#3: Disney Management Magic with Lee Cockerell

Professor Scott Davis chats with Lee Cockerell, one of Walt Disney World's all-time influential leaders, for his perspective on time management, career change, and service quality. This episode is intended for students of marketing, early-career managers, and aspirant business leaders.

Video of Scott's Interview with Lee Cockerell

Podcast Audio of Scott's Interview with Lee Cockerell

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Transcript of Scott's Interview with Lee Cockerell

Scott: Lee, thank you so much for joining us. I know your time is so valuable and it's a real honor for us to have you share knowledge with my students and with me, so just thank you for being here.

Lee: Thank you, it's good to be with you. I love to talk to students, they're our only hope for the future.

Scott: That's absolutely right. Thank you. Just to start with some background, I first met Lee when I was working as an intern in media communications at Walt Disney World at what was at the time Disney's MGM studios and I believe now it's the Hollywood Studios. At that time Lee was the Executive Vice President of Operations, he oversaw I think about 40,000 employees or, as we called them with Disney, Cast Members and Lee was involved in a… or he started a really cool project called the Main Street Diary which was used for internal marketing to those Cast Members and I had the privilege of helping Lee with some of the design and formatting way back in 2000/2001… it was, so that was a really nice experience for me and I was always struck by the positivity, Lee, and the wisdom in your messages in that Main Street Diary. So, I want to start the interview there talking about internal marketing a little bit.

So, at the university, especially at the MBA level, we are training future managers who are eventually going to be responsible for employees often for the very first time, so I wanted to ask you what makes an organization, or even an individual manager, great at training, motivating, and empowering employees through internal marketing?

Lee: Well yeah, I think you know we underestimate the impact of communication and making sure everybody feels special and making sure everybody matters and they know they matter. Sometimes we get so involved in just doing our business that we forget it's all about people, whether it’s students or whether it's our Guests or whether it's our Cast Members, really at the end of the day, your people are your brand and we want them to be on their best foot and every Guest that comes to Disneyworld, 52 million now a year, they will have many interactions over the week and when they leave their total evaluation of Disney World will be those interactions they had with maybe a hundred different Cast Members. And so we want them to be feeling good about what they do, we want them to feel respected and included and involved and listened to… their pending counts, and when we do that they take care of the Guests because they want to not because they have to, and we don't want people doing things because somebody's looking over their shoulder or the boss is around or supervisors. We want people to be proud of what they do and so we do a lot of good things. So we pick the right people, we train them and we try to create a culture where they matter and they know it, so that's kind of how we think about it.

Scott: That's great and you were the, as I mentioned, the Executive Vice President of Operations and I always thought it was so cool how you would make these connections with the Cast Members who were on the front lines. I know that, even though it might seem small to some people, you would do things like… When I left Disney World you actually signed my going-away poster and that's just something that's stuck with me, you know, all the way back from 2000, I still have that poster hanging in my office and I think even before Disney when you were at Marriott, didn't you do some things to get out there and interact with employees? And at the time I think it was a little bit unconventional for management to do that.

Lee: Well, I did because I grew up in the business, you know, I dropped out of college after two years so I shouldn't be telling your students that but yeah I went in the Army. I've been a cook, I've been a dishwasher, I've done housekeeping, I've done all those jobs. So, I'm very comfortable out in the operation. I think a lot of people don't go out because they're uncomfortable. They don't really understand the business deep enough. Maybe too many financial people or too many just marketing but they don't really understand the depth of the business and I like it. I'm out there and I think really the employees and Cast Members in organizations they want to see you, they want to know what you want, and if you can explain that to them. They'll do… I tell people raise your expectations and then communicate them and people are willing to do whatever you want. Well, if so many managers just don't know what they want, so they don’t tell them and so they hide up in their office. So yeah, I love to be out and about to find out what's really going on because the truth is out there and I need to know what it is.

Scott: Right-right, yeah, I thought that was just so cool that you would walk around the parks and now I think it's commonplace now, right, at Walt Disney World for management and upper management to take time to get out there into the theme parks and interact with the Cast.

Lee: Well it is, but you know you’ve got to remember life can be stressful and get a hold of you and all of a sudden you don't. If you're not careful and you don't schedule it, you'll find yourself… a month goes by and you haven't been out there again, so you got to really schedule it in your planner and force yourself to keep those appointments because life can consume you before you can even get out of your office.

