Nov 7, 2008

Books - The Disney Magic

Vikram Johri

Lee Cockerell, who rose from a humble background to become the executive vice-president of operations at Walt Disney, is an emphatic proponent of leadership virtues. He narrates here the secrets behind the global success of the Disney enterprise, with people from all over the world partaking in the joy of entertainment resorts, theme parks, cruise lines etc.

Cockerell grew up on farm in Oklahoma. He recounts fondly how he used to milk cows and then haul the milk across the neighbourhood in return for 50 cents and some peaches from a kind couple. This, he says, instilled in him a solid work ethic. Later he moved to Washington and worked as a banquet waiter at the Hilton. This was his first real job and he attributes learning the importance of diversity to the time spent there—he had co-workers from all over the world.

In 1970, he became the personal assistant to Eugene Scanlon, the food and beverage controller at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Scanlon made him attend countless banquets and paid for several rounds of wine tasting to enable Cockerell to see the importance of good service. Each of such tiny lessons, he says, stands him in good stead to this day.

Cockerell also relates incidents when he was directly confrontational with junior members of the staff, and surprisingly, for which he suffered physical injuries at times (one humiliated waiter smashed a Budweiser bottle into his face). However, it is his attitude that stands out. Rather than nurse grudges, Cockerell chose to learn, and committed himself to treating all his employees, irrespective of rank, with respect.

More importantly, he started searching for solutions to his workplace crises, and discovered that nearly each of them could be traced to a leadership failure on his part. He realized that “great leaders always focus on others, not on themselves. They hire the right people, train them, trust them, respect them, listen to them, and make sure to be there for them when needed.”

At Disney, Cockerell incorporated the principles that he enumerates in this book. One of his prime strategies is the concept of equality. He stresses on the importance of every job in the office hierarchy. In this regard, he does well to cite an early job as the grease man at a Nevada restaurant. It involved pushing a little cart around the kitchens and emptying grease from the griddles. He was, of course, treated with disdain, or just plain indifference, as though he didn’t exist. Only he seemed to appreciate how crucial keeping the griddles grease-free was to the running of the kitchen, and in turn, the restaurant.

This lesson stayed with Cockerell. As he rose to become an executive vice-president at Disney, he came to propagate the notion that everyone, from the cleaning staff to the ticket seller, had an equal role in the Disney success story. Towards this goal, he put in place a nomenclature system under which all Disney employees were called “cast members”. Laundry, for instance, was handled by “textile services”.

In a world bustling with brands, Cockerell is of the view that people are the real face of an organization’s success. If you don’t have good people, he says, no amount of PR, marketing, branding will make up for it. Successful organizations know this and nourish their human resources. He suggests a variety of ways to bring this about, one of which is training. Training employees vigorously and purposefully inspires them to reach excellence in their work, which in turn, optimizes the organization’s profitability.

Another is appreciation. Cockerell reminisces how, during a visit to the house of a senior employee, he came across a letter of appreciation he had written him, “handsomely framed and hanging in a prominent place in the foyer.” Battling embarrassment and curiosity, Cockerell was nonetheless genuinely moved.

Cockerell’s strategizing also touches upon an organization’s structure, which, he says, is as important as the structure of a building. He believes that structure isn’t a constant, rather it is a fluid entity which is modified regularly. This is especially relevant in today’s times, when advancements in technology are redefining work spaces. This is a direct upshot of his view that delegating authority is an important step towards accountability, since authority is a cornerstone in the exercising of responsibility.

Cockerell finishes the book with some deft self-promotion, giving out the details of programmes conducted at the Disney Institute, a management training centre in Florida. A book can only take you so far, he says, attend the programme for full benefit—as you imagine the oracle, until now charming and hilarious, ending his monologue on a rather unsavoury note.



Lee Cockerell
£10.99; 271 pages

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