Walt Disney once said,

You can dream, create, design and build the best, the most wonderful place on earth, but it requires people to make that dream a reality.

The Disney brand is very distinctive and is recognised globally.  Disney World in Orlando, Florida is the largest single-site employer in the United States with 55,000 employees.  They understand the impact that each and every staff member has on their brand and act accordingly, giving us a lot of insights into how we too can more effectively use our workforce. 

What can we learn from the Disney culture?

Everyone knows their role.  “We don’t put people in Disney, we put Disney in people” is the line used by Disney HR during induction.  In creating a recognisable culture, Disney clearly have an advantage as most people have an awareness of their requirements before joining the organisation.  However, they have done an excellent job of maximising this awareness with a clear and intentional approach to recruitment and induction that ensures that they get the right people and that new employees (called cast members) have a thorough understanding of requirements. 

Cast members are instructed to be “aggressively friendly”, taking photos for visitors seen aiming cameras, assisting people looking at maps and other spontaneous actions designed to maximise the customer experience.  They are also asked to incorporate their own examples of superior customer service into their employee story-line, so that they can easily recall the times when they have gone above and beyond normal requirements.

Key Questions:

  • Does everyone in your organisation know the requirements of their role?  Not just the “job description” requirements, but what they do that adds value to the customer and business. 
  • Is there an internal culture that is easily recognisable and memorable? 

It’s not negotiable.  If you work at Disney, you either participate in their cultural requirements or you work somewhere else. 

One example of this is that if a cast member removes their costume while on show, it’s grounds for instant dismissal.  It seems harsh, but it outlines that their aim to give visitors a magical experience is of paramount importance.

Jim Collins uses the analogy of a bus to describe this principle.  In his book Good to Great, Collins outlines that you need to have your people “on the bus”, meaning that they have to understand what you’re trying to achieve as an organisation and if they’re not on board with your message, then they need to “get off the bus” and leave your organisation.

This needs to be true for any successful organisation, whether it be a business, church, volunteering group or any other group.  You need to have a set of guiding principles or values that are non-negotiable, enabling the entire organisation to move in the one direction.  That doesn’t mean that you need clones or a culture of “group-think” it just means that everyone knows the direction that you are headed in and are willing to play their part in getting you there.

Key Questions:

  • What are the non-negotiables in your organisation? 
  • Does everyone know what they are? 
  • Are they rigorously enforced to protect your brand?

Recognise your people.  The Disney organisation has over 20 different programs designed to recognise people’s performance.  These range in scale and are generally localised so that the celebrations are decentralised and immediate leaders are responsible for rewarding their staff.  New employees record on their file how they would like to be rewarded, with movie tickets, days off and other options to choose from.  This gives leaders the opportunity to personalise the rewards that their people receive, making them more memorable and meaningful.

Walt Disney himself would often wander around the complex late at night, stopping to chat with night shift workers to get their ideas on how to make improvements.  he was a strong believer that the people closest to the coal-face often had the most practical and easiest to implement ideas.  He also understood that it was engaging and empowering for them to share their ideas with their leader.

Key Questions:

  • As a leader, what do you do to recognise excellent performances from your people? 
  • Do you have a culture where you look for ways to catch people doing the right thing or the wrong thing? 
  • Are the rewards generic or personal enough to make them more appreciated?
  • Do you make it easy for your staff to make suggestions to innovate and improve your organisation?
  • Do you go to them or do you expect them to come to you?

There’s a lot that we can learn from great organisations and the challenge isn’t necessarily to completely replicate someone else’s culture but to utilise the aspects that will work in your team.  Hopefully there are a few ideas here that can work for you.

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