April 03, 2018
Disney and Agricultural Leadership
Dr. David M. Kohl
While some may wonder how a trip to the Disney complex relates to the management of farms and ranches, there are actually several connections. Recently, I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a behind-the-scenes examination of Disney operations with over 100 agricultural producers and agribusiness professionals. And sharing the program with Lee Cockerell, a former Vice President of Operations for Walt Disney World Resort, was a special treat. At one time, he led a team of 40,000 at the Disney Resort after stints at the Marriott and Hilton hotels. Raised on an Oklahoma dairy farm, Lee grew up milking Ayrshire dairy cows. Interestingly, he attributes much of his expertise not to his formal education, but rather to his life and work on the farm.
After lectures and some specific assignments, my job was to help participants make connections between their observations of the park and their own businesses. Obviously, a Disney Resort is quite an operation and one theme that surfaced repeatedly was personal leadership. Let’s explore some of the displays of leadership at the Disney Park that are applicable for agriculture, today and in the future.
Don’t let the bottom line compromise your core values.
In the recent commodity supercycle, from 2006 to 2012, growth became the top priority for many in agriculture, regardless of cost. Whether it is a farm, ranch or an associated agribusiness, growth is the number-one reason why businesses fail. And in most cases, the failure comes from the accelerated rate of growth, not the actual expansion. Asset purchases, land acquisition, livestock expansion and other types of growth can easily and quickly outpace the ability of management to adjust and keep up. Thus, any significant change in the management philosophy of business growth must first be tested against the core values and goals of the business stakeholders. Yet, for the aggressive, action-oriented manager, this type of approach is often considered mundane or even inhibitive to growth.
At Disney, there have been several recent expansions as well as changes in areas such as infrastructure, management, products, consumer services and increased pricing. Slowly and steadily, Disney leaders like Lee Cockerell planned and assessed opportunities, resources and risks. Today, Disney is in the middle of perhaps their largest expansion, but still right in step with their vision and values. Good leaders keep their focus on core values and goals, and also realize that they will periodically change.
Clarity in expectations.
Whether it is a new employee or family member entering or exiting the business, clarity and transparency in expectations is critical. At Disney, existing employees are involved in hiring decisions and the expectations of excellence are very transparent. Disney will often hire based upon the “GWC” rule, which stands for “do they get it, do they want it, and do they have the capacity?” Of course, the first two attributes are all about attitude, while the latter is aptitude. However, even if some employees lack aptitude, training and development can make the difference. This investment often entails training, and then written and observation testing, and perhaps training again. For example, safety and cleanliness are high priorities at Disney’s parks. As a test, one of our group participants purposely dropped a piece of paper while watching the parade of Disney characters go by. Within 45 seconds, the paper was gone. Goofy picked it up and never missed a step. This was an impressive embodiment of the Disney motto and culture of everything-and-everyone-matters. Of course, this was a great model for each producer to take back to their own business. Whether it is in the details of production, marketing, finance or just overall operational efficiency, everything has an impact.
Another concept that came up in the leadership event was the thought that people who have moved from job to job are not motivated and usually do not make good employees. It is true that motivated people tend to in turn motivate those around them, which is often called the compounding effect. This contagious nature is one reason why the Disney culture of everything-matters is so successful. Each employee feels like an important part of the team, knows what is expected and takes pride in delivering those expectations. So, whether you are interviewing a potential employee or applying for a potential job, be prepared to ask or to answer the question “Why should we hire you?”
Burn free fuel.
On the myriad flip charts, we recorded pertinent quotes from the Disney experience. In the debriefing session, the acronym A.R.E. was placed on one of the charts. This stood for appreciation, recognition and encouragement. Together, they represent a cost-free, fully sustainable fuel that keeps the engine of the business running smoothly. The agribusiness team interviewed cast members in the park (such as Goofy), and were shocked by some of what they found. Some cast members with 10 to 20 years of employment at the park were being paid slightly over $10 an hour. When asked why they stayed for such modest compensation, the cast members cited reasons such as Disney’s work culture, the family atmosphere, the overall attitude of the Disney team and making a difference in people’s lives.
Next, good leaders have a real sense of emotional intelligence. Often, they are authentic and self-aware. They spend meaningful time listening to employees and model their best performance. More specifically, the good leaders of Disney let employees know what they are doing right and take the opportunity to coach them on ways to improve. As good leaders, they embody the A.R.E. principles with everyone, from the person cleaning the rest areas to the new management executive. One of the participating groups offered a great quote about their observations. They said, “The everything-matters motto means having the discipline to do the difficult things, and empathy to recognize how your actions affect other people.
Structure and Culture
In today’s economic environment, most in agriculture are experiencing significant losses, or at least lower profits. Often, these situations invite a fair amount of introspection. A new exercise conducted recently asked producers to use a few keywords to define success. Many mentioned the keywords of balance, community, family and health. These producers shared aspirations such as an improved balance between the business and family; enjoying their work; giving back to the community; raising a family; and maintaining good physical, mental and spiritual health. Disney management not only mirrors these priorities, they provide a culture of continued support in these areas such as personal development, education, personal finance, family and personal communication, diet and exercise.
In our collection of quotes, one stood out above the others. It read, “Great culture and environment is where everything is on the table and one doesn’t wait too long.” Good leaders evolve their structure on an ongoing basis and are never afraid to break the mold. Cockerell shared that he keeps a checklist, which assists him in knowing when it is time for a change. The following is a good checklist by which to size up one’s business.
- Does the business operate fluidly in your absence?
- Are there levels of accountability and responsibility that are clear and transparent?
- Does information flow smoothly?
- Are decisions made efficiently and effectively?
To assess whether one’s work culture is right, add the following to your checklist.
- Are roles and responsibilities clear?
- Is there wasted time and constant miscommunication?
- Are there too many people involved in decisions?
- Are the effective workers and family members hiding within the business or culture (a common problem for many farms and ranch businesses)?
- Are meetings too frequent or too long?
- Do organizational meetings produce results and motivate employees?
I once consulted for a business whose culture was more representative of a television soap opera than an operation. The employees continued to come back to work, but only to see the next scene, not to be productive.
Finally, the experience at Disney spurred introspection and great thought about what it means to be a successful leader. Observing and examining a completely foreign industry, these 100 agriculturalists were able to see the business practices that really matter, regardless of the industry or business. In closing, let’s look at a few other great concepts generated from the experience.
- Great leaders understand that to get to one’s brain one must go through the heart.
- Everyone is in character, building the people brand by their actions. Be a good role model.
- Every day you are on stage. Whether working with fellow employees, lenders, suppliers or customers and producers, take care with the little things.
- The tough things are easy to steal. The easy things are tough to steal. Companies spend millions to protect their software, which can still be hacked and stolen. But the Disney smile and customer engagement is very difficult to take.
- Take care of yourself. This is why Disney believes in both training and in development. Whether it is work-life balance, exercise or personal education, Disney provides consistent support for each of these attributes for the development of their people.
- Turn off the technology periodically. None of the Disney characters were observed texting or checking their mobile devices. Instead, they were fully engaged with people, making relations more important than technology.
While this provides a brief snapshot of our experience at the Disney Park, the 100 producers and agribusiness professionals included in the event were most impressed. Of course, the warm temperatures and sunshine were a welcome change for most, but the culture and character of the Disney Park was even more refreshing. In fact, the Disney experience was just the lift these producers and professionals needed to take their operations to the next level.