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How great companies develop their staff – Pixar

Finally, a movie-company to round these case studies off. Pixar was originally bought by Georg Lucas, then taken over by Steve Jobs and is now part of Disney. Over the years, Pixar has pioneered innovation in technology and screen design and won several awards, including many Oscars. The company lives from its talent pool of creative and technical experts.

In a presentation on Pixar’s approach, Randy Nelson highlighted their hiring and cultural strategy. Since Pixar is dealing with creative products, they take a slice from improve-theater. There are two rules there which translate well into the world of corporate creativity: accept everything that someone comes up with, and make your partner look good.

To support this approach, Pixar is looking for a value-fit in its hiring by hiring fitting people:

  • Ultra-nerds – People with depth in their expertise and mastery over a subject, which must not be job-related. It shows them the structure of personality they are looking for.
  • Communication and collaboration – the ability to translate thoughts and ideas into language that other people understand as well as the attitude to amplify each other’s efforts.
  • Failure and recovery – one of the key skills in innovation is the ability to recover from failure and find a way where few people have been before.

All this works together by having the values clear and making them the integrative force in hiring and building the culture.


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How great companies develop their staff – Apple

Apple is another famous brand with most of its merits coming from the intellectual capital of its workforce. Again, not much is known about Apple’s internal workings. However, the values of Apple dictate their hiring, promotion and retention strategy. Apple is known for its design aesthetics and attention to detail.

Through its brand and reputation, Apple is looking for the world-best people in design and technology. It highlights an interesting point what author Joel Spolsky call the “Hitting the High Notes”:

“The real trouble with using a lot of mediocre employees instead of a couple of good ones is that no matter how long they work, they never produce something as good as what the great employee can produce.

Five Antonio Salieris won’t produce Mozart’s Requiem. Ever. Not if they work for 100 years.

The Creative Zen team could spend years refining their ugly iPod knockoffs and never produce as beautiful, satisfying, and elegant a player as the Apple iPod. And they’re not going to make a dent in Apple’s market share because the magical design talent is just not there. They don’t have it.

The mediocre talent just never hits the high notes that the top talent hits all the time. The number of divas who can hit the f6 in Mozart’s Queen of the Night is vanishingly small, and you just can’t perform The Queen of the Night without that famous f6.

If you threw a bunch of extra programmers onto the Windows Media Player team, would they ever hit that high note? Never in a thousand years.”

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How great companies develop their staff – Google

Google is another company greatly admired and highly regarded across the globe. Their profit per employee of 240.000 USD is the highest of all companies. So, a great workforce must be central to their continuous growth. While there is little known on Google’s internal development, two features stand out in their staff approach: hiring and freedom.

Based on a strong brand and high desirability to work for them, Google is intend on hiring the smartest and highest-skilled workers in the IT industry. For this reason, they set a high entry barrier to attract only the best. Billboards with complicated mathematical riddles have become famous around Silicon Valley and aim at supporting the nerd-factor for Google as well as pre-screen only the best.

Once people join Google, there are a variety of perks – from free lunch and ice-cream over massages and all other kinds of amenities. But the majority of initiatives are not a part of pre-pefined plan. As Google VP of HR Anne Driscoll states: “The majority of initiatives come from Google population. We provide an atmosphere that says: Just do it”. This applies to laundry service, oil change, WLAN in buses, prayer rooms, and author series. And it extends beyond perks. Googlers are invited to spend one day a week on personal projects. So, 20% of the work time is dedicated to exploration, innovation and fun. Once these projects can convince their co-workers, they are introduced to management who might support them into new products (such as Google Wave, etc).

This approach of flex time fits well with the organizational value and kind of people Google attracts – innovators and experts who get motivated by solving problems. How sustainable this model is remains to be seen once the rising days of Google slow down.

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How great companies develop their staff – PepsiCo

PepsiCo is following a similar approach to GE with CEO Roger Enrico spending more than 100 days a year personally conducting leadership workshops for senior executives. According to PepsiCo’s program the most important philosophy of a leader is to personally develop other leaders. As a result, 86% of executive vacancies are filled from within. In the training session, values for leadership are discussed, along with techniques and philosophy, as well as new business opportunities are explored which then are worked out by the participants and discussed in a next session.

Alongside the personal involvement of CEO and senior executives, PepsiCo’s designs their bonus packages with up to 50% of the goals relating the values and leadership behavior – counterbalancing the tendency to focus only on results and neglecting the way to get there.

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How great companies develop their staff – General Electric

Under Jack Welch, GE has become known for its organizational excellence and leadership development depth. At the outset was one organizational value – pragmatism. With a hate for bureaucracy, Jack Welch formulated a vision of the boundaryless organization: “business behavior that tramples or demolishes all barriers of rank, function, geography and beaucracy in an endless pursuit of the best idea in the cause of engaging and involving every mind in the company”. The outcome was a program called “Work-Out” – a 2-3 day program involving large groups with an effort of achieving boundaryless behavior through a combination of culture change, leadership development and action learning projects.

Another organizational value – speed – followed the same path. Welch understood that speed is the key to competitive advantage. So, he abolished most central planning and involved people in the Change Acceleration Program (CAP) with the idea of making people open to change, hungry to learn and anxious to move quickly on new ideas. Participants come to CAP in teams of 8-12 with real problems. Each team worked with a coach who was constantly present and the contents altered between the CAP framework (guidelines and steps for change) and the solution of the problem.

Noel Tichy was responsible for setting up the now-legendary training center for GE at Crotonville. In his book “Leadership Engine” he describes the internal workings of Crotonville:

  1. Leaders with a proven track record take responsibility for the development of other leaders
  1. Leaders who develop others teach through their point of view with living stories in the areas of:
    1. Values – What behaviors are required to put our business ideas into practice?
    2. Ideas – How will we make money and win in the marketplace?
    3. Energy – How do we keep people motivated and working with high energy?
    4. Edge – Which difficult decisions must I make?
  1. Because leaders are involved in developing others, they have well-defined methodologies and coaching and teaching methods.

According to Tichy, this approach succeeded because it involved the leadership of the company. This led to high expectations in the participants, cultural definition in the company, and strong tests and clarification in the leaders. All this resulted in a cultural dimension in learning which requires clear values and a stated vision that provides strength to development activities. Most learning happened on real projects (action-learning, 80-20 approach) and was geared to the right timing (career transitions) for max impact.

Overall, GE uses a number of well known tools to support their development. This distinguishing factor is the focused implementation and tie to organizational values. It is mostly about doing the best practices consistently and with excellence every time.

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