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How the Disney University Develops the World's Most Engaged, Loyal, and Customer-Centric Employees
By DOUG LIPP
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Doug Lipp
All rights reserved.
Setting the Stage for Success
The Four Circumstances of the Disney University
It took more than a good idea to bring the university into existence. This new baby in the corporate family might have died in the delivery room had it not been for certain circumstances.
September 21, 1962
Disneyland will never be completed. We've certainly lived up to that promise. But what about the people who operate it? Are we growing with the show or just getting older? The trouble with people is that we get hardening of the mental arteries, cirrhosis of the enthusiasm, and arthritis of the imagination, along with chronic and sometimes acute allergies to supervision, subordinates, the whole darned system. Is it possible that what we have gained through experience, we have lost through habit, and that what we have gained through organization, we have lost in enthusiasm?
—Van France, Introduction to his "Proposed Program for the University of Disneyland, 1962–1963
Setting the Stage for The Disney University
In 1955, just before Disneyland's grand opening, Van France and his only employee at the time, a new college graduate named Dick Nunis, originated the very first Disneyland employee orientation program. It produced legions of employees who by the end of orientation had no doubt about their primary role with the guests who were soon to arrive: "We create happiness."
Right from its debut on July 17, 1955, Disneyland enjoyed unparalleled success. It raised the bar, setting new standards of excellence for creativity, family entertainment, and customer service.
In the years since it opened, Disneyland evolved in a variety of ways, from the number and complexity of attractions to the expanding employee population. Van also evolved. He left Disneyland for two years to work for other companies. When he returned in 1962, he was looking at Disneyland from a new perspective. Van says, "My learning in the outside world helped me. I could now look at Disneyland with fresh insights." He discovered a Disneyland that was facing some growing pains.
Deteriorating employee morale was especially troubling to Van. There were even complaints about the orientation program; some argued that the material was dated and that those presenting it were out of touch with the realities of the park operations.
During Van's two-year hiatus, Dick Nunis, Van's only employee during the months before and after the opening of Disneyland, became the director of operations at Disneyland. Dick, now Van's boss, needed his help.
Seven years into this run of success and millions of guests later, Van France began thinking about expanding the Disneyland orientation program to something new and different. The time was right for this new baby in the Disney corporate family to emerge.
The Disney University was about to be born.
Beyond a University in Name Only: The Four Circumstances
The Disney University is a name that carries clout and evokes images of excellence. Mention this highly regarded institution to any business leader, and the question that often follows is: How do they develop the world's most engaged, loyal, and customer-centric employees, year after year?
The simple explanation for the Disney University's success can be attributed to the levels of support and clarity of purpose found in the Four Circumstances, the organizational values Van France identified as vital to the success of the Disney University.
Although the word university invariably appears in the title of corporate and organizational training departments around the world, very few of those "universities" have matched the Disney University's level of success. Many don't enjoy the levels of support and clarity of purpose found in the Four Circumstances. Without clarifying the kinds of values found in the Four Circumstances, training and development initiatives are bound to fail; even the best-funded organizational universities are doomed to become universities in name only.
Van's Four Circumstances Are Values
The ensuing review of each circumstance reveals key words that represent values of The Walt Disney Company and create the perfect environment for the Disney University. But before discussing the values that constitute Van's Four Circumstances, it is important to first clarify something about them:
These values are not unique.
These values aren't new or unknown to most leaders.
These values must pervade the organization. They are the essential DNA of the whole company, not just Van's values or those of the Disney University.
These core values, which were originally set into motion by Walt Disney, form a sturdy foundation from which evolved the programs Van and his team developed. The Disney University is an extension of the company.
Put simply, the Disney University isn't a car wash through which employees can be sent in preparation for work. It is much, much more. A sentiment shared by many executives who worked with Van is, "Training cannot be limited to 'Here's what you need to do, now go do it.' That's not good enough. Training needs to instill a spirit, a feeling, an emotional connection. Training means creating an environment of thinking and feeling."
Van's Circumstance 1: Innovation
First, I had an aversion to the concept of a "training department." The function has little status in any organization. Years before, when I had actually managed a "training department," I grew tired of hearing, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Further, any high school graduate feels he or she has already been trained and resents being enrolled again. On the other hand, the idea of a University was exciting. Historically, a university was ahead of the times, leading people into exciting adventures.
