New York Times

For Jeffrey Katzenberg, a Boost From a Boot Out the Door

Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks Animation SKG, says his departure from Disney "fueled me to get on and understand that, if anything, I had been held back."

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks Animation SKG, says his departure from Disney "fueled me to get on and understand that, if anything, I had been held back."

Published: November 08, 2009

This interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation SKG, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. Do you remember the first time you started managing somebody?

A. When I was a teenager, I was here in New York City and I was a volunteer for John Lindsay when he ran for mayor in 1965. I organized a couple hundred school kids from my school and other schools to come down to campaign headquarters on Friday night where there was free pizza and soda and kind of a party. We would stuff envelopes and print fliers.

Q. What did you learn from that?

A. Two guys, Sid Davidoff and Dick Aurelio, were really great role models early on about showing up on time, respecting people's time, returning every phone call every day, even if it's to tell them you never want to talk to them again. Sid explained to me that time is the single most valuable thing to almost all of us. The thing we all actually wished we had more of was time. I've never forgotten that. I'm always very punctual, and when I'm not, I have high, high anxiety.

Q. What did you learn from other bosses you've had?

A. I've had great bosses and I've had terrible bosses, and I have actually learned my greatest lessons and my most important lessons from my worst bosses.

Q. Can you elaborate?

A. There are things you're able to observe in people, the mistakes they make. None of us is objective about our own mistakes, I think. I'm not particularly good at looking in the mirror and being self-critical. But I consider myself a student of human nature, and so you can observe in other people the qualities that you both most admire and those that you most dislike.

Q. Can you talk more about those qualities?

A. You cannot surround yourself with the smartest and most talented people and then start looking over your shoulder or behind your back, worried that somebody smarter or better might be on your heels. Big mistake.

Being respectful of people, I think, is the single most important quality in leadership - earning the respect of people who work with you, for you, your customers, your investors. That really to me is what defines successful leadership - earning that respect.

Q. How has your leadership style evolved?

A. In the world we live in today, the single most important thing is making people feel secure. It's a very different era today than it was five or 10 years ago, even two years ago. We're in a moment in time when people don't want to take risks, they don't want to gamble. In my business, you must. If you stop being creative and innovative, you're finished.

And so striking this balance, the equation works quite simply like this: In order to succeed at the high end of the movie business, you must be original and unique. Now if you were putting an equation up on the white board and you wrote "original + unique = what?" Then the answer would have to be "risky." And if you said, "risky = what?" The answer would be "some failure." It has to, by definition, just sort of in the most fundamental way.

If you don't make failure acceptable, you can't have original and unique. And so in a world today that punishes, brutally punishes, any of us for failure, it's the single most important quality that I think we work so hard to provide for our 2,000 employees, the understanding that they are expected to take risks.

We have a need, if not a demand, for innovation and for creativity, and we accept that there will be a degree of misses that will come with it and it's O.K. We're prepared for it. They're not as good as hits, by the way. A miss is not a good thing, but we don't run the enterprise on the edge of thinking that every single thing we do will be a hit. It can't be. That's what I'd call a gravity-defier. There are no such things.

Q. Is this something you communicate often to your employees?

A. We've done it multiple times in the last 15 to 18 months. I've been reassuring people that we're safe, that inside the four walls of our company, we are safe. We've hired almost 300 people this year. We are growing our company. We have no debt and many, many hundreds of millions of dollars of cash. Those are not things that I would talk to employees about in the past.

Q. What other lessons have you learned?

A. I would say one of the most difficult and painful and ultimately most valuable lessons came from being fired from Disney.Q. How so?

A. Because it really just opened all kinds of doors for me that I never really would have pursued. DreamWorks Animation, DreamWorks as a company, my partnership with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, would not exist were it not for getting fired. I got the boot. I was kicked out the door and, in my case, unceremoniously, to say the very least. That's the kindest way I can say it. And everything about that, the humiliation of it, the embarrassment of it, the anger of it, the ego of it, all of those things that were all bad at the time, ultimately were invaluable, because that's what fueled me to get on and understand that, if anything, I had been held back.

