How DreamWorks’ CEO builds a happy workforce

March 15, 2011, 8:09 PM UTC

by Patricia Sellers

You have to wonder whether the CEOs who run the Best Companies to Work For were born to lead great companies.

Jeffrey Katzenberg. Photo: David Shankbone/Creative Commons

In Los Angeles on Friday, I had a chat with Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation , whose company sits perpetually near the top of Fortune‘s annual list.

Katzenberg is so proud of the achievement that every DreamWorks announcement includes the ranking in the boilerplate corporate description. (DreamWorks is No. 10. on the 2011 list.)

The DreamWorks chief, who spent his early days at Walt Disney and carries a reputation for being quite demanding, told me he didn’t always know how important it is to make employees happy in their jobs.

He learned, he said, from three executives–two of them being Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and former PepsiCo chief Roger Enrico, who are both on DreamWorks’ board, (Enrico is chairman). Katzenberg’s third advisor on treating employees well is former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who was a DreamWorks director until she ran for governor of California (and lost) last year.

Had Katzenberg known earlier how critical it is to build a best company to work for, he told me, he might have been more successful than he is.


Our chat occurred at a press screening of DreamWork’s next big movie: Kung Fu Panda 2. Melissa Cobb, the film’s producer  and “leader-in-chief for all things Panda” according to Katzenberg, says he’s vigilant–no, make that relentless–about employee satisfaction.  “Are people happy?,” he asks her almost every time they meet.

“It’s a truly unique environment where the question of ‘what can we do better’ not only comes up in a casual setting, but is also the topic of daylong off-site meetings,” Cobb reports.

Kung Fu Panda 2′s director> Jennifer Yuh Nelson, told me the same.

Interesting that the two bosses on DreamWorks’ big-budget sequel are women. Nelson was the head of story and director of the original Kung Fu Panda‘s much-praised opening dream sequence. “A triple threat,” Katzenberg calls Nelson, adding that she is “one of the quietest and most refined people…and then she kicks ass like you wouldn’t believe.”