My life at Walt Disney World started with an endurance test. After 10 interviews over a two-year period and a probing, extensive psychoanalysis, I was finally hired. The first couple of days were spent immersed in the Disney culture, and I often found myself humming “It’s a small world after all” in my sleep.
I had big plans when I joined Disney -- or the Mouse House, as we called it -- and wanted to make my mark quickly. Here are four of the keys that I acquired during my tenure at Disney that proved to be instrumental in my development as an entrepreneur.
1. Know yourself and why you’re here. At my first opportunity to rub shoulders with the executive brass, I asked Al Weiss, then-president of Walt Disney World Resort, what I would need to do get ahead in the company. He said, “You need to know who you are and why you’re here.” Seriously? Was that it?
It took years to comprehend fully what Al said, but I finally got it. Essentially, the greatest disappointment in life is not death -- it’s being alive and not knowing why. I had to admit that while I was working for one of the top global brands, I didn’t have a clue why. That’s when I quit my job (figuratively) and went to work on the reason I was there. Years later, when I ventured out on my own, I was ready not only to make money, but also to find the next chapter of meaning and answer a new “why.”
2. Create a personal board of directors. I planned to quit working for Disney after just 90 days. I had gone from a small company with 100 employees to the happiest place on Earth with over 55,000 people -- to say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. When my recruiter learned of my plans, she made it her mission to ensure that I stayed with the company and quickly introduced me to two executives -- Brad Rex and Jim Lewis -- who took me under their wings.
Brad and Jim became the first members of my personal board of directors. We would have meetings at least four times per year in which I would update them on my progress. They taught me how to survive at the Mouse House. I would suggest that you find three to five key relationships that will hold you accountable to ensure you build a life, and not just make a living.
3. Seek out stretch assignments. Several years in, I became the sales director of a team that no one else wanted. I was scared to death. As an entrepreneur, you must be uncomfortable with being comfortable to make an impact.
As author Jason Lauritsen puts it, “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.”
4. Customer love is a mindset. Every call to Walt Disney World’s main phone number ends with the operator wishing the caller to “Have a magical day.” I never quite understood this until I grasped the power of creating a magical moment.
Disney took two years to hire me to ensure that I had the right mindset -- I had to understand that at Disney, customer love is a mindset. Human decision-making is 70 percent emotional, according to a Gallup study. This emotional connection is Disney’s secret sauce, and as a cast member, that is something I needed to understand.
I realize now that you must hire for attitude and train for success. A person can have stellar credentials but be emotionally clueless when it comes to people.
“How they feel usually has more binding power than how they think,” according to the authors of Firms of Endearment. “Customer loyalty is like love: It grows not from reason but from the heart.”
At Disney, I made mistakes, learned lessons, came to know my passions and developed a close network to support my future, all of which has served me well as an entrepreneur. Whatever house you’re in -- whether the Mouse House, White House or Waffle House -- be sure to acquire and use the right keys.