Four Tips I Learned at the Mouse House

When I first joined Disney, after enduring ten interviews over a two-year period and a ten-page psychoanalysis by a Gallup consultant, they finally hired me. My first couple of days were spent at Disney University where I drank the kool-aid, sniffed the pixie-dust and got the microchip planted in my head. During those early days of my career I believe I was singing in my sleep -- "it’s a small world after all." My first assignment was as a sales manager on the Disney Parks & Events Team in Florida which was responsible for organizing private corporate events. I didn’t care what they asked me to do; I was just happy to be inside the Magic Kingdom. It was the coolest job. I learned a ton about food and beverage, logistics, transportation, and entertainment. As one of the team members, we sold the magic, and the operations team delivered the dream. There were times when I was clueless, but it was truly on-the-job training.

I had big plans when I joined Disney, and I wanted to make my mark as quickly as possible. Here are a few ideas that have shaped me as an entrepreneur.

Know yourself and why you are here My first exposure in rubbing shoulders with executive brass was an open-mouth-insert-foot moment. I was invited to have breakfast along with other cast members, or Disney employees, with Al Weiss, President of Walt Disney World Resort.

The invitation said to arrive at one the Disney Resorts at 7:30am. I arrived at 6:45am and noticed that my name card wasn’t next to the president. So, what would you do if you were in my shoes? You guessed it. I switched the name cards so that I could sit next to the most powerful man at Walt Disney World Resort. Was it wrong? Yes. Would I do it again? No way. I had a need to get ahead and make my name known and I wasn’t willing to wait to be discovered.

As breakfast started, Al asked me how I was doing. I said fine and followed up with a question. Later for the nice pleasantries and hollow conversation about sports and the weather as men often do. I asked him, what do I have to do to get ahead here at Disney? He said to me that I needed to know who I was and why I was here. Well, I just gave him the computer screen stare and said thank you. In the back of my mind, I was saying, Seriously? Is that it? I was waiting for some profound Mufasa wisdom, something to help both Simba and myself. I nodded and said thank you.

It took almost ten years to comprehend what he was really saying. I may have been slow, but I am worth waiting on. His statement to me simply meant the greatest disappointment in life is not death. The greatest disappointment is being alive and not knowing why. Here I was at the 14th most recognized brand in the world, according to Interbrand, and didn’t have a clue as to why. That day is when I quit doing my normal job and started doing a little more. I had to listen, learn, and lean in. When I left Disney to venture out on my own, I realized that I wasn’t doing it to just make money but also to find the next chapter of meaning.

Create a Personal Board of Directors I was planning to quit Disney after 90 days. I joined them after working in a small company with just 100 employees and was now at the happiest place on Earth with over 55,000 people working within 47 square miles. Being overwhelmed was an understatement. One day, I received a phone call from Janis Petrie, the Disney recruiter who was instrumental in hiring me. She wanted to see how I was doing. I told her that I was planning to quit. She then said to me that everything I needed to succeed at Disney was not written in the employee handbook.

She made it her mission to ensure that I stayed at Disney. That’s when she introduced me to two executives, Brad Rex and Jim Lewis. They took me under their wings and unbeknownst to them, they became the first members of my Personal Board of Directors. We would meet for breakfast or lunch at least four times per year, and I had to give them a quarterly update of my progress. They would give me a sneak peek into what they were working on and swear me to secrecy. During one of our meetings, Jim shared with me what it was like to make a presentation to Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney. They were family guys and constantly reminded me that you could aspire to build a better career and not lose your family in the process.

My Personal Board of Directors, or PBD for short, has since expanded post-Disney to include men and women who are diverse in their thinking. One of those individuals is Joel Novak, a retired investment banker who continues to teach me the ways of navigating the oceans of business.

Seek out Stretch Assignments One day during my seven-year tenure with Disney, my then-manager, Wendy Snelson, told me that her boss wanted to meet with me. I met with Tim Hill, and we had a conversation about taking my first leadership role overseeing the Leisure Group sales team that was responsible for procuring international wholesale group contracts. No one wanted the assignment at the time according to the word on the street. Tim never said it, but for some reason, it really didn’t matter. I just wanted a shot.

