How Anne Sweeney sparks employees to find the next great innovation at Disney Media Networks Featured

4:00pm EDT April 24, 2008
How Anne Sweeney sparks employees to find the next great innovation at Disney Media Networks

Anne Sweeney likes to think about how taking a risk on a cartoon mouse can turn into a $35.5 billion entertainment juggernaut.

That keeps Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president, Disney-ABC Television Group, from getting a big head about how Disney and ABC programs like “Hannah Montana” and “Grey’s Anatomy” have taken over the television world. Instead, she focuses on how The Walt Disney Co. was created by a man with the ingenuity to borrow $500 to start a company in his uncle’s garage with nothing but a few drawings.

“That’s really how the company started was with great risk and seizing opportunity, being experimental,” Sweeney says. “You have to look back at Walt Disney and think, why did he believe that theme parks for families would work, why did he believe that these little animated films that starred a mouse would captivate people? Everyone that signs up to work for Disney has signed up to be an innovator and has signed up to explore new tasks.”

So Sweeney, who is responsible for the entirety of Disney’s global entertainment and news television properties — which includes, among other things, the ABC Television Network family — has pushed the envelope by growing through innovation. Disney has stayed ahead of the consumer curve, creating outlets for its programming through high-tech toys, like iTunes and its own Web content, while also expanding franchising capabilities.

“I decided a long time ago that not only is change good, but I’m not afraid to change,” she says. “I think the greater danger for companies and human beings is not making the changes and maintaining the status quo.” Refusing the status quo has kept Disney surging forward. Since Sweeney took her role in 2004, her group has exploded, growing from $11.2 billion in ’04 to more than $15 billion in ’07, equaling roughly 42 percent of Disney’s overall revenue.

Keeping the momentum behind that much growth isn’t easy, so Sweeney is constantly pushing new angles for fresh ideas on what consumers want next. Here are a few strategies Sweeney uses to keep that mentality.

 

Make employees tinker with toys

Don’t feel intimidated by the fact that Sweeney is on Forbes’ and Fortune’s short lists for the most powerful women in business, you still want to work for her — especially if you want to play with the world’s latest toys.

That’s because Sweeney keeps employees thinking fresh by sending them home with the latest technology and asking them to apply it to their business.

“It really has been a great thing for our team to make sure that they have technology in their hands and are using it as it comes out,” she says. “This dates back to when TiVo and (ReplayTV) came out, I distributed them to my [executive] team and said, ‘Take them home, play with them, understand what the technology is and does, and think about it in the context of your business,’ and since then, they’ve taken home PSP [PlayStation Portable] players, and I think they were the first kids on the block with both the video iPod and the iPhone.”

The result from giving employees the latest business technology creates an interesting cycle.

“The initial reaction is, ‘Wow this is great,’” Sweeney says. “Then they take them home and, by the next weekly staff meeting, the ideas are absolutely flowing and it’s, ‘OK, can we do this,’ or, ‘What if we did that.’”

When Sweeney passed iPhones out to her top people before they became a national sensation they instantly came back with ideas on how to get Disney in on the innovation. “Now, you can get the ABC News widgets on your iPhone, and that really came out of people taking the phone, falling in love with it, using it and thinking about their business,” she says.

Not every business can use technology as fun as an iPhone, but Sweeney’s point remains: Putting the industry’s latest technology in the hands of your decision-makers and asking them how it can fit your business creates an advantage in your evolution. “It’s an absolute game changer,” she says. “To finally hold it and tinker with it is the thing that really gets people thinking. I look back on the countless meetings and conversations I had about the digital future of television as recently as three years ago, and all we ever did was talk about it, and suddenly, iTunes happened to us, and we were the first company in there with‘Lost’ and ‘Desperate Housewives.’ It really changed the culture of our company, and we were living that change. We weren’t just talking about it; we were figuring it out.

“I see how excited people are by the opportunity that new technologies have given us as outlets, and the great lesson and the thing people talk about the most is, what’s going on with our viewers. That’s the greatest opportunity for everybody here.”

 

Update your grassroots communications

Sweeney has another interesting take on technology: It can be added to old-fashioned forms of communication to spark growth.

She likes brainstorming sessions with small groups of people and personal connections, but therein lies the rub: When every group under her charge is in production, she has roughly 15,000 employees. So she has to pepper in improving communication outlets in her goals.

“You need your culture to be fully informed on what’s going on,” Sweeney says. “That’s the reason our company is growing as fast as it is. “My favorite thing to do is make sure people are educated, and my approach is really very grassroots, it is to bring people together in small and large groups, to walk the halls. We have a little series called ‘Coffee with Anne,’ and I pulled together 20 to 25 people.”