This circumstance reveals the traits associated with those who break new ground: the pioneers who are not afraid to take risks. Van's focus on being innovative created an ever-evolving learning culture. He challenged the status quo.
Many who worked with Van describe his style in the following ways: "Van kept people focused. He kept us from making training programs too esoteric and academic by keeping us focused on practical application, using simple concepts such as 'we create happiness' and 'we know the answers.'"
"He brought up pointed and controversial ideas that kept us thinking."
"Van made sure we didn't get too infatuated with our own importance or success."
"Van had a good way of deflating your balloon."
Van's zeal for creating The Happiest Place on Earth through innovation and by challenging entrenched behavioral patterns and beliefs is evident in a passage he created for an early 1980s Disneyland management training program:
Budgets, schedules, reports, more reports, union negotiations, training programs, meetings ... more meetings, handbooks, "cover-your-ass" memos and the endless things which take up your time are of no value unless they end up producing A HAPPY GUEST.
Van didn't hesitate to stir the pot.
Van's Circumstance 2: Organizational Support
Second, Dick's [(Dick Nunis, the then director of operations at Disneyland] degree from USC was in education and he could see the advantages of branching out from a simple orientation program. Further, after Dick buys an idea, he backs it and sells it.
This circumstance adds a component that is lacking in too many organizations; unabashed organizational support. From Walt and Roy Disney and then to Dick Nunis, Disney management trusted Van's ideas and he trusted them.
Dick knew that unless someone from the highest ranks of management backs it, it won't happen; leadership must be intimately involved and has to set the tone. Dick's constant presence as a champion of training started at Disneyland and continued with the development of Walt Disney World in Florida and the international expansion of Disney Parks and Resorts.
When Van proposed creating the Disney University, Dick became one of his biggest cheerleaders and encouraged him to run with his ideas. Van's words are echoed in the following statement, a sentiment voiced by Disney University pioneers:
Without the support of Walt Disney and Dick Nunis, there wouldn't be a Disney University.
Van's Circumstance 3: Education
Third, back in 1932, Walt had established his own, unique school for training his animators, and he could understand why we had to develop our own breed of spectacular show people.
Without a doubt, this circumstance reveals the roots of the Disney University: Walt's long-standing value of providing employees with a tailored, relevant training and educational experience. Walt Disney helped create an art school for his animators because in his own words, "Art schools that existed then didn't quite have enough for what we needed, so we set up our own art school ... we went a little bit beyond what they were getting in art school."
Walt often brought into the studio prominent educators and artists such as Frank Lloyd Wright to give classes and lectures to the animators. Their innovative ideas and outside-the-box thinking became an invaluable source of inspiration.
Van had to create a different version of Walt's art school: a unique school that would create a different type of artist. These "Disneylanders" would major in the fine art of creating happiness and receive a special curriculum in human relations and Disney philosophy. Van and his fellow pioneers knew they had to create something that would go beyond traditional training programs. There was no question that the main product at Disneyland was going to be happiness. There was no ambiguity in the look, feel, and purpose of the goal.
When it is offered consistently and with creativity, education is an indispensable commodity, one that is held in high esteem in the history and culture of The Walt Disney Company.
Van's Circumstance 4: Entertain
Finally, fourth, I had friendly allies in the Art Department of the Marketing division. As result, our handbooks and training aids were always creative and interesting, rather than the opposite, which would mean "dull and academic."
Van's description of this circumstance illustrates his firm belief in a value he shared with Walt: entertain and educate. As Walt would say, "When the subject permits, we let fly with all the satire and gags at our command. Laughter is no enemy to learning."
Van believed that it is possible to make the academic entertaining; it is possible to have both laughter and learning at once with the right approach. Employing entertainment as a training strategy goes well beyond telling jokes and laughing. It is a powerful tool that can increase trainee engagement and ensure the retention of new concepts.
