Engagement Performance
24:56

Episode 14: Frontline Leadership at Disney with Dan Cockerell

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Episode overview:

For over 60 years, Disney has set the standard for workplace safety, customer service and operational efficiency in hospitality and entertainment. But how does a dynamic company with hundreds of thousands of frontline employees manage to execute so consistently for so long? Is it magic? Or is it something much more practical that you can apply within your business?

JD explores the connection between leadership and frontline performance with Dan Cockerell. Dan is a 26-year veteran of the Walt Disney Company. During his storied career, Dan worked in a variety of roles, from opening the parking lot for Disneyland Paris to overseeing operations at the busiest theme park in the world, The Magic Kingdom Park at the Walt Disney World Resort. Today, Dan provides customized, authentic presentations and insightful workshops focusing on leadership and management practices, drawing upon his extensive Disney career with relevant examples and inspiring storytelling.

Check out Dan’s new book How’s the Culture in Your Kingdom? Lessons from a Disney Leadership Journey. You can also watch his featured session from AxoniCom LIVE on-demand.

The 80 Percent is brought to you by Axonify. To learn how you can provide communication and training to your frontline workforce that actually works, visit axonify.com. If you have a frontline story you’d like us to explore on a future episode, let us know at podcast@axonify.com

Join the #FrontlineForward effort by visiting axonify.com/frontlineforward to access free training content, download the new 2020 State of Frontline Employee Training Report and subscribe for the updates.

About the Guest(s)

Dan Cockerell

Dan Cockerell spent 26 years at the Walt Disney Company. He started as a parking attendant at Epcot theme park, and eventually rose through the ranks to the Vice-President of the Magic Kingdom, leading 12,000 employees and entertaining over 20 million guests a year.

Dan understands the value of supporting frontline workers to deliver the magic, and the importance of storytelling to inspire performance.

About the Host(s)

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD Dillon became an expert on frontline training and enablement over two decades working in operations and talent development with dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. A respected author and speaker in the workplace learning community, JD also continues to apply his passion for helping frontline employees around the world do their best work every day in his role as Axonify's Chief Learning Architect.

Episode Transcript

Introduction:

On this episode, we explore the importance of leadership in a frontline forward organization. We’re joined by Dan Cockerell, former vice-president of the magic kingdom park at the Walt Disney world resort, who takes us backstage and explains how Disney leadership enables their frontline to create magic for tens of thousands of guests every day. That’s coming up next on the 80%.

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JD Dillon:

I’d like to tell you a story about a family’s trip to Walt Disney world. This family of four mom, dad, and their two young sons were on vacation at Disney for a whole week. They visited right in the middle of the busiest period of the summer. And by golly, were there a lot of people in the parks. Nevertheless, the family was having a great vacation. This was the third time they’d been to Disney as a family. So they weren’t experts, but they certainly weren’t new. They decided to save their favorite park, the magic kingdom for the third day of their trip. Unfortunately, things got off to a rough start that day. First, one of the kids tickets didn’t properly scan at the front gate. So they had to go to guest relations to get a new ticket. Then the family had to wait in a long, long line to get their morning coffee. Then they found out one of their favorite rides Space Mountain was closed for refurbishment all summer. Then after an hour wait in line, they were about to get on another one of their favorite rides, splash mountain, when it broke down. And they had to leave. Like I said, it was a rough day so far. They decided to regroup over lunch before they had a fast pass for their next big ride. Big thunder mountain railroad. You can probably guess what happens next.

Voice 1:

Sorry for the hold up folks, there seems to be a slow moving train up ahead. So we got to sit here for a spell. You just remain seated and we’ll be right with you.

JD Dillon:

As they approached thunder mountain, they saw a big crowd standing in front of the entrance. The ride was temporarily closed for technical difficulties. While the look on the mom’s face was somewhere between extreme disappointment, utter disbelief and advanced rage. But that’s when a cast member stepped in. How y’all doing today. He said, knowing full well that something was wrong and that it was bigger than just this ride being temporarily unavailable. The dad started to tell the cast member how their day was going, starting with the issue they had on splash mountain, just a few hours prior. The cast member interrupted to suggest that they chat a little ways away so they could get away from the crowd and out of the sun. So they started walking along the side of big thunder mountain, down the steps to the railroad station under the tracks, past the playground and the restrooms and into a gift shop.

