Lessons from Pixar Studios: Staying Animated in Leadership
Posted on Thursday, April 20, 2017 by Miriam Heller Stern
This article was inspired by a site visit that WGF alum Justin Rosen Smolen (Class 23) and I, WGF alum Miriam Heller Stern (Class 13), took as part of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumni Mentoring program. The Wexner Foundation launched the Mentoring Program for Alumni of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship over four years ago, thanks to a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation. This intense program was created with the understanding that there are now two generations of alumni with vast, varied and deep professional experiences. Leveraging this talent to help mentor other alumni seeking a mentor is a main goal of the program. Along with intensive training and regular check-ins, the program — now in its fifth Cohort — has been an enormous success. The Mentoring Program, from my own perspective, has been an invaluable opportunity for Wexner colleagues to engage in ongoing reflection about their professional challenges, hopes and dreams. The article is reposted with thanks to Hayidion, the Prizmah Journal and also ejp.com.
Leaving a meeting wondering what was accomplished. Staring at the screen trying to decide where to begin. Ticking the easy items off the “to do” list because the big picture feels overwhelming to tackle. Pushing through a predictable routine of meetings and putting out fires. Educational leadership can easily get consumed by tasks that make us feel stuck.
How do we get unstuck?
Take a field trip. Applying the Talmudic adage, Meshaneh makom meshaneh mazal, Going to a new place may change your fortune, taking a field trip can lead us to see our world differently. My inspiration for this essay draws from my recent tour of Pixar Studios, where I learned how some of the leading animators, writers and executives in the film industry hone their creativity. In addition to finding the real Dory in her Emeryville, California, fish tank, I also found perspective on a question that animates me: How can creative practices enhance the work of educators and learners? I discovered ways that an institutional culture can promote creativity and dodge the bullets that kill inspiration. Stepping outside of my own institutional culture enabled me to pivot from tweaking “what is” to imagining “what might be.”
Establish a brain trust for feedback. At Pixar, the Braintrust is the meeting of the minds where a draft of a film is screened, problems are identified, and numerous solutions are brainstormed. The Braintrust is no ordinary meeting of colleagues. It is a mechanism for taking an idea, a plan, a work in progress and making it better. Instead of scrutinizing the creator, candid comments are directed at the project under review. Conversation is governed by an operating assumption that the smart people in the room have a shared investment in enhancing the quality of the project. No directives are given; the ideas on the table are meant to stimulate the thinking of the director so that she can steer forward.
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Dr. Miriam Heller Stern is the National Director of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Previously, she served as Dean of American Jewish University’s (AJU) Graduate Center for Jewish Education in Los Angeles, where she trained and mentored Jewish educators since 2005. She teaches courses on educational vision, curriculum development, teacher research and the arts in Jewish education. She is also the founding Director of Dream Lab, a think tank and pedagogy test kitchen at AJU for artists and educators dedicated to infusing the field of Jewish education with creativity through the arts. Dedicated to elevating the quality of educational options in the Jewish community, Dr. Stern serves as a coach, mentor and advisor to Jewish educational leaders, institutions and initiatives across the United States. She serves on the advisory boards of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation’s Community Teen Initiative, the Jewish Montessori Society, the Jewish Lens, the Beacon School for Boys and education committees of the Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy. She is also a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Jewish Education and the Network for Research in Jewish Education Awards Committee. She has published widely in various academic and professional journals and popular media outlets and is a frequent presenter at academic and professional conferences for educators. Dr. Stern earned her PhD in education and MA in history from Stanford University as a Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class 13). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.