At Disney, there are no employees. There are cast members who are living by Disney values and delivering extraordinary customer service and making the world a happier place. Disney cast members are empowered to make contact with any guest coming into Disney property. Disney calls this contact ‘on-stage’. On-stage is quite frankly the only thing customers know and care about. Disney take care of the cast, the cast in turn takes care of their guests so that Disney continues to thrive.
“We don’t have customers. We have guests. We aren’t employees. We are hosts, hostesses, cast members. We don’t wear uniforms, we wear costumes. We don’t have crowds; we have an audience.” – Van France, founder of Disney University
But just as paint won’t improve the structural integrity of a building, Disney’s catchy words carry no value unless everyone at their organisation walks the talk.
Two Jobs At Once
Disney’s unique environment creates unprecedented challenges and opportunities for many cast members to perform two jobs at once.
Maintenance and grounds cast are trained to extend helping hand to lost guests. Custodial cast (sweepers) learn that taking pictures of families leaves a lasting and positive impression. And security cast know the power of addressing a child by name.
Four Cornerstones of Disney U Leadership
- Innovation – leaders must be forward-thinking, comfortable with risk
- Support – leaders must provide support that’s overt, enthusiastic, sustained
- Education – leaders must educate in simple terms across all the levels
- Entertainment – leaders must not only educate, also be engaging, memorable and fun
Balance Art With Science.
The combination of friendliness and humanity (art) and a compelling product or service (science) is a powerful competitive differentiator. Know the job (science) and do it with a smile (art).
Walt Disney, the founder of Disney himself showed humility to ask for an advice from 18-year-old. Even more impressive is the fact that he followed through the advice to redesign the skyways. Van France, the founder of University of Disneyland also favoured walking the park to gather information. Often armed with his trusty camera, he tireless sought the opinions of casts and guests.
No Non-sense Trainings
Van once found a reality gap between the romance preached in orientation and the reality of life on the front line. Younger cast members rejected autocratic management that had been prevalent mid-1900s. Van never rejected people who needed to gripe or blow off steam. To Disney, organizational history isn’t the most important thing. Instead Disney preserves history and use it as a foundation for building bridges to the future.
Disney knew training is as equally important as marketing. Marketing is the time and money you spend to get people in the door. Training is the investment you make to get guests to come back and cast members to stay. It creates loyalty. Disneyland would never cut corners to save money if those are the training programs that help improve their shows.
From Passive to Active
Disneyland focus on transforming their casts from passive trainees to active agents of change. At Disneyland, everyone majors in ‘people’. Take for example when their tired and overused phrases to create memorable first impressions fall short, Disney decided to sell plush toys in the store to serve double duty as icebreakers with guests. A cast member holding a Mickey Mouse doll has an instant guest relations power.
Dealing With The Slump
Disney managed the slump well at the end of their honeymoon period. The type of employee morale slump after the opening of Disney World was a real challenge back then. Some level of employee and manager burnout is normal. Preopening levels of intensity and enthusiasm waned. Disneyland leaders nonetheless put all their efforts to prevent this post event environment of crashing morale by assembling an emergency meeting with top leaders and inviting employees to critique the company via opinion polls, and then acting on them accordingly.
In addition, Disney considered challenges during booms and busts. Economic booms and busts will never vanish. And no business is immune. This is the harsh truth all leaders must accept. But what the leaders have control over it is how they respond to it by considering how to:
- Do more with less
- Keep employees engaged and motivated
- Reduce turnover
- Improve customer service
- Differentiate from the competition
Differentiation is the ultimate goal you want to pursue in times of turmoil – how to stand out as the employee of choice, vendor of choice, service provider of choice and whatever of choice.
Disney researched how their competitors were doing. Walt Disney for example, researched his competitors well before building Disneyland and found they all had one thing in common: their filthiness. From that point on, he let it be known that Disneyland, as well as everyone who worked there would be a model of cleanliness, insisting ‘the streets be clean enough to eat off.’ To this day, what was instilled by Walt and perpetuated by Van is reflected in the daily actions of cast members at every organizational level.
Hiring For ‘Fit’
Disney put as much weight on getting right people on board as training them in the right way. Before wasting time and money on training and orientation, Disney ensured they hire the right people. They let their applications know the realities of work. Most of the applicants were not familiar with the jobs performed in the unique theme-park environment, so the hiring team came up with creative solutions. They installed TV screens showing videos of cast members performing various jobs in the park. They decorated and themed the queue area, replicating a fun Disney environment. In doing so, the recruitment team created an environment that entertained and educated at the same time.
The Power of Giving Back
Disney leaders set the tone of giving back. They are always expected to get out from behind the desk, roll up their sleeves and dive in to help the cast and guests. Giving back for Disney is much more than simply writing a paycheck. Giving back is mentoring, coaching cast members and improving conditions for those less fortunate. Not only that giving back is lending a hand to underprivileged. Take Disney VoluntEARS, the renowned employee volunteer program, for example. VoluntEARS program was the Walt’s legacy of giving back. It supports multiple programs for helping children, protecting the environment, and supporting the arts. Through VoluntEARS, cast members have given millions of hours to those who need the most.
The Power of Clear Communications
Tokyo Disneyland (TDL) learnt the power of clear communications in the hard way.
The terrible thing about the word ‘communications’ is we usually don’t know what we’re talking about. Days before the opening of TDL, artists spent weeks transforming the newly built mansion into an old haunted mansion. But it only took one night for the custodial crew to transform the aged and grained mansion into a clean and shiny spot because they were simply asked to ‘clean the building’. The custodians had heard this directive countless times in the past. To them, clean is clean. That’s common sense. After all, they had successfully cleaned many other attractions at TDL this way. Unfortunately, in this case, neither Japanese nor the Americans clarified their expectations. What they experienced was what the author describes ‘the cultural iceberg’. Relying solely on one’s common sense virtually guarantees failure in cross-cultural interactions.
The Power of Team Building
Disneyland promoted off-beat events for casts and their families to bond outside the stage. These events bring happiness to those who create happiness for millions. Minnie’s Moonlit Madness, after-hours event inside the park, combines elements of a scavenger hunt and a trivia game. Over 300 teams of 4 people compete in a 3-hour marathon of answering questions about Disney history, TV shows, theme parks and movies. Making it all more demanding is the unique constraint placed on the teams: all 4 team members are tied together with a length of bungee cord. They must not only think together mentally, also move together physically.
Another event Cast Canoe celebrates over a two-week period every summer. Hundreds of casts descend on Rivers of America well before sunrise to compete in the canoe races. Lining up alongside the dock is over 70 teams of 8-10 people eagerly awaiting their turn to compete. As one former cast says, “The Cast Canoe Races fall right into one of those life events that quality as ‘you wonder why on earth you’re doing it but wouldn’t have missed it for the world’”.