JD Dillon:

All the while dad was explaining how disappointed they were about their day at the magic kingdom. By the time he finished telling the story, the group had somehow been magically transported to the unload area at splash mountain. The kids had actually realized where they were going, but the parents were too focused on venting about their day to notice. The cast member apologized sincerely to the family, for the challenges they had experienced so far that day. But he did it as he held up his arm signaling to another cast member to hold on, loading the next empty log. He then expressed his gratitude that they shared their story with him. As he loaded them into the empty log bypassing the now 90 minute wait for the ride. And before he sent them on their way, he handed them three sets of fast passes. They could use on any ride that day, including Thunder mountain. When it came back up. While the looks on the mom and dad’s faces had changed to somewhere between confusion and wonderment. Finally, the cast member said have a magical day and try to stay dry as he extended his arm as the signal for the ride to depart. The family vanished into the water ride as the cast member turned and left the unload station. He went about his day and never saw or thought about that family again. Until a few weeks later, when he was handed a letter by his manager, it was from the family, they had written a letter to guest communications raving about their Disney vacation. They mentioned a variety of things they did that week, but a big chunk of the letter was dedicated to that day in the magic kingdom and their experience with that cast member who their children remembered as some kind of superhero. A potentially disastrous day had been transformed into a memory so positive It was worth writing a letter about. And all because a cast member saw that something was wrong and took the initiative to fix it. Using the simple tools he had available. If you haven’t already figured it out. I was the cast member who engaged with that family on the summer day in 2009, when I managed frontier land in the magic kingdom. Now I didn’t tell this story just to brag about my excellent customer service skills. It’s just a great real life example of how Disney enables its frontline cast members to deliver the magical guest experiences for which they are so well known and respected around the world. But this was just one story. There are tens of thousands of cast members around the world doing the same things every day. How does Disney make this happen so consistently. What role does leadership play in enabling frontline performance, especially in a busy environment where safety is always the top priority. To find out. I spoke with Dan Cockrell.

Dan Cockerell:

So if you’re a college program cast member, and it’s the second day on the job, you have the exact same purpose as a vice president who’s been there 26 years. And that is creating magic.

JD Dillon:

Dan is a 26 year veteran of the Walt Disney company. Who worked his way from the front lines of the Epcot parking lot to the vice president of the busiest theme park in the world. He’s also the author of the new book. How’s the culture in your kingdom lessons from a Disney leadership journey.

Dan Cockerell:

Employees are going to remember how they were treated during this time. The ones that were treated well are going to stay. And the ones that weren’t are going to go to companies where they were supporting during these downtimes .

JD Dillon:

Today, Dan applies his practical experience at Disney to help organizations and professionals around the world transform their leadership practices.

Dan Cockerell:

I don’t think people should sell themselves short about what your title is. If what you say or do influences other people, you’re a leader.

JD Dillon:

I hope you enjoyed this backstage look at the magic of Disney leadership with Dan Cockerell.

Dan Cockerell:

Yeah, let’s leave that to the professionals.

JD Dillon:

One of the most interesting parts about working for Disney is just how many jobs you can do and how many things you can learn all while working for the same company.

Dan Cockerell:

I worked at Disney in college and when I graduated, I still didn’t really have a plan. So I came to Walt Disney world and got hired as a parking attendant at Epcot, and then did that for about six months and then had the opportunity to open Disneyland Paris Euro Disney at the time in 1992. Opened the parking lot over there because I was now an expert in parking, spent the next five years in France, working in frontline roles. And then my wife and I moved back to the States in 1997. And I spent the next 22 years working at Walt Disney world. I was in parks, I ran some of the resorts and then ran some of the theme parks towards the end of my career there. And then I left in may of 2018, my wife and I decided to open our own consulting company. Our kids had grown up and had moved out. We decided in 19 jobs at Disney, it was time for another big change.

JD Dillon:

While people do a variety of different jobs. Every cast member understands the connection between role and purpose.

Dan Cockerell:

Everyone has a different role. Some people are loading attractions. Some people are in accounting. Some people are parking cars. Some people are executives. Everyone has a different role, and no one’s role is any more important than anyone else’s because they all come together to treat that experience for our guests. But the cool thing about Disney is everyone has the same purpose. And we talk about that all the time. So if you’re a college program cast member, and it’s the second day on the job, you have the exact same purpose as the vice-president. Who’s been there 26 years. And that is making great experiences for guests, creating magic, creating these great memories for people. And when everyone starts to realize that we take that seriously. And we all have the same mission and we’re very serious about all working towards that goal. People get engaged. And so you have your role, which is your job. You have your purpose, which is why you’re working there.

