“What would Walt do?”
For decades, that was the magic, pixie-dust question that permeated the Walt Disney empire of animated cartoons, films, toys, and theme parks.
As the creator and visionary behind the brand, he worked hard to ensure that Disneyland’s guests felt ensconced in the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
But it didn’t happen at the touch of a fairy godmother’s wand. Behind the fantasy world, Mr. Disney laid out a serious training program for ensuring upbeat, friendly, customer-focused employees who could “create happiness” on the job.
That training program, launched in early 1955 as Disneyland was hiring for its Anaheim, Calif., opening, eventually became officially known as “Disney University.”
Today, it’s offered to Disney employees worldwide, as well as to outside companies through the Disney Institute in Florida.
But that training is also spread by former Disney execs like Doug Lipp, a Fair Oaks, Calif.-based business consultant. He travels the globe, from Denver to Dubai, conducting Disney-style leadership and customer service training for CEOs and employees of Fortune 500 firms, universities, hospitals, and other businesses.
In his new book, Disney U, which debuted in March, Mr. Lipp details how Disney University got its start and the secrets to its success. Part memoir, part management bible, it’s based on interviews with 25 former Disney executives.
What’s made Disney’s management style so envied around the world?
“It’s a balance of head and heart. It’s a balance of rides that don’t break down and Snow White never has a bad day,” said Mr. Lipp, 57.
In other words, all the technological details of running a theme park — or any business — need to be in place, along with engaged employees whose positive outlook extends to every customer interaction.
While Walt Disney had exacting standards for everything from cleanliness to friendliness, there was an underlying belief that if employees were happy, it would spill over to their customers.
Mr. Lipp left Disney more than 20 years ago to go into private consulting. But his years at Disney left an indelible imprint.
With more than 800 clients, he’s delivered the Disney message both locally and globally. In a single week in March, he spoke to 6,000 McDonald’s franchise owners in Las Vegas and 550 human resource managers in Toronto.
He and his wife, Pam, who met as fellow “cast members” at Disneyland in the early 1980s, run G. Doug Lipp & Associates from their home.
Fresh out of college and fluent in Japanese, Lipp was hired full time by Disney as an interpreter for Japanese officials arriving in Anaheim to start planning the first international Disney theme park in Tokyo. Eventually, Mr. Lipp spent two years in Tokyo, helping hire and train 4,000 Japanese employees. After returning stateside, he spent the next few years at Disney U in Anaheim.
In Mr. Lipp’s book, he details many of the initiatives that “Disney U” embraces. Here’s a sample:
(plug) Walk the park: Mr. Disney, who died of lung cancer at age 65 in 1966, was known for strolling the grounds to talk with employees. On one occasion, he showed up at the Fantasyland gondola ride, where an 18-year-old ride operator was loading passengers. Mr. Disney had a single question: “How would you improve this ride?” The startled worker answered candidly: The gondola rooftops were too low and guests frequently hit their heads when trying to enter the hanging cars.
Based on that chat, the gondola ceiling heights got changed, Mr. Lipp said, and the worker got promoted.
Too many corporate CEOs, said Mr. Lipp, forget they need to get out of their offices and walk their workplaces, interacting with employees and customers.
“A lot of business leaders confide in me they don’t go out and ‘walk the park.’ They know they should but aren’t compelled because of ego, pride, or other factors.”
(plug) Keep it human: Customers aren’t “attendance numbers” or “per capita units.” Mr. Lipp says he makes the same point, whether he’s talking with McDonald’s franchise owners or doctors’ groups. “We get so focused on processing hamburgers or processing patients … we forget we’re dealing with humans. They’re not just numbers on a spreadsheet.”
(plug) Every job matters: From the scuba diver who scrubs the underwater submarine rides at night to the custodian who sweeps Main Street at 3 a.m., Mr. Disney believed everyone’s job was equally important.
At one point, Mr. Lipp recounts, executives became aware that workplace resentments were developing among employees in different job categories. “The maintenance crews viewed the ride operators as ‘button pushers’; the ride operators saw maintenance as ‘bolt-tighteners.’ They didn’t understand each others’ jobs.”
That led to team-building activities, as well as job shadowing, where employees spend time on shifts completely unrelated to their regular job. “It let you see the joys and frustrations in every job.”
Although the Walt Disney Company has had its share of ups and downs in the decades since Mr. Disney's death, Mr. Lipp says there is an underlying work-hard, play-hard ethic that’s still intact today. In Mr. Disney’s view, “You hire the attitude. You can train the skill.”