Well, I took over the team that had a “bad news bears” halo over it. I had never led a team ever before, but I believed that I understood people. This new assignment required interacting with other strategic partners throughout Disney and required international travel. Growing up in Buffalo, New York, going to school in Atlanta, and relocating to Florida, I had never left the comfortable shores of the USA and certainly didn’t have a passport. Well, this leadership assignment stretched me, expanded my thinking, and exposed me to the global world. My first trip was to Brazil. I quickly learned how to say Obrigado (thank you).

Today, as an entrepreneur, I have worked with organizations on six continents, and I’ve learned that to survive overseas, you must think and be willing to act like a cheetah. Be flexible. Be nimble. And be willing to shift gears. As an emerging leader, be uncomfortable being comfortable. Jason Lauritsen says “Feeling uninformed is uncomfortable. Feeling inadequate or under-skilled is uncomfortable. Feeling like you are going to be exposed for these things is really uncomfortable. And yet, that’s when our brains respond, and our learning accelerates.

Customer Love is a Mindset When you call Walt Disney World’s main phone number, the operator says thank you for calling Disney and, at the end of the call, she will say "have a magical day.” I never quite understood this until it uploaded into my microchip the power of creating a magic moment.

The reason it took Disney two years to hire me was to ensure they knew that I had the right mindset. They wanted me to understand that customer service may have been a department in my previous job. But, here at Disney, customer love or what they might call guest love was a mindset. That’s why Gallup says that human decision making is 70% emotional and 30% rational. It was this emotional connection that was Disney’s secret sauce and, as a cast member, I needed to understand that.

As an entrepreneur, I now realize that you must hire for attitude and train for success. Training doesn’t always fix what human resources doesn’t catch during the interviewing process. A person can have stellar credentials but be emotionally clueless when it comes to people. In fact, the authors of the book Firms of Endearment – How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose say “keeping customers coming back, again and again, boils down to the 'wow' index of their experiences. How they feel usually has more binding power than how they think. Customer loyalty is like love: It grows not from reason but from the heart.”

I had a blast at Disney until I committed career suicide. One day I received a call from a journalist from Florida Business Trend Magazine. Well, Mickey Mouse rule #1 is that you never talked to the media unless authorized. Well, I wasn’t authorized, and I decided to talk to the media.

The journalist said to me where did I see myself 10-15 years from now, and I said I saw myself as the Chairman & CEO of the Walt Disney Company and eventually the President & CEO of the Walt Disney World Resort. At the time, I was a naive sales director of Disney Institute who was buried deep under the Magic Kingdom, making less than $80,000 per year, no stock options, and somehow high on pixie dust to even think that I could lead the entire Disney company.

I now realize that it was a mistake and I should have made an impact in the role I had instead of seeking something that was totally out of my grasp. This lesson has served me well as an entrepreneur -- to understand not to bite off more than I can chew.

As I look back over my seven amazing years with Disney, I realize that distance gives perspective. I learned many lessons during my tenure at Disney. As I reflect, I now realize that leadership is the right activity at the right time for the right reason and has nothing to do with achieving a position. I believe that as an emerging leader, one can become intoxicated with the vertical ascension of one’s career and lose sight daily, executing important tasks on a horizontal level.

As businesses globally are transforming and adapting at the speed of light, emerging leaders are being invited to evaluate their aspirations for capturing the brass ring. In my formative years at Disney, I realize that I was preoccupied with impressing people in authority instead of producing work that left an indelible imprint. If you are an emerging leader, listen up, surrounding yourself with men and women who understand the culture of your company, how to execute most effectively, and stay on the cutting edge, will accelerate you faster than anything else.

I wish that I had an emerging leader whisperer twenty years ago that could’ve opened my head and inserted the microchip on how to lead brilliantly. Well, I am sharing with you to collapse timeframes in your learning curves and increase your chances to see emerging leadership differently and lead your field of endeavor.