JD Dillon:

This idea of shared purpose informs the way Disney defines leadership.

Dan Cockerell:

Leadership, and strategy are two words that are way overused, I think. And I’ve concluded. And I’m not going to say this is right, but I like to think about this way. Cause I hear a lot of people say, well, I don’t have a team. I’m not a leader. If what you say or do influences other people, you’re a leader. So sometimes leading can just be role modeling. You don’t have to tell anyone what to do. Just by the fact of how you act and how you do what you do, whether it’s the way you live your life or the way you do your job, the way you deal with people, if you’re role modeling that and people pick up on that and want to emulate you. You’re leading. I saw that at Disney so often. I saw executives who influenced nobody. And I saw frontline employees who were extremely influential because people believe them. They’re credible. They had a lot of time on the job and people listened to them. I don’t think people should sell themselves short about what your title is.

JD Dillon:

This perspective on leadership, shapes how you take on formal leadership responsibilities as you move from the frontline into management.

Dan Cockerell:

I never forgot about those experiences. And so when I started moving up in the organization, I remember being in those jobs. And I remember thinking to myself, I wonder where the managers are when I was working in parking. I’m like they must be in some really important meetings, but their managers. So I’m sure that’s important. And when I got to become a manager, I’m like, there really aren’t that many important meetings. They just weren’t out with us. So I’m going to be out there. I got to observe it firsthand and see the really great leaders who were engaged and I really remember. And I still remember the leaders I had who really kind of helped formed my leadership style. I was influenced by a lot of different people as I moved through different roles. And there was a lot of them out there that I don’t remember because they were unremarkable and they didn’t leave an impression on me. That’s a common story at Disney. A lot of people do start on the frontline, a lot of executives and work their way up. And I think there’s something to be said for that. It really keeps you in check and it makes sure that you understand realistically how hard the job is out there and how much it takes to bring this, this show together every day. And when you get that next level, you have a certain empathy and care because you’ve been there.

JD Dillon:

In order to be a great Disney leader, you have to remember where you came from and what it’s like to be on the frontline.

Dan Cockerell:

You better get a huge dose of humility. People get into these jobs and they kind of get overwhelmed with the title and the trappings of the job. And they don’t realize they’re still a cog in the machine. I could not show up for weeks on end at magic kingdom. That place is still opening every day everything’s going to work like it does. You got to make sure you’re focusing on other people. When you get into a leadership role, it’s not about you anymore. Your performance doesn’t matter anymore. It’s how your performance influences the performance of the team working for you. Has that is now how you’re going to be measured. And a lot of leaders can’t get over that and they keep looking at their own performance. How well they speak, how well they do memos, how well they do what they do. I concluded a long time ago that it didn’t matter how I did my job.

Dan Cockerell:

If what I was doing was translating all the way through the levels of the organization, to the frontline employees, then I was doing a really good job. If the frontline employees were creating magic and they were being safe and they were creating these great experiences for guests, I was doing a great job. I got all the responsibility and I got the credit for both of those things and the downside. Leaders have to get over this ego that says, I have this role. I’m supposed to be smarter than everyone else and know more. And the world’s way too complicated today to do that.

JD Dillon:

This idea of enabling results through others brings to mind those memes you see on LinkedIn all the time about the difference between being a manager and a leader. But maybe instead of demonizing management, which is still very important in the workplace, we should be rethinking how we define leader.

Dan Cockerell:

I thought myself less as a leader and more of a facilitator. How do I unlock all the potential on my team to do great stuff? And if I can just sit there and make all that happen, then I’m a, I’m a really good leader

JD Dillon:

To get the best performance from your teams. You have to know what they expect from you as a leader.

Dan Cockerell:

We did a lot of studies at Disney and we surveyed guests and our guests told us there’s four things I really want when I come to Walt Disney world. Make me feel special. I want you to treat me as an individual. I want you to respect me. And I want you to be knowledgeable about your job. I want you to know what you’re talking about cause it’s a big, complicated place. And sure enough, when we talked to our employees about what they wanted, they said the same thing. We want you to make us feel special. Treat us as individuals, respect us employees and train us and give us the tools and the training we need to successfully perform in this very high expectation environment.

JD Dillon:

These expectations have to be met every day in how you treat people.