Scott: Right, absolutely, so since you mentioned the planner I want to jump into to time management a little bit. So, I'm working with students who are typically managing a number of different responsibilities. School is just one part of their life right now. Many of them are managing jobs and careers. All of them are managing families and their personal well-being and of course you've put a lot of thought and effort into time management. You even wrote a book called “Time Management Magic,” so I thought I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to pick your brain on this topic.

What advice do you have, and I know this is a big high-level question, but what advice do you have to help students manage their time during this really challenging part of their life?

Lee: I think the reason they don't do it very well is because somehow we're not teaching this in high school and middle school and college. We're teaching people a lot of stuff but we're not teaching them how do you get it all done. How do you set the priorities in your life and the more and more responsibilities you have in your life. You know, when you're single and going to college okay that's one thing, your big deal is to go to class do your work, graduate. But later on then you get married or have a partner and then that gets complicated, then you have children and there's a soccer game, your mother-in-law’s flying in on Saturday, it's Christmas your boss has a report he wants to do, and it becomes overwhelming. And there's a lot of anxiety today with a lot of people that are really suffering from this kind of stress on their time and you got to sit back and if anybody reads that book, my time management book, it's a little thin book and it's very… it'll change the way you think about it because we only know what we know and people will tell you they don't have a system for keeping their life under control. They have systems at work, they have you know policies procedures operating guidelines at work, but then they turn around in their whole life they do a better job at work than they do at home, than they do it in their personal life, and you got to learn it. It's like math, it's like science, it's like chemistry. It's a course. You learn it, you implement, it becomes the way you work, and all of a sudden you start to get results that were you didn't believe you could get going in. In fact, you didn't even know you should be doing them. There's a lot of things in your life you're not putting enough time against, it's going to bite you when you get older when you wish you had done this and wish you had done that and life goes by pretty fast. I've come to a new conclusion there's only like four ages, you're born, you're 21, you're 60, and your dead, so you better get on it.

Scott: You still carry the hard copy of your planner with you every day?

Lee: Yeah, I do and the reason I, even in my book and on my timeline, this course that we have online it's… we have a module in there about how to use a pocket DayTimer or planner and we have also one in there, a module about how to use your electronic device, your smartphone whatever, but I've found that the hardcopy still is best for planning. I use everything else with my phone but for the planning and my task list, what I should work on today, this week, this month, this year. I find it much more reliable to have that planner and so I can usually go and check something before most people can turn their phone on. I get caught with places, I mean, I'm really not very often… I'll get caught with a battery problem 4% left,  6% left, I'm on a plane I can't get a charger because I'm not in first class and so you just got to think about the practicality but it doesn't matter what you use if it works. The key is does it work for you or are you kidding yourself?

Scott: I like that you have the tangible planner because it's that reminder as well right because it's easy if you track everything in in Google Calendar or one of these apps to just ignore it, and if you ignore it for too long, then it slips out of being a habit and I know that from personal experience and it's tough to kind of get back into that routine of adding everything into your daily planner, so I like that you use the DayTimer.

Alright Lee, one of my… and I don't know if you use this terminology, but one of my favorite areas of marketing is clue management probably because my dissertation adviser Len Berry did a lot of work in that area, and the idea is that the very best service organizations consciously manage the clues to quality that customers encounter during the experience, and you always struck me as kind of an expert in managing customers’ emotional perceptions of quality even if you didn't use that specific clue management terminology.

So in terms of managing how customers come in contact with the experience through the five senses, how they come in contact with the experience probably most importantly based on those frontline cast members or employees and their behaviors and their appearance, their tone of voice their body language things like that, they really they take this big experience, something like you know I'm taking a vacation at Walt Disney World, how do I evaluate the quality of that experience? And of course they're doing it through all these little touch points, you mentioned interactions with Cast Members are really going to shape that experience.

And so, can you describe things that you've done to help manage clues for Disney and maybe even for Marriott… ways that you've used observation to kind of find areas that need improvement or could be enhanced and then take action on them?

