Workplace Culture

DreamWorks Animation Draws on Experience of Mentors to Integrate New Hires

By Todd Henneman

Aug. 3, 2012

Visual effects artist Zach Glynn was nearing the end of new-employee training at DreamWorks Animation SKG when he mentioned to his mentor that he had a little down time.

His mentor’s response: “If you don’t have anything to do, help me with what I’m working on.”

Soon, Glynn was collaborating on how best to depict a snowball exploding as it hit a character in the 3-D film Rise of the Guardians, which opens in November with Santa Claus, the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy uniting to protect children from a bogeyman.

“It was a really good learning process,” says Glynn, 27, who joined DreamWorks after graduating last year from Brigham Young University. “I’d show him what I’d come up with, and he’d show me what he had been doing. And we just kept that process up, and coming over to each other’s desk and showing the progress we had until we merged these little effects into the snowball.”

New hires like Glynn are paired with mentors within their own departments. “It’s nice because it feels very peer to peer,” says Glynn, who works at the company’s Redwood City campus 28 miles south of San Francisco. The goal: help new employees understand the department’s structure, its place within the overall organization and how to navigate the structure to get things done, says Dan Satterthwaite, head of human resources for DreamWorks Animation.

“In a rapidly growing environment, that can be difficult for a new person to grasp because it can all be overwhelming,” Satterthwaite says. “It also helps connect that new person into the already established community of people who do the kind of work they’re coming into, whether it’s a software developer or an effects artist or an attorney in the business affairs department.”

The mentoring program is one tactic for integrating new hires.

It’s a wise move because fast-growing companies must help new members feel like insiders by creating ways to experience the “tribal connection” forged during the early years, experts say.

“If an organization doesn’t make conscious efforts to not only onboard new team members but also to create cultural moments that give them the experience—not just the language—of the vision, then it’s very difficult for them to feel bonded,” says Anna Liotta, CEO of the consulting firm Resultance.

Liotta, who hasn’t worked with DreamWorks, recommends spreading activities across 90 days.

That’s exactly what DreamWorks Animation does.

After orientation, employees spend four to eight weeks training on the company’s proprietary software. Then within their first 60 days, they attend a “welcome session,” hosted by CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and other members of the senior management team.

“Hearing Jeffrey personally talk about what’s important for the business, what his vision is for the company and what his feelings are about the culture and the environment proved to be really, really helpful,” Satterthwaite says.

A perennial favorite: the question-and-answer period that lasts up to 40 minutes, during which new hires pose questions to Katzenberg. “The questions run the spectrum from ‘How do we choose what movies to make?’ to ‘How many hours on an airplane do you spend each year?’ ” Satterthwaite says.

Then after 90 days, new hires sit down one-on-one with someone from Satterthwaite’s team for “best practices sharing,” where they’re asked for ideas based both on their first few months at DreamWorks as well as from their experiences elsewhere.

“We hire so many experienced people that we get lots of interesting ideas from other companies,” Satterthwaite says. “And we hire a good number of recent graduates so we get fresh eyes.”

In one case, new artists shared an idea for software plug-ins that would help create the illusion of 3-D when using Adobe Photoshop, a 2-D-oriented application. Technologists at DreamWorks developed plug-ins that sped up the work of some artists and continues to be used today.

“We’ve got all these interesting ideas from people through that process,” Satterthwaite says.

As Glynn approaches his first anniversary there, he says he feels like a part of the DreamWorks family. But as someone who has dreamed of being an animator since third grade, he’s eager for his real family to see the snowball explosions he worked on with his mentor.

“I’m super-stoked,” he says. “I keep sending out emails to my family, and I can’t wait for the new trailer to drop.”

Todd Henneman is a writer based in Los Angeles. Comment below or email

Todd Henneman is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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