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Hit The Ground Running

Former Executive Shares The Secrets To How Disney Runs Its Empire

"You don’t have to be happy to work at Disney, but you do have to act happy for eight hours. Because we’re putting on a show."

[Photo: Flickr user Anthony Quintano]

During a 16-year run with Disney, Lee Cockerell was an executive vice president who led a team of 40,000 employees and was responsible for operations at 20 resort hotels, four theme parks, and two water parks, among other things.

Disney is an empire built as much on grand expectations—from families who might save up all year to make the trip to Walt Disney World Resort—as it is an empire of scale, one that spans a dizzying area of properties and experiences.

Disney World alone, according to recent figures, sees about 18.6 million visitors a year. In 2014, Disney’s parks and resort division contributed about a third of the company’s $48.8 billion in revenue for the year, or a little more than $15 billion. For executives on the amusement park and resort side of the company, that necessitates the mastery of formidable organizational complexity to not only accommodate all those visitors, but to present them with a memorable experience that makes the visit worth it.

That’s why what goes on behind the scenes at Disney’s parks and resorts is a lesson in the leadership of large, sprawling organizations. In fact, when Cockerell retired from the company in 2006 he decided to draw on his time at Disney for insights on leadership, management, and customer service that he could share with other companies and organizations.

While his clients don’t have a collection of theme parks and resorts or put on nightly lavish fireworks shows, Cockerell says that plenty of leaders could still learn a thing or two by studying the machinery and motivations behind the entertainment destination that bills itself as "the most magical place on Earth."

"Disney is just like every business, including yours, whatever it may be," Cockerell writes in his book Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney. "It has to make a profit, it has to deal with serious business issues, it faces intense competition, and its strongest competitor is its own reputation."

In an interview with Fast Company, Cockerell explains that one way Disney checks all those boxes is by embedding a fastidious attitude toward the small stuff throughout the company. At Disney, he says, attention to detail is practically a religion.

That’s partly because at properties like Disney World, Cockerell says the company regards its interactions with guests as tantamount to staging an epic performance. And one thing out of place, one miscue, one "actor" whose heart isn’t in it could end up spoiling the whole thing for a visitor.

"At Disney, we believe everything’s important," Cockerell says. "Every detail. We don’t want any paper on the ground. We’re fanatical about—you don’t have to be happy to work at Disney, but you do have to act happy for eight hours. Because we’re putting on a show.

"For any company in the experience business, you’re putting on a show. The big red curtains open every day at Disney, and we have to ask ourselves, have we picked the right players and actors and actresses? Do they know their lines? And do the directors, the managers, do they know them and can make sure we execute on them?"

Cockerell says he also asked those kinds of questions of himself. During his time with Disney, his job basically required him to know everything that went on within a massive, multi-property footprint. But you can’t take on a challenge that large in scope without also prioritizing constant self-improvement, something he says he did by doing things like regularly devouring books and listening to tapes about management.

One way he and Disney decided to approach the task of building a strong culture within the company—where employees are referred to as "cast members"—is to start early, with a focus on hiring well. The company worked with the Gallup organization to learn what questions to ask potential hires—and what to listen for.

The same went for executives, Cockerell said, who before their hire likewise had to submit to an interview by someone from Gallup.

"People may think of them as a polling organization, but most of Gallup’s work is actually in leadership development," Cockerell says. "We ended up developing questions for every single position at the company. We also learned what to listen for. Take somebody who’d be hired to clean rooms. What you’d listen for from great housekeepers is how they keep referring to them as ‘my’ rooms. You also want to make sure there’s an obstacle in each question—like, tell me about a time you had to deal with an irate customer."

Other questions included things like: "How do you develop new leaders in your organization?" Here Cockerell says the depth of their response is what mattered. "People who do it well can talk about it all day. People who don’t answer this question in 10 seconds."

Another simple, yet telling question: "How do you get things done?" The candidate's answer would reveal how organized they are, he says. "They can talk about how they plan their day each morning and assign priorities on each item and how they work through the list until it is completed."

"Employers a lot of times will look at a resume, check if the person has their hair combed or the right tie on, but there’s a lot more to people than the image they put on for an hour when you’re interviewing them. We try to go deeper. A lot deeper."

And it doesn’t stop with the interview. The company is so intense about its expectations and lays out the demands of an employee’s job so comprehensively during orientations that Cockerell says plenty of hires at that point decide to step on the brakes, having changed their minds about working for the company.

To illustrate the company’s hard line about performance, Cockerell recalls once asking his grandson, who worked at Disney last summer, what he learned on a particular day. The answer: If you’re one minute late for work, you have to go home.

"Our managers are not bashful about enforcing policies, procedures, and operating guidelines," Cockerell says. "I think the silver bullet for Disney is training. We don’t turn them loose on customers until they’ve been heavily trained. We don’t practice on our customers. Because at the end of the day, the people at Disney are the brand."

Transparency with employees, meanwhile, is another hallmark of Disney’s culture, Cockerell says, adding that the company has approached it in ways that are easy to replicate at other organizations. For example, he points to the capability employees had to send him anonymous voice mails and emails to report problems and share concerns.

Cockerell also created a weekly newspaper for employees called The Main Street Diary. He published it every Friday night and sent it out electronically. It featured things like coming events, what the company was working on, and acknowledged employees who’d done something particularly well.

"I can tell you, in most businesses, you’ll see people complain that they don’t know what’s going on," Cockerell said. "I published this for six years. People thrive on being recognized, and a lot of times we’d get letters from guests saying so-and-so took care of us on this ride. We’d acknowledge that employee, and it got to be a big deal and a good way to teach other employees—here are the kinds of things you do that guests appreciate."

Employees commended in The Main Street Diary would also get a special company-made pin. It depicted Mickey Mouse and thanked the employee "for creating magic" for guests.

Cockerell also attributes at least some of the success he achieved throughout his career to routines he built into his life. For example, at Disney he got to the office every morning at 6:15 and didn’t set meetings before 8 a.m. That left him plenty of time to plan his day and catch up on email.

His implication is that the more routine and white space a leader can build into their schedule, the more mindshare they can devote to confronting the challenges that come at them.

"When you think about it, the customer doesn’t come first—great leaders come first," Cockerell says. "You can’t have a great company without great leadership. They create the right environment and the kind of culture where people are able to do more than they think they can."

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