"What would Walt do?"
For decades, that was the magic, pixie-dust question that permeated the Walt Disney empire of 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, 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 California-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, 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 the 57-year-old Lipp, who joined Disney fresh out of college.
Fluent in Japanese, he was hired full time as an interpreter for Japanese officials arriving in Anaheim to start planning the first international Disney theme park in Tokyo. Eventually, 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 a "gut-wrenching" decision, he left Disney to join a Stanford University professor in a global consulting business.
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.
In his book, Lipp details many of the initiatives that "Disney U" embraces. Here's a sample:
Walk the park: 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.
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.
Based on that chat, the gondola ceiling heights got changed, Lipp said, and the worker got promoted.
Too many corporate CEOs, said Lipp, forget they need to get out of their offices and walk their workplaces, interacting with employees and customers.
Keep it human: Customers aren't "attendance numbers" or "per capita units." 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."
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., Disney believed everyone's job was equally important.
At one point, 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."1.
2. What was the name of Walt Disney's first animated cartoon company?
3. Where and when did Disney's five theme parks open? Where is the next one opening?
4. What two years did the "Happiest Place on Earth" experience labor strikes?
5. How do Disney's costumed characters travel unseen at Walt Disney World in Florida?
6. What was the company's first blockbuster R-rated film?
7. What beverage got Disney in trouble with the French before Paris Disney opened?
8. Name the Walt Disney Co.'s last three major acquisitions.
9. Disney holds a record for the most Academy Award nominations and awards. How many?
10. Where is the Walt Disney Family Museum, created by Walt's daughter?
11. What was Mickey Mouse's original name and who changed it?
12. What actor will play Walt Disney — a cinematic first — in a December 2013 movie?
Answers: 1. Cast members, 2. Laugh-O-Gram in Kansas City; 3. Anaheim, Calif., (1955), Florida (1971), Tokyo (1983), Paris (1992) and Hong Kong (2005). Next: Shanghai in 2015; 4. 1941 and 1984, 5. Via underground tunnels, 6. Pretty Woman, 7. Wine, 8. Pixar (animated movies), Marvel (comics) and Lucasfilms (Star Wars), 9. 59 and 22, 10. In San Francisco's Presidio at 104 Montgomery St., 11. Mortimer, until Lillian Disney, Walt's wife, said it sounded too pompous and suggested Mickey instead, 12. Tom Hanks in Saving Mr. Banks.
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