ATLANTA—The release of a major animated movie represents the “culmination of three or four years of work in a single weekend” for many employees at DreamWorks Animation SKG of Glendale, Calif. In the case of “Madagascar 3,” “We’re all biting our nails to see how it does” at the box office, said Dan Satterthwaite, the studio’s head of human resources.
In a session at the Society for Human Resource Management 2012 Annual Conference, held here June 24-27, Satterthwaite cited Oscar Wilde, who, when writing about the creative process, said: “The anxiety is unbearable. I hope it lasts forever.”
Satterthwaite said his challenge is to create a culture “where that process can survive” and foster “a safe haven for storytellers and artists to do their best work” and where, as one employee explained in a company video, “Everyone is allowed to contribute creatively.”
To foster sharing, Satterthwaite said DreamWorks’ “suburban college campus” reflects a “strong sense of serenity.” Frequent companywide celebrations mark events from film releases to holidays. Employees, with an average age of 36, often stay after work for weekly movie nights, karate, painting and sculpture classes and more.
Satterthwaite lauds Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Katzenberg for generating engagement and a sense of transparency and fostering trust and respect regarding corporate affairs with daily e-mails that update some 2,100 employees on “people he’s meeting, conversations he’s having.” “We didn’t expect that simple e-mail could create the organizational glue that bonded people together in ways that we didn’t even realize was needed,” Satterthwaite said. “People discuss it. Based on our annual employee survey, our employees feel more engaged and connected than before.”
To build a movie, Satterthwaite continued, “collaboration goes on between people who spend most of their days behind a computer. Yet 400 to 500 people need to feel constantly connected to the movie and the whole. This takes employee engagement to a new level, and it’s not possible without an environment where trust and respect is strong.”
Mid-show reviews, post-mortems of films, 4,000 internal pages of wikis and other communication vehicles foster even deeper connections.
At the same time, “original plus unique equals risky,” he noted. “If people don’t have the right to fail, there is no way for them to succeed.” An environment where it’s OK to fail “gives creative work its best chance,” he said. “Creative destruction is inherent in the work we do.”
Every employee has countless opportunities to pitch innovative ideas, whether they be for movie plots or new technology. “Each employee is encouraged to be their own CEO,” he explained. Producers even pitch their story plots to employees who can voice their preferences to work on certain projects.
“Engagement requires choice,” he said. With an annual retention rate of 95 percent, clearly, DreamWorks’ employees choose to be on board.
Nancy M. Davis is editor of HR Magazine.