with LiNE Zine’s exploration of the human capital revolution, I
visited the Disney
Institute in Lake Buena Vista, Florida to glean their perspective
on human capital. After all, who knows how to treat people better
than The Walt Disney Company? In their theme parks, as well as in
their merchandise locations and resorts, guests brightly mirror
the smile on every employee’s face.
Disney Institute provides business professionals with a unique opportunity
to benchmark the “Disney approach” to business and management issues.
Despite my giddy predisposition about anything sporting the Disney
name, the word “institute” had me subconsciously anticipating a
formidable, perhaps even austere, experience. I didn’t realize those
expectations. As I first passed Disney Institute’s colorful studios,
performance center, outdoor amphitheater, and cinema I was pleasantly
surprised. My experience was anything but austere. The atmosphere,
special treatment, entertaining, and knowledgeable facilitators,
real world (Disney, that is) field experiences, and strategically
positioned media events all resulted in a wonderfully pleasurable
experience in Disney Institute’s laboratory for learning. What I
did find formidable were the concepts, systems, and processes that
the Disney Institute shares and the backstage work and creativity
that make their programs possible.
had the opportunity to audit part of a Disney Institute program,
The Disney Approach to Quality Service for Healthcare Professionals,
and then to talk with Larry Lynch, the Director of Business Development
at the Disney Institute.
New economy thought leaders agree that human capital—the people,
the knowledge, the ideas, the creativity—may be today’s most valuable
commodity. The Walt Disney Company embraced this concept many years
before it penetrated most other businesses. How did Disney evolve
to this way of thinking?
With us it goes back to Walt, who recognized that creating his
special brand of theme park would take people. That’s one
of the precepts for everything we teach at the Disney Institute.
Walt was a visionary. He understood the value of the human component—that
it’s the everyday human interaction between our cast members and
our guests that genuinely makes the difference.
attended one of our Quality Service programs. In that program—and
in all Disney Institute programs—we share the processes and systems
that we use here in Walt Disney World. Each process relies on the
human component. In the 1950s when Walt was building Disneyland,
he recognized and emphasized people as one of our core strengths.
Walt Disney is credited with a seemingly endless supply of
optimism. And that optimism seems to play a significant role in
the success of your company.
I like to think we are all very optimistic. That’s probably
a trait we bring to the company.
When I attended your Quality Service program, I learned that
Disney puts huge effort towards hiring the right people, particularly
people who can provide quality service. What kinds of people do
you look for?
Optimism is a key part of it. We are careful to hire what we
call “right fit” talent. Walt recognized way back when that the
“right fit” requires optimism, a positive attitude, plus the necessary
skill set. These are all key components to great casting. We are
in the entertainment business and we call our employment process
casting. And we call our employees cast members.
In your casting process, how do you attract “right fit” people?
For one thing, we have a program called “Casting Scout.” All
of our employees are indeed casting scouts who look for the talent.
Our cast members know what “right fit” looks like. They clearly
understand the types of people we want as cast members.
our People Management program, we take people through our casting
center and let them share in the hiring process. The casting process
itself is a process of entertainment—it’s actually a pleasurable
experience. Think about when you’ve applied for a job—it’s not always
pleasurable. The location is usually way out of the public eye.
The information shared is basically, “Here’s an application. We’ll
get back with you.” The process that we share is very different.
There’s an element of self-screening and self-selection.
things—the Casting Scout program, the process that we go through,
and the fact that the process is pleasurable—all combine to help
us find “right fit” talent.
What methods do you use to promote excellence and to retain
First, as I said, we hire the “right-fit” talent. After that,
we give them the training they need, communicate with them on a
regular basis and reward and recognize them for their successes.
Our training and communications programs provide our cast members
with a clear-cut understanding of company expectations and give
them the skills and information they need to do a good job.
and recognition are key—on an individual basis. If you are a team
member and your leader delivers a mass “thank you” to everybody,
you may think, “but, I’ve done something more.” On the other hand,
if your leader recognizes the overall team performance, and also
recognizes your individual contributions and strengths, don’t you
feel so much better? We use the term, VIP, Very Individual Person.
VIP is a key element of our culture to drive employee recognition.
While attending your Quality Service program, I learned about
your service standards and their priority of (1) safety, (2) courtesy,
(3) show, and (4) efficiency. Disney obviously can’t anticipate
and teach every possible guest situation, yet I can think of no
situation that would not fall under one or more of your four service
standards. They provide the basic knowledge to empower and liberate
cast members to make sound decisions and follow through with action.
Walt Disney himself said in talking about his organization, “As
well as I can, I’m untying the apron strings.” What other examples
can you share of how Disney empowers cast members?
