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The Alternative Board Blog

Business Management: Who is the Brain Trust for Your Business?

Apr. 9, 2014 | Posted by The Alternative Board
Moral Compass

Fast Company had a fascinating series of articles on Ed Catmull this month. Catmull is the not-particularly-well-known president of Pixar. He has just put out a book called Creativity Inc. which deals with the topic of managing a creative company. Fast Company said Creativity Inc “just might be the most thoughtful management book ever”. Catmull’s track record of success has demonstrated that he knows something about management. Each of Pixar’s fourteen films has debuted at the top of the box office charts. What an amazing track record of success!

Naturally, any business leader would want to know what the secret is to Catmull’s success. In Creativity Inc, he makes it pretty clear. It’s something he calls the Brain Trust. This is a group of advisors from within Pixar – and now at Disney Animation – that are assembled as advisors on every project. He calls it our primary delivery system for straight talk.

Catmull says:

 “Our decision is made better when we can draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively.”

What is Catmull’s role in the Brain Trust? He says that “I see my primary role as making sure that the compact upon which the meetings are based is protected and upheld.” At TAB, we find this role to be critical. We call it facilitation. Without this role, you can certainly have a bunch of smart people trying to help each other achieve more. But without someone who manages the compact between the group – confidentiality, fairness, openness, ensuring no one person dominates, and indeed candor – the group just won’t reach its peak potential.

What are some other reasons why Pixar’s Brain Trust has led to an almost unbelievable stretch of blockbusters?

  • When Pixar took over Disney, Disney did not have a Brain Trust. “...the deep identification a founder can have with his company is like the identification that a director has with the film he is trying to make. It’s extraordinary to pull yourself out of that equation.” We see exactly this. The other board members – other business owners – provide perspective that the business owner is just to close to see. This is invaluable.
  • The movie director does not have to take the advice of the Brain Trust. This complements the candor. It is another part of the compact. The attendees do not have to accept or act on every piece of advice. But the compact does require that members consider the input with an open mind.
  • The Brain Trust includes notes to get to the root cause of the issue. We call these clarifying questions. One of the key roles for the facilitator is first ensure that the problem and the underlying cause are very clear. First diagnose, then prescribe.

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Catmull’s experience with the Brain Trust is exactly why we established Peer Boards for business owners. Business owners have lots of other people willing to give them advice. They get input from family but that advice is shrouded in emotion. A few businesses have particularly bold employees who will give the owner their straight opinion. They may have great advice but until they walk in the owner’s shoes, their advice can only go so far. Consultants, bankers, lawyers? Sure, they have a lot to offer. But many times they have a vested interest in the outcome of their advice.

As one of our members portrayed the value of a Brain Trust: “Camaraderie that is bound in trust and the astute advice and wisdom from other board members..... is priceless.”

Who do you turn to for the truth about your business? Leave your comments below, or tweet us @TAB_boards!

Read our 19 Reasons You Need a Business Owner Advisory Board

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Written by The Alternative Board

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