Even though Van came from a training background that had no relationship to Disneyland, his values and sense of humor aligned perfectly with Walt's. Tom Eastman, retired corporate director of the Disney University, provides a succinct description of Van that creates a vivid image: "Van was Disneyland's Jiminy Cricket, Disneyland's conscience, constantly emphasizing the importance of the Disneyland employees, the cast members. Van's great efforts were directed to the people side of our business." Tom adds, "Van was a happy rascal, an elf. He always had a great smile and a sparkle in his eye." This, combined with his dedication to the cast members, the guests, Disneyland, and the Disney values, proved to be a powerful combination.
Walt Disney's values and sense of humor shaped Disneyland; Van's values and sense of humor helped shape the Disney University.
It Took More Than a Good Idea
Using Van's own words, "It took more than a good idea to bring the university into existence." And it took more than a good idea to ensure the success, longevity, and contributions of the Disney University.
Van France and his team of employee development pioneers brought to life the values found in the Four Circumstances. Disney corporate leadership along with Van and his team of strong-willed visionaries created a corporate culture and an organizational DNA well before those words were in vogue. They didn't just go to the store, buy pixie dust, and start throwing it around. Their tireless devotion to perpetuating Walt Disney's dream, plus the game-changing business concepts they created, helped build an organizational culture that is respected around the world.
Secrets of the Disney University
What does it take to create legions of amazingly motivated employees year after year? How does a training organization, or any organization for that matter, thrive well beyond the honeymoon period? The message from Van and the many who worked with him to create the Disney University is unwavering. Success is predicated on the following:
Having a seat at the leadership table
Being a valued part of the organizational culture
Moving well beyond providing merely short-lived programs
Being incessantly creative and willing to try new approaches to keep the message relevant, fresh, and engaging
The Four Circumstances reflect an organizational culture that has ensured for decades the survival of this new baby in the corporate family. The Four Circumstances also greatly influenced Van's leadership lessons, which are applicable to all organizations and are as relevant today as they were back then.
Capture Hearts and Minds
It's More Than Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck
A maxim of the movie industry is that "it takes a happy crew to produce a happy show."
It is 1982. Dick Nunis, hoping to catch a quick cat nap, slumps into a chair at the back of the darkened room and closes his eyes. Exhausted and suffering from lack of sleep, he knows he has no option other than to press on. The five-minute run time of the video he just introduced to his audience will provide a much needed break. The grand opening of EPCOT Center, the $800 million expansion at Walt Disney World in Florida, is just around the corner, and he has much to do.
As president of the Outdoor Recreation Division for The Walt Disney Company, Dick is responsible for both Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California. With the 1982 EPCOT expansion project 11 years after the opening of the Magic Kingdom, Dick's responsibilities are vast, complicated, and expanding by the day.
Dick is the sole presenter of the employee orientation program for all EPCOT cast members. His audience isn't a select group of senior managers, nor is he merely the figurehead–executive–guest speaker brought in for a few minutes to kick off the session. Dick is giving this same 90-minute presentation to every cast member assigned to EPCOT—all 2,000 of them.
Today's session is similar to the dozens he has already conducted during the last week, and he must lead dozens more. When he is in front of his audience, Dick, in his inimitable style, exudes energy and enthusiasm. He reaffirms with cast members the importance of maintaining the Disney legacy of world-class guest service.
Twenty-seven years earlier, in preparation for the grand opening of Disneyland, Dick and his boss, Van France, kept up a similar frenetic pace. In fact, the content of these current sessions, as well as Dick's effusive style, isn't much different from what it was a quarter century earlier. At that time, he was fresh out of college and full of energy. Now, despite the never-ending demands on his time as a senior executive of The Walt Disney Company, Dick still sets the standard for enthusiasm and endurance. He is right in the middle of something he considers crucial to the success of EPCOT: guest service and cast member training.
As the video draws to a close, a staff member flicks on the room lights. Dick runs to the front of the room and continues the orientation. The grand opening is just around the corner.
To prepare for the EPCOT grand opening, a brand new orientation program was designed for those who would be working at the park. To ensure the success of EPCOT, existing cast members were transferred from the Magic Kingdom. Although all were experienced, Dick wanted them to fully understand their roles and their importance to this newest theme park, and so he conducted each and every session multiple times per day for two weeks.
Excerpted from DISNEY U by DOUG LIPP. Copyright © 2013 by Doug Lipp. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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