along with a nagging worry that, if they don't remain vigilant, mediocrity will infect their work. So I was thrilled to be invited to give a couple of talks about Good Boss, Bad Boss at Pixar last Fall. After the first one, Pixar veteran Craig Good (who has been there at least 25 years — I think he said 28 years), came up and told me an astounding story.
The story occurred to Craig because he'd just heard me claim that the best bosses serve as human shields, protecting their people from intrusions, distractions, idiocy from on high, and anything else that undermines their performance or well-being. For him, that brought to mind the year 1985, when the precursor to Pixar, known as the Computer Division of Lucasfilm, was under financial pressure because founder George Lucas (of Star Wars fame) had little faith in the economics of computer animated films. Much of this pressure came down on the heads of the Division's leaders, Ed Catmull (the dreamer who imagined Pixar long before it produced hit films, and the shaper of its culture) and Alvy Ray Smith (the inventor responsible for, among many other things, the Xerox PARC technology that made the rendering of computer animated films possible). The picture to the left shows Ed and Alvy around that period.
Lucas had brought in a guy named Doug Norby as President to bring some discipline to Lucasfilm, and as part of his efforts, Norby was pressing Catmull and Smith to do some fairly deep layoffs. The two couldn't bring themselves to do it. Instead, Catmull tried to make a financial case for keeping his group intact, arguing that layoffs would only reduce the value of a unit that Lucasfilm could profitably sell. (I am relating this story with Craig's permission, and he double-checked its accuracy with Catmull.) But Norby was unmoved. As Craig tells it: "He was pestering Ed and Alvy for a list of names from the Computer Division to lay off, and Ed and Alvy kept blowing him off. Finally came the order: You will be in my office tomorrow morning at 9:00 with a list of names."
So what did these two bosses do? "They showed up in his office at 9:00 and plunked down a list," Craig told me. "It had two names on it: Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith."
As Craig was telling me that story, you could hear the admiration in his voice and his pride in working for a company where managers would put their own jobs on the line for the good of their teams. "We all kept our jobs," he marveled. "Even me, the low man on the totem pole. When word got out, we employees pooled our money to send Ed, Alvy, and their wives on a thank-you night on the town."
Certainly such extreme staff protection is rare and sometimes it might not even be wise. I can't say that every proposed layoff is immoral or unnecessary. But consider the coda: a few months after this incident, Pixar was sold to a guy named Steve Jobs for 5 million bucks and, as they say, the rest is history. And some 25 years later, that brave shielding act still drives and inspires people at Pixar.
P.S. I want to thank Pixar's Craig Good, Elyse Klaidman, and Ed Catmull for telling me this story and letting me use it. If you want to learn more about Pixar's astounding history, I suggest reading David Price's The Pixar Touch. It is well researched and a delight to read. While you're at it, check out Alvy Ray Smith's site and Dealers of Lightning if you want to learn about the impact this quirky genius has had on computer animation and other technical marvels.