Lee: Sure I mean, I think maybe because I am comfortable in operations even when I was a Marriott or Hilton, I was still out and about, you know, I inspected rooms every day to make sure they were spotless and clean and smelled good. I walked the operation every day three times when I ran a hotel top-to-bottom to make sure I had a good contact and good relationship with the employees in the hotel so they would help me run it. They didn't see me once a month, they saw me every day at least once or twice and I think I traveled for ten years going to hotels and restaurants for Marriott and I knew more about hotels, not because I ran one, because I checked into them. And what do you want when you get to hotel? You want your room, you don't want to have a conversation all night with the attendant and then you want it clean and you want it reliable and credible and when they say they're going to open at 6 o'clock for breakfast, they're open and you know cleanliness and friendliness, and so from a perspective I think more people need to go out and try their own business and see if can you can you even do business with yourself.

Call your business and see how they answer the phone, you know, don't be remote don't have your secretary make calls for you, make them yourself and you'll get a wake-up call that would be frightening. First of all, you're the president of the company they don't even know who you are let alone what you do and what's going on and so you've got to love your business, you’ve got to be out in it, you've got to talk to customers who are really mad at you. Don't delegate it, don't tell your secretary to tell people you're in a meeting, you're not available. No! You’ve got to get the emotion of this thing and everything matters that's what I'll just tell you. If you want to be ordinary, nothing matters. If you want to be great, everything matters, from the parking lot, walking in the front door, to the nametag to the lighting to the music, to the smells to the sounds, to the waiter not having knowledge, to the bathrooms being clean, everything. But if you want to be average, you don't have to do everything, you can just let it go so you got to decide. It's a mindset. I pay particular attention to details because I guarantee you if Walt Disney taught us one thing: attention to detail. Everything matters. Authentic. Fantasy is real. Reality is fantastic. It's clean, it's right, the bushes are not dead, there's no cigarettes on the floor, you know, just the basics… that's why people say Disney's different in any place in the world because it is and any business could do this if they want to, that's the problem, a lot of them don't believe it but they can.

Scott: Yes, yeah and I remember even when I started on the college program and I was a cashier, or you know Disney calls it Merchantainer, I worked at the Island Mercantile at Disney's Animal Kingdom and I still remember our store managers would occasionally say things like someone from upper management's coming by today, so we need to make the battery display look perfect or we need to make the t-shirt section look perfect and the funny thing was that they were already perfect. This mindset had been kind of engrained in them as store managers and in us as that frontline group.

So, there was this this momentary wave of panic that you know Lee, or more likely you know someone a couple levels below you, was going to swing by the shop today announced. Sometimes it was unannounced, so we had to get everything right but it was already right because it was part of the culture…

Lee: Nothing to worry about.

Scott: Well, maybe a little bit to worry about, but not but not as much certainly as other organizations that I'd go on the work for so that always really stuck with me from Disney and even at the very beginning in that training that everyone goes through with Traditions, just really making you believe in Disney Magic, right, and not just teaching you how to work the cash register but teaching you how to be a part of this culture. It's very enduring and it and these are things that I would go on to tell my future managers about and my future employees about and now I talk to my students all the time about Disney even though I'm now sixteen years removed from my Disney experience.

Lee: The key, really you know the key is having high expectations and some people say well what do you mean. I say well I mean do you think your parents have high expectations for you, do you have high expectations for your children? That's what it feels like, you'll go all the way and that's what we try to create at Disney high expectations and people are happy to step up and they're proud to do a great job, and I guarantee you people love to have Disney on their resume because everybody they show it to is going to say oh I know this person knows how to do it right and so  it's got a lot of pluses for Disney and for people working there.

Scott: Right and it's amazing how even as your career progresses when I was interviewing for positions as a professor in those interviews people would inevitably still ask me about Disney and what it was like to work the cash register or work on websites for Walt Disney World, so it's very cool and obviously the reputation, right, it precedes you in the interview.

Lee: Yeah it does, yeah very good.

Scott: So Lee, I want to touch on another area where you have some expertise and I think you've even written a book on this area but many of our students are either going through or they'll soon be going through a big career transition. So can you share some thoughts with us on how to be and project your best self in the job market and how to manage going through this grueling process of searching for a job and sitting through interviews?

