How Disney gets its 'hi-ho' worker enthusiasm

  • Article by: CLAUDIA BUCK , Sacramento Bee
  • Updated: April 3, 2013 - 11:30 PM
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Doug Lipp is a former Disney employee who now runs a consulting business and is the author of "Disney U." He shows some of the Disney memorabilia at his home in Fair Oaks, Calif.

Photo: Renee C. Byer , Sacramento Bee/MCT

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“What would Walt do?”

For decades, that was the magic, pixie-dust question that permeated the Walt Disney empire of animated cartoons, films, toys and theme parks.

As the creator and visionary behind the brand, he worked hard to ensure that Disneyland’s guests felt ensconced in the “Happiest Place on Earth.”

But it didn’t happen at the touch of a fairy godmother’s wand. Behind the fantasy world, Disney laid out a serious training program for ensuring upbeat, friendly, customer-focused employees who could “create happiness” on the job.

That training program, launched in early 1955 as Disneyland was hiring for its Anaheim, Calif., opening, eventually became officially known as “Disney University.”

Today, it’s offered to Disney employees worldwide, as well as to outside companies through the Disney Institute in Florida.

But that training is also spread by former Disney execs like Doug Lipp, a Fair Oaks, Calif.-based business consultant. He travels the globe, from Denver to Dubai, conducting Disney-style leadership and customer service training for CEOs and employees of Fortune 500 firms, universities, hospitals and other businesses.

In his new book, “Disney U,” which debuted last month, Lipp details how Disney University got its start and the secrets to its success. Part memoir, part management bible, it’s based on interviews with 25 former Disney executives.

What’s made Disney’s management style so envied around the world?

“It’s a balance of head and heart. It’s a balance of rides that don’t break down and Snow White never has a bad day,” said Lipp, 57, who works and writes from his home office.

In other words, all the technological details of running a theme park — or any business — need to be in place, along with engaged employees whose positive outlook extends to every customer interaction.

Lipp left Disney more than 20 years ago to go into private consulting. But his years at Disney — he was first hired as an interpreter for Japanese officials planning the first international Disney theme park in Tokyo — left an indelible imprint.

In Lipp’s book, he details many of the initiatives that “Disney U” embraces.

For example, Disney, who died of lung cancer at age 65 in 1966, was known for strolling the grounds to talk with employees. On one occasion, he showed up at the Fantasyland gondola ride, where an 18-year-old ride operator was loading passengers. Disney had a question: “How would you improve this ride?” The startled worker answered candidly: The gondola rooftops were too low and guests frequently hit their heads when trying to enter the cars.

Based on that chat, the gondola ceiling heights got changed, Lipp said, and the worker got promoted.

Many corporate CEOs, said Lipp, forget they need to get out of their offices and walk their workplaces, interacting with employees and customers.

“A lot of business leaders confide in me they don’t go out and ‘walk the park.’ They know they should but aren’t compelled because of ego, pride or other factors.”

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