March 9

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Disney’s Formula for Success

By David Millay

March 9, 2021


In our latest podcast episode, we sat down with Disney Parks & Resorts legend, Lee Cockerell.

For ten plus crucial years during Disney World’s growth, Lee was the EVP of Operations for the entire Florida property. His responsibilities encompassed a diverse mix of operations, which included 20 resort hotels with over 24,000 Guest rooms, 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, 5 golf courses, a shopping village & nighttime entertainment complex (Downtown Disney, now Disney Springs), the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and the ancillary operations support functions.

Think about those massive responsibilities…

The amount of revenue that flowed through Lee’s operations was insane. We’re talking about billions of $ each year. 

The number of industry revolutionizing initiatives over those years is far too large to count. From Disney’s Animal Kingdom to Disney Fast Passes, Disney’s Magical Express, and those are just off the top of my head.

The number of visitors to the Central Florida Disney theme parks alone, went from an estimated 29 million guests per year when Lee started in 1990 to an estimated 45 million guests when he retired, a 50% increase. 

Yet in our conversation together, he mentioned none of these things. Instead, we focused on the experience of his employees, or Cast Members, as they’re called at Disney. 

The highest honor of recognition that can be bestowed upon someone in the world of Disney Parks and Resorts is to get a window on Main Street. We’ve written about this before. Each window has a unique story that only insiders know. Lee’s window lists him, not as the EVP of Operations, but instead, displays his role as Editor of the “Main Street Diary.” 

As Lee explains at the very beginning of our conversation together, the Main Street Diary was a weekly internal publication he created for his 40,000+ Cast Members. The goal of the publication was to reinforce key messages from leadership, recognize employees for delivering great service moments, equipping Cast Members with knowledge they could share with guests, and more. With over 40,000 employees, it would have been impossible for Lee to get to know each and every Cast Member on his team. But the Main Street Diary allowed his team to feel like they knew Lee. And it gave them a direct line to Lee, because he put his direct contact information in each publication.   

The Main Street Diary story and Lee’s focus on employee experience are not IN SPITE of his enormous financial obligations. Quite the opposite. Lee focused on employee experience BECAUSE of the enormous financial obligations. He realized that if he focused on revenue first, it would lead to short-term success and long-term failure. Rather, Lee approached revenue as a result of doing all the other things right.

On page 7 of his book, Creating Magic, Lee outlined a simple progression he called “Disney’s Formula for Success.”

The formula works in the form of steps, starting from left to right. Most organizations mistakenly begin with the fourth step, first… a recipe for short-terms wins but long-term disaster.

The formula for long-term, sustained success, works like this: 

  • Leadership Excellence – Intensely focus on leadership development. Invest time and resources in improving your leaders’ ability to lead.

  • Employee Experience – We had a saying back at Disney that I believe in wholeheartedly. It went, “the extent to which you genuinely care about your employees is the extent to which they will care about your customers.”

  • Guest Satisfaction – By exceeding a guest’s expectations, you can drive more revenue. The trick here is to avoid merely meeting expectations and focus on exceeding expectations.

  • Business Results – When we think of business results and customer experience, business results we cared strongly about at Disney were intent to return and intent to recommend.

It’s a model that I’ve seen applied to successful businesses in almost every industry imaginable. Think of your own favorite companies, and you’ll quickly realize they follow a version of this formula for success. If it works for companies like Amazon, Chick-Fil-a and Disney, it can certainly work for you.

To learn more about Disney’s Formula for Success and Lee’s approach to leadership, tune into the full conversation with Lee here.

David Millay

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