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7 Leadership Lessons From a Former Disney Executive

Lee Cockerell, who spent a decade directing 40,000 Disney employees across the world, shares his biggest leadership and customer service takeaways.

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BY John Nemo - 28 Nov 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

During his decade serving as Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World Resort, Lee Cockerell was in charge of 40,000 employees.

From 1997 to 2006, he oversaw operations for 20 resort hotels, 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, a shopping & entertainment village and the ESPN sports and recreation complex, in addition to the ancillary operations which supported the number one vacation destination in the world.

"I guess it was a miracle," he told me on a recent episode of the Nemo Radio Podcast. "I grew up in Oklahoma in a dysfunctional family. My mother was married five times ... I flunked out of college after two years."

Overcoming Long Odds

After spending time in the U.S. Army, Cockerell eventually landed a job as a banquet waiter for a Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.

"I was the best little banquet waiter they ever had," he says. "I figured since I didn't have a college degree, I better have a good attitude."

With an attitude and work ethic honed from his days working on the rural Oklahoma farms he grew up on, Cockerell eventually ascended to executive roles with Hilton and later Disney, which hired him in 1990 to oversee the opening of its Disneyland Paris Hotel and theme park.

Creating Disney Magic Through Leadership

In 1997, Cockerell found himself in charge of dozens of Disney properties, hotels and theme parks - including overseeing 40,000 Disney employees.

"I wanted to get everyone on the page with leadership and expectations," he recalls. "To make sure every guest had the same type of experience, regardless of which park it was, what day of the week it was or anything else."

What resulted was creation of Disney's "Great Leader Strategies," which Cockerell used to train and develop more than 7,000 leaders at Walt Disney World.

Lesson #1: Everyone is Important

"We really try at Disney to create that culture where people matter, and they know they matter," Cockerell says. "We want you to be the type of leader who gives others lots of recognition, appreciates them, encourages them and develops them as you train them."

Remember, Cockerell says, "Everybody matters, and everybody wants to matter."

Lesson #2: Create Magic Through Training

"I think at Disney we do this better than anybody," Cockerell says. "We train you, we test you and then we enforce the training.

"That's why when people come, they get a consistent performance. It doesn't matter what day you come, what cast member you run into ... you're going to get the same quality and consistency."

Lesson #3: What Professionalism Looks Like For You (Not Someone Else)

Cockerell says it's critical for your brand or business to make sure you clearly define what professionalism looks like from your perspective.

"We're not interested in what professionalism might look like somewhere else," he says of the approach at Disney. "We don't know where everybody came from or what they knew previously. We want everyone on the same page, understanding what professionalism looks like at Disney."

From not talking negatively about guests to staying in character at all times, Disney employees are trained to adhere to a set of professional standards crafted specifically for the theme parks and hotels.

"Cinderella can't have a tattoo on her neck and Mickey can't smoke while he's talking to your kids," Cockerell says. "Another one is we have all our cast members leave their phones backstage. We don't want you texting when you should be taking care of guests. Also, there probably wasn't a lot of texting in the Frontier Land back in the Old West."

Lesson #4: Get Employees On Board

Despite having to disseminate his leadership principles and customer service caveats to 7,000 leaders and 40,000 cast members across all of Disney, Cockerell said it was easier to implement than one would think.

"I believe it's a pretty easy formula," he says, "And that any company could do it if they focus on the basics instead of getting so complicated that people don't even know what they want to do anymore."

Lesson #5: Hire Right

To begin with, Cockerell says, you must hire better.

As an example, prospective Disney employees have to answer 136 questions online before they even receive the opportunity to fill out an application and apply for a position, according to Cockerell.

"We want to know you," he says. "Are you high-energy? Are you motivated? Will you show up to work on time? Do you have stamina? Can you still have a smile on your face and be pleasant when it's 95 degrees outside and you're selling ice cream to guests?"

Lesson #6: Training is Key

Under Cockerell's plan, Disney employees received hours and hours of extensive training before ever stepping foot in front of guests.

From a daylong overview of the company's history and traditions, to re-training every six months, employees had clear instructions and expectations from the start.

Lesson #7: Treat People Right

Finally, Cockerell says, treating employees well was critical to creating a healthy culture at Disney.

"We created a culture where everybody matters, and everybody knows they matter," he says. "You want people waking up wanting to come to work."

"It's simple," he says. "Hire 'em right, train 'em right and treat 'em right. A lot of companies don't realize, your people are your company. They are your brand.

"It might be someone answering the phone, it might be someone doing your delivery ... those people are your company. That might be the only person from your company a customer ever interacts with."

(Note: Go here to listen to my entire conversation with Cockerell, including additional leadership lessons, his four favorite customer service tips and more.)