CEO Series Fireside Chat: Biggest Advice You Need to Hear from Ed Catmull, Pixar Co-Founder and President of Walt Disney Animation Studios- By Jean-Philippe Emelie Marcos

I had the honor of sitting down with Ed Catmull a few months ago. Ed is the co-founder of the world renowned company Pixar, and the retired president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Ed is at the same time a technology pioneer responsible for innovations instrumental to the world of computer animation, a CEO role model who wrote one of the most influential management books of all time, Creativity Inc., and a creative leader who won several Academy awards.  While many know him for these titles and achievements, he has done much more than just that, breeding the ground for many other legends in the industry. In this interview, we had the chance to talk in depth about the change Pixar brought to the film industry, and how to build a successful company. I found Ed to be very transparent and open with the road to his success. I received a lot of eye opening viewpoints from an amazing CEO. Here are a few of my personal takeaways from our discussion.

Having a clear vision is important—but so is luck.

I started our conversation discussing Ed’s impact on the film industry. It warranted me to ask him if he would change anything, and his plain answer was no. Like most individuals, all of the hardships, experiences, successes and failures shape who you are at the end.

I talked about how his desire for things put him in positions of expansion and his clear vision. Ed believes that his success is a combination of hard work and luck. From his perspective, a successful individual can never undervalue the essence of luck in their journey. 

Team work makes the dream work and defeating class culture

Ed found himself questioning his role in the success of Toy Story, wondering how much of it was possible because of him. He then realized that it wasn’t necessary to try to separate things to each individual. The film was successful because different people were able to work together towards a common goal—changing animation. 

Ed talked deeply about what made Pixar different. While he gives part of the success to just having an amazing team, he highlights the importance of getting rid of the class system that many companies have in the workplace.

Because I’ve seen it happen in the wrong way with both Microsoft and Disney, right in the beginning we talked about it. When we were a small group we knew that we were all working towards the same goal.”

He mentioned how it was important to get rid of this system because it discourages individuals from being passionate about their work, and passion is one of the most important things in filmmaking. 

Working with other greats.

Two of the biggest people Ed has worked with are George Lucas and Steve Jobs. He remembers his time with George as motivational. “Besides getting the opportunity, the amazing thing is that George really and truly wanted to change the entire industry.”

Ed then focuses on how he was able to see the change in Steve Jobs, something that many people were not able to witness. Steve had a hardcore personality, and it was intimidating to many others. While he rarely received critique from other people because of this, he enjoyed pushback. It showed a passionate side of others that he wanted.

In his biography written by Walter Issacson, one thing that isn’t highlighted is the force for change. Ed states that people say Steve’s hardcore personality was the reason for his success, but he saw it as a downfall. Returning to Apple, Steve was an entirely different person—he grew empathy. That change was something that Ed really wanted to highlight. Even the biggest of leaders will have to be susceptible to change or it can ruin them.

I strongly encourage not only future and current CEOs to watch this interview, but anyone who wants to work on a team with success as the goal. Regardless of the industry, these key points can help many people become better in their company.

If you have enjoyed the event and/or this article, we really hope that you will join us for our next CEO Series Fireside Chat on 4/7 from 5-6pm PST with Dean Banks, President and CEO of Tyson Foods.

JP Emelie Marcos (MBA 2001), HBSANC Chair of CEO Series


About the CEO Series
The CEO Series is a long-standing HBSANC event tradition.  This series exists to foster continuous growth and education among the HBS alumni community by providing a platform for business leaders to share their experience, lessons learned, and advice and opinions in an interactive format.  CEOs of prominent companies such as DocuSign, Mulesoft, or Zoom took the stage recently in San Francisco to speak to our members.  From now until the foreseeable future, we will conduct monthly online events as part of this series to the Bay Area and other HBS alumni clubs nationally.

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