I genuinely loved my time at Disney, every day of it. But ultimately it was like getting pushed out the door, from the top of the building, and someone said, "You better spread your wings if you want to see whether you can fly." There is also that old expression: one door closes and another one opens. I believe it in a big way.

Q. How do you hire?

A. When people come to talk to me in job interviews, I always ask them what are they best at and what are they worst at. For anybody to try to articulate the things they're good at and are bad at, to be reflective in that way, to really think about that, is usually very revealing if they're honest.

Q. What other questions do you ask?

A. What's your favorite thing to do on your free time? That's often a very revealing question for what is of value to people.

Q. Any other qualities?

A. I would say the single most important quality is somebody who believes in themselves. What I mean by that is, if you don't have a very strong sense of who you are and what you have to offer, and a strong conviction about that, then you cannot expect somebody else to have that for you. You first must have it for yourself.

Q. But what about somebody who's a lot of sizzle, no steak?

A. You want to know what my profession is? I'm a student of human nature. That's my profession. I'm not a manager. I'm a student of human nature, and that's what experience teaches you. And by the way, I'm not always right.

Q. Can you talk more about that?

A. By definition if there's leadership, it means there are followers, and you're only as good as the followers. I believe the quality of the followers is in direct correlation to the respect you hold them in. It's not how much they respect you that is most important. It's actually how much you respect them. It's everything.

Q. How did you learn that?

A. I don't know. Maybe it's because I've worked for people who didn't have enough respect for me and I resented it, and they didn't value me to the degree to which I felt they should. And so I'm working super-overtime every day to try and do that.

By the way, I didn't think that way 10 years ago. This is something I've come to feel much more strongly about the last couple of years. I'm sure that's a reflection of my age and job.

Today there are several people within DreamWorks who are the students who became better than the teacher. I'm thrilled. I find myself getting completely comfortable with the idea that if somebody else can do my job as good, let alone better, that's O.K. Let me move on and find something else to do.

That was an interesting transition to make. You know full well I am someone who's spent a very good part of my career as a micromanager. And if you talk about attributes that were my least good attributes, being a micromanager would certainly be on the top of my list. What I have learned recently is to be a selective micromanager. There are times when it's actually good to be a micromanager, but mostly not.

Q. So what happened?

A. I don't know, just with time, the quality of the people around me impressed me. I started to realize that if I wanted to stay surrounded by great people, I had to get out of their way and create the room and make sure they started to get the recognition and the credit and everything that goes with it. Honestly, it allowed me to stay around longer.

Q. So how do you decide when it's time to micromanage and when it's time to stay out of the sandbox?

A. It's an hourly process of when to get in and when not to and to know when it matters. One of the up-and-coming superstars who works with us is Bill Damaschke, who's the head creative guy at the studio. He said this amazing thing to me a couple years ago that has just resonated with me day after day after day. He said, "Jeffrey, different is not necessarily better."

Q. And can you explain more about what that means?

A. If an actor says a line in one particular way that I like and the director likes another way, my different idea isn't always better. Sometimes it is, but not always, and that's the thing Bill has made me really think about. When I have a reaction to something, now there's a five-second tape delay. I try to self-edit in that way if I can.

For decades, I would always go first in meetings to discuss opinions on stories, a sequence, design, artwork or a music score. I don't like to go first anymore. I actually like to hear what other people have to say first.

Q. Any other lessons you've learned over time?

A. Because I have so loved what I do, for many, many years, I kind of do it morning, noon and night, 24/7. Something that I was kind of oblivious to for a long period of time is that ended up setting a pace for everyone else, and they assumed if the boss is working 24/7, then we all must work 24/7. That's not such a good thing because not everyone loves it as much as I do, and it's not actually how you get the best out of people.

So for many years, our studio used to, particularly when we were in the rush of finishing a production, we always would work six-day weeks and sometimes seven, and the burnout factor of that started to become meaningful. So we actually strive really, really, really hard today not to work a sixth day, since the quality of work in that sixth day is just not at the same level.

Since we're not in the quantity business but the quality business, it's a big difference. So for our 2,000 artists, it's critical to recharge and have outside interests and experience other things. It's like fuel.

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