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Animation + French Cuisine = Principles for Success in Creative Businesses


07Jan 2008

This weekend I had the privilege of facilitating a family meeting in Northern California with a family I have known for over six years, and we had a great time together. I returned home yesterday afternoon, and as part of my recuperation and re-entry into the family process, my family and I watched a movie together last night. For those of you who have been reading for a while, you know of my penchant for animated movies, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we enjoyed a movie from that genre’ called Ratatouille.

After enjoying the movie together, I found an interesting clip on the special features of the DVD called “A Conversation with Brad Bird and Thomas Keller”. I hit the play button and we watched an interesting interview with Brad Bird, who was the screenwriter and director of the film and a leading animation movie producer for Disney, and Thomas Keller, the famous chef of The French Laundry restaurant in Napa, CA. What followed was a discussion with each of these successful creative entrepreneurs regarding the principles that they believe have led to their success. Some the principles were overtly stated, others are observations I gleaned from the discussion.

Early work experience. Both Mr. Bird and Mr. Keller described a period of time in their childhood and teenage years where they began working in their current area of expertise. Mr. Keller worked in the kitchen of his mother’s restaurant while growing up, and Mr. Bird entered a contest for animation when he was 11 years old. He won the contest, and with it, the opportunity to work alongside the animators at Disney studios.

Mentoring. Both men indicated that a crucial factor in their professional success was the process of being mentored by their elders in the profession. Mr. Bird’s mentoring occurred naturally with his work in the Disney studios, while Mr. Keller took proactive steps to seek out and work under successful artistes in his field, initially in the N.E. United States and then in Paris.

Commitment. Each man both verbalized directly and reported life stories about the level of commitment needed to be successful. Success does not come from a “hobby” approach to one’s profession, and requires the sacrifice of long hours and focus.

Emotional connection with clients. Interesting to me was the common factor of emotional connection cited by both professionals. Getting into the mindset of one’s clients was a key process in their creation of their products. They attempted to visualize and “be with” their clients in the experience of partaking of what they had created. And they wanted their clients to feel the passion and emotion they put into their creations. (Do they teach that in MBA programs?)

Quest for perfection. Mr. Bird and Mr. Keller distinguished between “perfection” and “the quest for perfection.” They gave numerous specific examples in their work where they were “gently demanding” of those with whom they worked. They try not to be purely demanding in an ogre-like manner, but do try to push their colleagues: “That’s great! But if we just …, I think it will be even better.”

Coaching others. Within their own creative processes, it was clear that neither of these pillars within their fields see themselves as an island, or that they had created the success on their own. Rather, they understand the necessity of working with team members collaboratively, and even more so, saw the need and responsibility to coach those with whom they work. Mr. Bird stated that the goal is to “coach those beneath you to bring out their greatness.”

Work with a sense of urgency. Even though both men are artists, they clearly did not espouse a laisse faire approach to the artistic process. They communicated the need to have an atmosphere of urgency within the workplace, and that this aura actually brings energy to the creative process. In fact, at Mr. Keller’s restaurant they have a sign posted in the kitchen which says: “Sense of Urgency.”

Don’t over-control the process. When working collaboratively with a team of professionals who are talented in their own right, it is important for the creative director (or business leader) not to over control the process. Mr. Keller and Mr. Bird cited the need to ask for and listen to the input of their colleagues, realizing that they do not hold the patent on all good ideas.

Find delight in what you do. Finally, (and this was their concluding thought), to be truly successful in what you do, you must enjoy it. You must seek to create a product (or service) that delights you. When you make something that brings you pleasure, then others will find delight in it, as well.

The movie (Ratatouille) itself is fun. But the lessons and hearing the passion in these men’s voices as they share the lessons they have learned is even more valuable. Enjoy and learn!

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