From Steve Jobs to Eskom: how a former Disney exec solves challenges creatively


South Africans can learn to live more easily without power. On visiting Cape Town and Johannesburg this week, Greg Brandeau was surprised to find how we’ve come to accept the way power cuts are communicated. But the former Pixar and Disney executive wasn’t visiting as an Eskom consultant, rather Brandeau came to speak at Accenture’s inaugural Innovation Conference and just happened to have some suggestions on our electricity crisis during an interview with Memeburn.

Brandeau is an MIT-trained engineer who has had the opportunity to take talented companies to its next level, a skill that has taken him to the corners of the world as he tries to instill some of the principles that has made the companies he has worked for so successful.

On meeting Steve Jobs

Brandeau has always been confident in what his strengths are and how companies could benefit from that, that’s if they wanted to. It is something that has brought him in contact with some of the greatest innovators of our time.

What really set the stage for a career of creativity was a 10-minute interview with Steve Jobs, an interview he wasn’t even meant to get.

“I went through four days of interviews to get a job at NeXT, cause I was being hired to be the director of IT. I didn’t want to do that job. I only went on the interview process because Steve have shot down 20 previous candidates so I thought ‘cool, I can meet Steve Jobs.’ But little did I know that I’d have to go through four days of interviews. I met all these people who were incredible. Because Steve’s idea was — I was a software engineer — Steve’s idea was he wanted his IT group as good as his engineering group.”

Jobs, Brandeau says, wanted to defy the laws of physics. As a trained engineer Brandeau desired to do the same.

“For some of the people going through this interviewing process it probably was gruelling, but for me it was like ‘oh my God I’ve died and gone to heaven’ because there were all these smart people I could learn from.”

Jobs was always known to surround himself with talented people which meant that even the recruiters were, according to Brandeau, some of the smartest. “My interview with Steve was like 10 minutes long. He came in and he said to me, he drew on the board, he drew how you could run the company’s financials on a spreadsheet. So you know there’s SAP and other software packages. So he’s telling me this and I said I don’t know but I think that this isn’t gonna work and this isn’t gonna work. He just said he didn’t agree and two minutes later he said ‘OK, I think you’ll do’ and I was hired. I think what he was looking for was someone who could actually tell him the truth.

“Over the years we had screaming matches with each other, he told me not to do something and I said I will do it again. He wasn’t mad at me, he just didn’t agree with me.”

Because Jobs has become an icon to business leaders, the biggest mistake we can make it to try and be a Steve Jobs. “Either you’re born with it or not. So there’s nothing you can ever do to me to make me Michael Jordan. But there’s things that I’m very good at that he’ll never be and that’s OK. You should strive to be the best person you can be and that’s what Steve wanted for everyone.

About the time Toy Story got erased

After NeXT, Brandeau followed Jobs and the rest of the team through the trials and tribulations that was Pixar. It’s a story told in some of the best business books, from DisneyWar to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography and Brandeau’s Pixar colleague Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc.

Brandeau relays the Pixar story in Collective Genius, a book he co-authored that looks at the “art and practice of leading innovation”. A legendary Pixar story that he told to Accenture conference goers in Johannesburg this week, is one that nearly led to his resignation. When a year’s worth of work on Toy Story 2 was accidentally erased, Brandeau had to take the blame. Watch the video embedded below for an animated version of how maternity leave saved the movie:

Following the sale of Pixar to Disney, Brandeau became CTO of The Walt Disney Studios where he led tech innovation from film production to global collaboration tools.

On the uncertainty caused by Eskom

Key to leading innovation is not just knowing where the problem lies but actually doing something about it. Having found himself in the middle of an electricity crisis while travelling through South Africa, Brandeau there’s simply “no excuse” for feeling helpless during Eskom’s load shedding.

“For various reasons you’ve arrived at this spot. There’s nothing you can do about it. Meanwhile it seems to me however you can change the way we communicate to each other when there’s going to be load shedding.” Proposing an app for the purpose of notifying South Africans when Eskom wants to start shedding its load during the conference, someone got up to tell Brandeau that there is in fact an app for that. As an Android user I certainly didn’t know this, have never been able to find one, and neither has Brandeau. “I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” he tells me after his talk. We laugh about it because certainly nobody was offended. But as we all sat there listening to him we realised if we really want to be the innovators we say we are helping a country to be innovative, then surely there would’ve been a proper app (for iOS and Android) by now.



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