Of mouse and men: Disney veteran talks leadership

 

By Rick Farrantrfarrant@fwbusiness.comLee Cockerell keeps all of the thank-yous from people he’s mentored in a computer file titled “Lee Praise.”It may sound a bit egotistical, but in truth it is a reminder to Cockerell of his purpose, and in a broader sense the missions of Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., where he was executive vice president of operations before retiring in 2006.In short, it’s all about people. Disney World’s brand is not a logo, a... By Rick Farrant

Lee Cockerell keeps all of the thank-yous from people he’s mentored in a computer file titled “Lee Praise.”

It may sound a bit egotistical, but in truth it is a reminder to Cockerell of his purpose, and in a broader sense the missions of Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., where he was executive vice president of operations before retiring in 2006.

In short, it’s all about people. Disney World’s brand is not a logo, a collection of fancy rides and attractions, or a unique font. Disney’s brand, he said, is its people from top to bottom — or cast members, as they’re called.

Disney recognizes the importance of valuing its employees, he said, and companies that don’t share that philosophy will be in for an unpleasant surprise when the economy rebounds.

“A lot of people,” Cockerell said, “are going to leave their jobs when they can find another one because of the way they’ve been treated.”

Cockerell will share his ideas on leadership and management Feb. 22-23 with employees of the Early Childhood Alliance, Embassy Theatre, Fort Wayne Philharmonic, Northeast Indiana Innovation Center and Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities. The five Fort Wayne-area organizations received a two-year Foellinger Foundation Inspire Grant to work with the Disney Institute and Cockerell to integrate Disney’s successful business

practices into their operations.

Another 18 nonprofit organizations have been invited to the second-day presentation.

”When I went to the institute, I learned leadership skills, the value of vision, the value of communicating that vision and the power of valuing your staff and still holding them accountable,” said Kelly Updike, executive director of the Embassy Theatre. “Disney is very good at sharing their

mistakes and being very realistic — that it can take time to make changes in an organization.

“(The changes we make) will be long lasting in our organization. I really believe that.”

Organizations participating in Cockerell’s sessions are apt to hear people-centric ideas that not only can be applied to their professional lives but their personal lives as well. Among them:

• Make your people your brand. Companies stand to lose money if they don’t, Cockerell said, through low productivity, high turnover, uncooperative or ill-tempered employees and, in worst-case scenarios, theft.

“We really do believe that people are our brand,” said Cockerell, who still does contract work for Disney. “The chance of running into a rude cast member at Disney is almost zero.”

• Burn the free fuel. Or, put another way, appreciate, recognize and encourage employees. Leaders are utterly mistaken, he said, if they think patting employees on the back will lead to laziness.

“It’s nonsense,” Cockerell said. “It’s like saying, ‘I can’t give my child encouragement because they might slack off.’ People need it. I certainly wanted it from my boss, ‘cause you can become insecure in your job, especially these days.”

• Remember that everyone is important, including the customers. Cockerell said a Gallup Poll of 6,000 Disney customers revealed four attributes visitors sought, and none of them had to do with the attractions. The four: make me feel special; treat me as an individual; show me respect; and

employ knowledgeable cast members.

• Know the truth, particularly about the jobs and employees you oversee. Several times a year, all Disney World executives work somewhat menial jobs at the resort. Cockerell, who oversaw 40,000 cast members, spent time cleaning tables, cooking french fries, organizing strollers, and renting out wheelchairs.

“It’s very enlightening,” he said. “You find out you don’t know anything. You think you know everything, but you don’t. As an executive, you’re trying to make the best decisions. If you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t make them.”

Cockerell will also be offering advice on more traditional organizational matters during his Fort Wayne visit, including:

• Training employees. Sufficient up-front training is critical to the success of an organization, and at Disney prospective employees must watch a 20-minute film about the company’s expectations before an application is filled out. The film addresses such things as behavior, work ethic and appearance.

“You know, Cinderella can’t be smoking, for instance,” Cockerell said.

The film weeds out 20 percent of the candidates right off the bat, he said. They leave after the film without even filling out an application.

Sadly, Cockerell said, training is one of the first things companies scrimp on, and again he brings up children: “That’s the last thing you’d do to your children.”

• Viewing operations as a must-succeed daily performance. In the case of Disney, Cockerell said, that means putting on a show exactly the same way every day. The philosophy isn’t just for those in costume. It’s for everyone.

Above all, perhaps, Cockerell encourages leaders to have a sense of humility. It’s something he knew all too well during a somewhat dysfunctional upbringing in Oklahoma. He was adopted twice, and he’s had three different names: Norwood Deal, Lee Lemmons and Lee Cockerell. He still doesn’t know who his real father is.

But at 65, he’s content with what he has. A wife of 41 years. A son and three grandchildren. A track record he’s all too happy to share of helping people.

Some time ago, he said, he came across a quote that suggested the two most important days in people’s lives are the day they’re born and the day they learn why they were born.

Cockerell said he learned somewhere along the way that his purpose is to inspire people — people like the high school junior in Clermont, Fla., who approached him after a speech he’d given and said, “Until today, I did not know I could be a leader.”

Cockerell nearly cried at the thought of it, but the girl’s remark meant the world to him. As do all of the correspondences and experiences he files away on his computer in “Lee Praise.”

“That makes my day when I get them,” he said.

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