Dan Cockerell:

You need to treat your employees the way you want them to treat their customers. I can’t go in a meeting before the magic kingdom opens and tell everyone, if you don’t do a great job today, you’re all going to get reprimands, go make magic. It doesn’t work that way. I have to get them in the mindset when I influence them, that they want to go create this great moment for people because they understand their purpose and they feel like they can contribute to that. And so if I can create this culture and this environment for people where a. I hire the right people, which is the most important thing, hire the right people for the right culture in the right environment. Secondly, build relationships with them. So they feel like there’s some sort of trust and relationship there and then set clear expectations and make sure they know what they need to do. And lastly reward and recognize them when they do it well. That creates the environment where people are going to be at their best. It doesn’t guarantee it, but it creates the right environment for success to happen.

JD Dillon:

This also comes to life in how you do your job as an executive or as a manager. You have to role model the right behaviors. So people understand what’s really important in their everyday work.

Dan Cockerell:

Between walking the park and going to the cafeteria regularly and eating lunch with cast members and going and working in the operation on a regular basis in costume. Because I was role modeling it, people started to do it also. They’re saying well, if Dan’s out, we better get out there because we want to be there too. And I didn’t do that in a way to penalize them or to get them in trouble. I said, look, I’m another pair of ears. And another pair of eyes, that’s going to help make this place better. And if your cast members feel comfortable talking to me, then let’s take it. Once the general manager started that approach. Now the senior managers do it and now the senior managers doing it, the frontline manager. So everyone starts to realize what you’re paying attention to. And when you pay attention to that, as a senior leader, people start to pay attention to it also because you’re role modeling and they find out they’re going to be held accountable for that. I really believe as an executive, everything’s in your pay grade. The strategic planning, the big decisions and the daily operation, that all has to be part of it. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to focus on both. And you do need to let your people run their operation. I’m not talking about micromanagement, but you have to pay attention to it.

JD Dillon:

When you prioritize, spending time on the front line, you realize just how much ownership people take in their roles when you trust them and enable them.

Dan Cockerell:

When I became the general manager of the all-star, I’d already been with the company for 14 years. And then I thought I really understood the culture and understood how things worked. But when I got into resorts, I realized working with Blanca spending two weeks in housekeeping with her and working with her and being at lunch with the other housekeepers, how much pride they had in their jobs. I mean, I put that in the book, she talked about her rooms. Those were her rooms, that level of ownership, that level of pride. Get rid of the ego and get some humility and go find out why they do their jobs so well. What is the drives that performance and what are their approaches to that?

JD Dillon:

Focusing on the frontline has business value to. It can help you identify where you can improve your operation after all who knows how to do the job better than the people who do it every day.

Dan Cockerell:

We started to go look at who are the housekeepers who seem to just effortlessly clean 18 rooms a day. They have clean rooms on a regular basis. They get the highest scores. They seem to be working the least. And so we’d go look at them. The ones that were really good at it, we found out, had great systems. People like Blanca, Mondays was mirrors. Tuesdays was baseboards. Wednesdays were fans. They had a rotation. We didn’t train them to do that, but they knew based on the experience they had is if you do a little bit every day, you never have to do a deep cleaning because you’re taking care of the whole room. And we started to roll that out to the housekeepers who weren’t as organized and said, Hey, do you want your job to be easier? Let’s take these best practices from the housekeepers who have figured it out.

JD Dillon:

Managers everywhere can learn a lot from their frontline employees.

Dan Cockerell:

There were even housekeepers with, I could never figure this out. They could make a whole bed on one side and then walk around and make the rest of the bed on the other side. And we started training that way. Cause it makes a lot of sense. I mean, when you make a bed, how many times you walk around it, you know, that’s wasted time. And when you’re cleaning 18 rooms, that time’s very valuable. Go talk to people, watch them, speak with them, study your best people and how they do their jobs and let that become your operating guideline. Um, because people are very organized and they’re like I said, very resourceful and they have tons of answers for you. If you’re willing to go pay attention,

JD Dillon:

Understanding the frontline experience is just the beginning. Then you have to shift your organization’s perspective. So everyone recognizes that the frontline is worthy of continued investment.

Dan Cockerell:

There’s two areas. I think companies don’t invest in. They look at it as either extra work or extra costs, that’s training and communication. And those were probably two of the most important things you can do. But somehow they see those as secondary. I hired you now, I’m just going to get you so you can now do the minimum. And I don’t invest in people. People look at training as a cost, not an investment. And I think it’s the same with communication. I think it’s an investment because when people are informed, not only can they do the job, but it’s a sign of respect from my point of view. When you go out of your way to inform people what’s happening, you’re telling them they’re important and they deserve to know what’s going on.

