In the course of my career, I have worked at two large entertainment corporations with profoundly different cultures: The Walt Disney Company and 20th Century Fox.
During my time at Disney, and to the best of my knowledge ever since, the company utilized mandates from the controlling corporate entity above to drive the enterprise. Each individual and work team was expected and incentivized to follow the corporate mandate, and perform their assigned tasks, in order to support the vision of the greater organization.
Fox, on the other hand, has much more of an entrepreneurial culture, lending far more autonomy to its component parts, and providing extensive opportunities for its team members to participate in shaping the strategy.
The key to successful leadership lies in balancing the two approaches.
The Mandate From Above
The Walt Disney Company is well-known for having achieved tremendous success through the development of a strong organizational hierarchy and a culture based on leadership via strong top-down mandates.
The advantage of the mandate style is that things get done quickly relative to the democratic style of leadership. If Dad says the family is going to Red Lobster (or in this case, the Blue Bayou in New Orleans Square), then that is what is happening, and all members of the family know which seat in the suburban is theirs, and to fasten their seatbelts for the ride.
Not only do things get done quickly in a mandate culture, but executives at the top have an incredible opportunity to see their decisions unfold, as the organizational gears turn in response. It is an inspiring and exhilarating phenomenon, and highly efficient for those at the top – and potentially for a business’s bottom line.
So what are the downsides to the mandate culture?
One particularly difficult issue is that it can foster internal politics as divisions vie for priority in the corporate strategic hierarchy, competing for resources with other divisions and holding their existing resources close to the vest.
Finally, and most poignantly, mandate-driven organizations tend to be characterized by cultures of limited employee engagement and passion. Employees are infrequently, if ever, invited to offer their ideas and bring their perspectives to the table. Instead, they are encouraged to keep working and follow the mandate, rather than speak their minds.
There is much discussion these days about the necessity for organizations to unleash the creativity and passion of their employees in order to compete at the highest level, or even to weather the sea changes that seem to be affecting, or even dematerializing, entire industries across the world. The mandate culture works counter to this necessity.
The Democratic Dialogue
On the other side of the spectrum, the culture at 20th Century Fox – before being acquired by Disney in 2019 – exemplified the egalitarian and entrepreneurial can-do spirit. The studio was much more decentralized than a company like Disney, and different divisions and work teams were incentivized to roll up their sleeves and find innovative solutions to the challenges at hand.
To give an example, on my first day at Fox, my new CEO boss told me:
“Dean, you’re the CFO – you are welcome to attend any meeting or get involved in any project at this company, without specific permission from anyone else.”
In my transition from Disney to Fox, I could clearly see the difference in leadership styles between the two corporations – and this invitation to plan my schedule and arrange my own priorities in my own way made quite an impression – and it turned out not to be lip service either.
At Fox, the door was held open for contributors to share their ideas and argue out best solutions. Compared with Disney, people at all levels of the organization were more passionate, and engaged with their work to a more personal degree because they knew their voices would be heard. When given the opportunity to contribute, people remained highly engaged even when their idea or solution was not ultimately embraced.
This inclusiveness and openness at Fox fostered deep loyalty among the rank and file of the organization.
One downside of the entrepreneurial style of leadership across the greater Fox empire was that, at times, we spent too much time and attention debating internally with other Fox divisions – energy that could have been expended focusing on the competition.
High Performance Leadership Lies In The Balance
As with most things, the most effective approach is in the balance: in this case, mandates on one side, and collaboration on the other.
So… what exactly is the ideal balancing act between the top-down mandating culture of a Disney, and the bottom-up democratic style of Fox?
It lies in the balance between conversing and commanding. Here are some ideas for effectively combining the two approaches:
Start With The People
When a new project or challenge or audacious goal appears on the horizon, open up instead of closing up behind a conference room door – invite your people to attend and submit ideas. This creates deep engagement, and leads to greater alignment organization-wide, and buy-in to the outcome of the debate from each person sharing their voice – no matter what leadership decides in the end.
The leader, or leaders, who invite the employees to participate should listen, and listen well. Take notes. In a truly inclusive, open, and trusting environment where dialogue occurs, employees are more likely to generate creative and innovative ideas, and are therefore more likely to surface solutions worth pursuing.
Consider The Peoples’ Ideas… Then Mandate
With a slate of ideas in hand, the time comes to conclude the vigorous, healthy debate. Otherwise, given the opportunity, many people will want to continue arguing the pros and cons well beyond the point of diminishing returns. In other words, there comes a time for the decision, and the decision is not in the hands of the employees – though they may have strongly influenced the outcome.
Once the ideas have been heard, it is time to consider all options, make a final decision, build further alignment around that decision, and then communicate the mandate.
Under this balanced approach, the mandate comes down to work teams who have participated as stakeholders in the decision-making process. That is something quite different from merely mandating and expecting the obedience of the employee roster.
Striking the right balance between debating and mandating is one of senior leadership’s perennial challenges – but well worth the effort… and the right balance will be unique according to the culture and dynamics of each organization.
Best of luck!