One example is our program called Take Five in which cast members
take five minutes out of their day to proactively do something special
for a guest. We call it being aggressively friendly. Our cast members
look for opportunities for magic moments—those little things that
happen for guests that are utter surprises. For example, a housekeeper
in one of our resort hotels discovered that a guest was not feeling
well so she took the time to get chicken soup from a resort restaurant
and bring it back to the guest.
That would surprise and delight a customer.
Exactly. The magic moments happen because everyone understands
within the service standards that they are empowered to proactively
do something special.
letter from a guest who attended a Disney Institute program illustrates
another example. While having lunch at the California Grill the
guest mentioned to a cast member that he wanted to come back for
dinner. The reservation list was full, but the cast member offered
to work on it. Throughout lunch the cast member was on the phone,
and at the end came back to say he was still working on it. Later
that afternoon, the guest received a note with the time and reservation
number for The California Grill. To add to that magic moment, the
guest’s party had a special seat by a window and the cast member
stopped in that evening to make sure that his party was seated and
enjoying dinner. Those kinds of magic moments can happen when you
understand the deliverables on the service standard. The cast member
received praise and recognition from leaders within our organization
and the action will come back to him a hundred fold.
I felt several of those magic moments first-hand as your Disney
Institute team went far beyond my expectations to make sure that
my stay was as pleasurable as could be and that I received optimal
insight and information.
like to challenge you a bit now. It’s clear that Disney places a
high value on cast members. But, it's easy for employers to value
human capital when faced with employees whom they see as strong
contributors. What about the mere mortals who perhaps make more
than their share of mistakes?
At Disney, we have developmental plans that connect our performance
with our company business plans. On Broadway a performer who’s not
right for a role can often be recast. We do the same thing here.
If it doesn’t work, we give them an opportunity to explore areas
within our company where they can succeed. While you do the right
things like measure performance against the business plan, and provide
recognition and rewards, you know at the end of the day, there is
the opportunity to recast for a different role—one that provides
for that “right-fit.” Remember, it’s all about the positive experience—even
mere mortals have the need to succeed.
I have an excellent example of recasting. During the program
I attended, George Miliotis, manager of The California Grill, told
the group about an excellent server who just couldn’t master the
cash register. Miliotis tried interventions like talking with the
server, retraining, and shadowing another server, but nothing worked.
Miliotis then worked with the cast member to identify a “right fit”
situation. As a result, that cast member moved to a banquet type
operation where he didn’t have to operate a cash register, but still
serve people in the same way.
That’s a great example. Here you have a cast member who instead
of being humiliated has the opportunity to say, “I can still be
successful.” And he probably will be.
There seems to be a strong sense of community amongst Disney
cast members. How does this sense of community benefit your business?
Tremendously. The sense of community allows us to formulate
the right elements of teamwork. People may work well individually,
but a valuable strength comes from our ability to pull together
as a team.
What would you recommend to other organizations to help build
this sense of community?
As we teach at the Disney Institute, there are ways of communicating
within the organization that will foster affiliation and achievement
and that will supercede rivalry within any team. Most organizations
have lots of high achievers. Many team building programs exist to
help them get to know each other. When it’s over, they may hug and
walk away, but when they walk back to their workplaces they’re not
sure what they accomplished. They had a great time, but they don’t
know where to go next.
take participants through a series of exercises that help them recognize
the need for balance. They may be high achievers, but they will
achieve on an even higher level as they understand each other better.
You find the right blend of affiliation, then manage the element
of achievement so that within that affiliation everybody comes out
as a high achiever. We don’t want an individual to achieve at the
expense of others on the team. We try to get people to understand,
within the context of their own organizations, what it takes to
create the elements of community.
Your cast members seem to delight in their work. That’s obvious
by the smiles on their faces and their seemingly endless energy
level. What can a company do to foster and nourish this kind of
It’s about leadership to connect and align the organization’s
vision. An organization has to stand for something beyond just making
money. When leaders communicate the vision and get everybody aligned
and focused, the result is a group that has the dedication you see
within our cast members. They all understand the vision and mission
and their roles to deliver outstanding guest service every day.
treasures the assets brought by our cast members—our human capital.
For an in depth look at our leadership and people management programs
and processes, I’d invite LiNE Zine readers to come to the Disney
Institute to see, first-hand, what we do.
Lynch is Director of Business Development at Disney Institute located
at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. He is
the key executive responsible for the programming direction of the
business, with sales, program design, facilitation, and operations
reporting to him. In addition to his years as an association executive,
Larry’s nine years of police experience qualify him as a “life-long
people-learner.” For more information about Disney Institute programs,
call 407-566-2660 or visit www.disneyinstitute.com.
Cheryl Emory is a contributing editor
for LiNE Zine and principal consultant for Performance Designs in
Richmond, Virginia. In addition to writing and consulting, Emory
stays busy helping two daughters get through their teenage years,
advocating for persons with special needs, supporting local theatre,
and spending time with her husband. She can be reached directly
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