JD Dillon:

This has to start right away. As soon as people join your organization and then continue as they develop in their roles.

Dan Cockerell:

The first 30 days is the easiest time for them to leave. I got here. The commute is really hard. I’m lost. I’m not making friends. The job is hard to learn. We call that hypercare. You really got to keep an eye on people when they first get there. So that first week you check in the first month you check in and then the 60, 90 day mark. Because if you can get them through the first 90 days, their chances of leaving now have gone down dramatically. Any finance organization can track the cost of hiring somebody. It’s marketing, it’s interviewing it’s onboarding, its training. So you do all that to get them up, to get them in the workplace. And then you stop talking to them. That’s not a very smart thing. People don’t want to be incompetent. And if you don’t train people correctly, it really does a job on their confidence and it, it could drive them away.

JD Dillon:

This frontline focus also has to extend beyond the workplace. You have to prioritize the entire person to demonstrate that you really care,

Dan Cockerell:

Genuinely take an interest in people. They will be more dedicated to their jobs. When we rolled out our big cast safety initiative, many years ago, we didn’t just roll out safety and say, you need to be safer because it costs the company more when you’re unsafe and get hurt and there’s more liability. We also talked to cast members about safety at home. And when you’re not at work, why should you be safe? Not don’t be safe for your job. Be safe because your family is relying on you. When hurricane season comes, here’s some tips how to stay safe. So when they start realizing it’s just not a money thing, but it really is. We’re really concerned about them personally. They listen a lot more closely.

JD Dillon:

I can attest to this focus on workplace and everyday safety, because I was actually a member of the rollout team for that training program. I can also attest to the fact that investing in and caring for the entire person. Isn’t just the right thing to do. It delivers financial results.

Dan Cockerell:

If you look at areas that are all over-training, they’re really good and they don’t just look at training as a, another activity that has to be checked off, but they really make an investment in it and show people how valuable it is. You start to see the performance go up. You start to see that, you know what? We train our people to greet every guest when they walk in the doorway and merchandise locations that greet people more readily, sell more merchandise, and you can measure that. And that plays out. I think a lot of these things are measurable. You just have to decide whether you want to prove it out or just have faith and know if you train your people and you spend a lot of time with them early in their careers with your company, they’re going to stay longer and it makes a huge difference.

JD Dillon:

One of the most common questions I get about my 10 years at Disney is how can we do things in our business, just like Disney does it? Well, it’s not that simple.

Dan Cockerell:

One of the phrases we always use is we’re looking for you not to adopt what we’re talking about, but to adapt it. I think a lot of the management philosophies and leadership philosophies at Disney are very translatable to other businesses, but I don’t think you want to ever just take the blueprint, lift it and just pop it down on your business. There’s also this concept that we like to talk about that authorship instills ownership.

JD Dillon:

No matter how you adapt these proven Disney principles, your conversations always have to begin in the same place.

Dan Cockerell:

When we go into companies, we usually tell the CEOs, we’d like to spend time with your frontline employees and your frontline managers. And their first question is “well why”, because we want to find out what the culture’s like and what’s going on with them. Because that’s where the value is. That’s where the improvements need to be made, whatever it is. And if they can feel like they were involved in the change that was coming and you can get people involved along the way, first of all, they feel more important because they they’re included. Secondly, when you roll it out, they’re going to take more ownership of it because they were involved and then when things don’t go like you planned they’re going to be more likely to help fix it instead of standing back and let it fail because they got involved in that plan. They own it. You should take what works, take things that make sense and adapt them in your business and make sure as much as possible, you can get people involved in the implementation of those things. If you want to go fast, go alone. And if you want to go far, go together.

JD Dillon:

Thank you to Dan Cockerell for sharing his insights into leadership culture and frontline enablement from the most magical place on earth. Be sure to check out Dan’s new book. ‘How’s the culture in your kingdom lessons from a Disney leadership journey’ via the link in the show notes. If you enjoyed this conversation and want to hear more frontline forward stories, subscribe to The 80 Percent on your favorite podcast app. You can also find all of our episodes online at axonify.com/podcast. Thanks for joining me for this episode. I hope you’ll join us again for another story about how we can help frontline employees do their best work every day and make a difference in their organizations and communities together. We will move the frontline forward.

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