Ex-DreamWorks Animation CTO: How the C-Suite Can Foster Innovation

By Scott Kirsner |  April 13, 2020

What should C-level leaders be doing to foster a culture of innovation?

Ed Leonard spent 15 years in various senior roles at DreamWorks Animation, including Chief Technology Officer and CEO of a spin-off company called Ptch. Before joining DreamWorks, he was a director of R&D at Walt Disney Feature Animation. Leonard is now Co-Founder at Bred Ventures, a Los Angeles-based investment and incubation firm that focuses on technology and health.

We interviewed Leonard to get his perspective on how senior leaders shape the culture in organizations like DreamWorks Animation and Disney. (Excerpts of the interview also appear in our latest research report, “Creating a More Innovative Culture.”)

InnoLead: If you think about DreamWorks Animation, or Disney before that, was there one definition of innovation (or what it meant to have an innovative culture) within the senior leadership team at either organization? Was there ever an attempt to develop a single, aligned definition of either — or was culture really “lived” and “absorbed,” rather than captured in a definition or statement?

Ed Leonard: Innovation is a natural and organic concept in an artistic company. It’s usually pretty easy to experience an artistic work and know immediately if it is fresh and innovative. What companies like DreamWorks, Disney, and Pixar came to quickly realize [was that] innovation was a prerequisite to market success, particularly in animation. Not only artistic innovation but technical innovation as well. In my experience at both Disney and DreamWorks, innovation was highly integrated into the culture. There was little need to capture the importance of innovation is the company’s mission statement; it was obvious to everything we did.

IL: Did you and the broader corporate executive team at DreamWorks explicitly support innovation through action (versus only words)? If you did, what are some of the actions you took, and what impact did they have?

Leonard: In my experience, the most powerful motivator to encourage innovation was peer recognition. As CTO at DreamWorks, I encouraged those that had created novel inventions to publish papers at industry conferences, or to participate in panel discussions at conferences where their work could be understood and valued by industry peers. I also established a formalized patent program, where employees were encouraged to file patents for their innovative work.

IL: Were there specific “innovation culture-shaping” activities or tactics (like events, messaging, people in innovation champion type of roles, etc…) put in place at DreamWorks to nudge employee beliefs and values in a more innovation-enabling direction?

Leonard: We established an internal “Technical Achievement Award” that was awarded to both production artists and engineers to recognize innovative work. At our annual recognition luncheon, [CEO] Jeffrey Katzenberg and I would personally recognize each recipient in front of a packed room of studio and production executives.

IL: What can C-level executives in large organizations do to shape and support a culture of innovation?

Leonard: As CTO at DreamWorks, I would routinely setup executive demos of interesting work that was happening in the production and engineering groups. This not only helped to showcase the interesting work that was happening in the trenches at our company but also provided great morale for the teams knowing the leaders of our company were interested in their work.

IL: Are there specific innovation activities that either organization undertook that you think others could emulate…or others that would likely fail if copied into an organization with less of a core commitment to creativity?

Leonard: I think most companies can implement an awards program to celebrate and showcase innovation within their companies.

IL: People in large organizations often say that things are easier for startups…they’re just “born with” an innovative, open-to-anything culture. They need to experiment and learn to survive. Do you buy into that?

Leonard: Having worked at both large, well-funded companies as well as scrappy startups, I can appreciate the challenge of driving innovation across the spectrum. Large companies often have the luxury of abundant resources, but lack the urgency to innovate. On the other hand, startups often lay their very survival on innovating, but resource constraints [can] often throttle progress.

I do think culture and company leadership play a big part in a company’s ability to innovate. Founder-led startups and CEOs with a passion for innovation definitely set the tone for an innovation agenda.


Download our complete 37-page research report, “Creating a More Innovative Culture.”