Those smaller groups started out as educational opportunities, but Sweeney quickly found that conversations about what was happening led people to throw out additional ideas. Now, whenever she’s traveling, they double as brainstorming sessions. She then gives every idea a chance by sharing the thoughts from one session with other groups and knows there’s life to one when she sees instant interest.

“I’ve actually funded some of the projects that have come out of that,” she says. “It’s promoted a lot of good cross-divisional work and ideas, some people have actually moved from division to division because they were inspired by someone they met at the coffee or someone they heard or something they wanted to work on next.”

Sweeney also keeps an open e-mail box where any employee can shoot an idea her way. Some ideas will fall flat when she brings them up to others, but to keep generating creativity, technological and personal outlets have to be available.

“It’s my job to start the conversation,” Sweeney says. “We don’t have a culture where people are punished when things don’t work out; we have a culture where experimentation is highly encouraged and celebrated. “I do something every day; it could be eating lunch in the commissary, it can be picking up the phone and calling a few people into my office to discuss a new idea.”

Sweeney spreads this agenda continuously to make a large company feel a bit smaller. She regularly puts videos of her presentations up on Disney’s internal Web site and hosts town-hall meetings when she travels. Each time she communicates Disney’s energy in a smaller setting, she is giving employees who might be reti-cent to speak more encouragement to come forward with ideas.

“It’s about making yourself available,” she says. “It’s about engaging them in larger conversations so they begin to learn what the company’s about, so they begin to understand the goals in a real way. It’s leaving the door open so they can wander in and say, ‘I have this huge idea, but I don’t know if it’s right for us.’ And it’s really developing a relationship where that idea can be on the table, rolled around, and, whether we end up doing it or not, everyone leaves feeling, ‘Well, that was great for the floor,’ and maybe that’s something that resurfaces a few months later, and its time has come. It’s encouraging a high level of communication and making sure people are constantly being educated about what our successes are, where our failures have been, where we are in our different business and what our expectations for growth are.”

 

Make sure you have a life

While you may want to work in a culture that generates ideas the way Disney does, Sweeney may not want you — unless you have a life.

“While I want to work with smart, innovative people in every single division and every single field that we touch in this company, I also want to work with people who have a life, who have interests outside of work,” she says. “We are a company that touches so many consumers in so many different ways; we really want to work with people who are a part of that, people who are living in their world, who have interests, who have hobbies and who are different from each other.”

Sweeney takes this philosophy into interviewing. When the standards for the position are met, the thing that will separate the creative employee is vigor for life.

“Yes, I want them passionate about Disney, absolutely,” she says. “But I also want them passionate about their own lives. “You can just talk about why are you here, here’s the job, here are the responsibilities and, sometimes, it’s as simple as, ‘What is your passion?’”

Sweeney remembers an early conversation with one of her key executives where he mentioned how passionate he and his future wife were about wine. Subsequently, he came out with his own wine.

“What do wine and television have to do with each other?” Sweeney says. “At the end of the day, I have a very creative, driven, passionate executive here who is driving our success for ABC and prime time.”

Pushing that drive for a life is something that has to come from the top. If employees see Sweeney working 80-hour weeks, many will follow suit.

“I have to take vacations; I can’t just tell people to take vacations,” she says. “I have to be judicious about sending e-mails out on weekends. I do have a fair amount of insomnia, and I’d get up at 3 in the morning and turn on my computer and go through my e-mails, and people were waking up at 6 and having an e-mail from me at 3 a.m. Then I started to see that I was getting responses back at 3:30, 3:45, and I realized that I was the problem, I was now giving people insomnia. Unless it’s terribly urgent, I now save those things as drafts in my mailbox and send them out at a more appropriate hour.”

Sweeney has found that creativity at Disney isn’t sparked by overtime but by people who have a work-life balance.

“The important thing that I’ve learned is that when you have a life, and you’ve truly encouraged your team to have a life, the results for your company are much stronger than if you ask them to give you 24-7, and the work becomes a grind,” she says. “I find that we have real surges in creativity when people have been able to get out in the world and step out of the zone that we’re in Monday through Friday. They come back refreshed with a million ideas. My favorite day with every employee is the first day back from vacation, where you can just feel that every light bulb is lit, and they’re fired up, and they’re just ready to go.”

HOW TO REACH: The Walt Disney Co., (818) 460-7477 or www.disney.go.com