Lee: Yeah. I wrote that book it's called “Career Magic” and it really kind of exposes students and young people or really any age to the reality that you're going to face obstacles and there are certain things that you should be doing. There's things you shouldn't be doing and how you look matters, how you speak matters, are you up-to-date on what's going on in the world, do you read the papers, do you watch the right news channels, do you… are you comfortable in a situation, can you sit and talk to somebody about what you can bring to the company and that's why I think for you for instance when you worked at Disney then you could all of a sudden say, well here onboarding training is really important, hiring the right people is vital, then training and then I think the talking about being able to create a culture and an environment where the Cast Members and employees of the company want to do a great job, and be an expert on the company before you go for an interview, know what's going on, know what they're known… I would, look you know with Google you have no excuse for not being an expert on that company before you go in there. Be on time, be early actually, don't be late. Be comfortable, be yourself and make sure you know what you believe about leadership. What do you believe about management? Do you understand what management is that it's actually the act of controlling, when you're a manager you're supposed to keep things under control and when you're a leader you're supposed to be doing hard things, having hard discussions, making hard decisions being ethical, honest, reputation, people trust in you, you got it. I think you’ve got to understand those things real deeply so that they pop out of your mouth because it's who you are and if you can't talk about leadership behaviors and expectations or management techniques and how you organize your day, how you make sure you get everything done so they can always depend… you're dependable, you keep your promises, you do what say you're going to do, you're reliable, you're credible, these are the kind of things that…

Let me tell you, if you go in there and you really… I tell me you ought to study these books, they ought to listen to my podcast because it's free. They don’t even have to buy a book. Creating Disney Magic podcast because once it's in your brain, it will come out of your mouth when you need it and you don't want the wrong things to come out. Like when they say how do you manage your day, you go “oh I just wait ‘til something happens you know.” You better be able to talk about this, how you sit down, you think about yesterday, how you could be better, you think about the future, you think about all the important things in your life, your health, your whatever and then the person sitting in front of you… you're probably being better than they are. They're probably going to learn from you being interviewed that's… you just got to really-really you got to technically know what you're doing so if you're going to be in IT, good, you went to college you're going to learn experience. Second, you’ve got to be able to talk about management this whole thing around time. Organize yourself, getting projects done, being productive. Third, you’ve got to talk about leadership because that's a big deal today. Look at all this things that are happening with this sexual harassment and all these women going to, I mean it's ruining people's lives. It's not what they know that's getting them in trouble, it’s their behavior. Be careful what you say and do and always guard your reputation and those are the kind of things… they should, the person interviewing you probably will say “okay-okay that's enough.”

It's got to pour out of you that you know what you're talking about not just IT because the person interviewing you probably doesn't even understand the IT work, and they want to understand who are you not what you do.

Scott: And those skills like you mentioned they're going to be points of parity, everyone's going to look like you in terms of what IT skills they have if you're applying for this IT position, but what makes you different from everyone else is what they're interested in like you said your leadership philosophies, you know your personal integrity, your particular way of storytelling, this is how you can stand out from the crowd, so I think that's a really valuable lesson.

Lee: And leave your phone in your pocket or turn it off.

Scott:  So then it's also good to have the physical DayTimer with you…

Lee: Yeah and you pull it out… he's taking notes while that person interviewing you is talking to you. “Excuse me I'd like to write some of this down.”

You know I mean the other day, I went to see ARod. He was the graduation speaker for my grandson at the University of Miami and he started giving some great advice and I had my planner out taking notes. My wife said what are you doing? I said I'm capturing this, I'm going to use it in my speeches.

Scott: Right, very good and I and you mentioned your podcast which is also incredible so I’ll be sure to share the links to your blog and your podcast and with my students as well.

Lee: Yeah sure.

Scott: Like you said free resources and…

Lee: Free! The Internet's full of them. You have no excuse for not filling in any knowledge gap you have in your life. None.

Scott: Right I agree, Lee we so we mentioned that a lot of students are going through career transitions but we also have a good group of students who are either entrepreneurs or they're aspiring entrepreneurs and of course you've developed your own consulting company Lee Cockerell LLC, so I wanted to ask if you have any specific advice on marketing your own business and maybe some challenges you ran into with that.

Lee: Yeah, well I retired after 42 years and so I started this little business and the first thing I did is set up a website because I need a place for people to go to know who I am. So they could go there and listen to me speaking, they could look at my… I started a blog early on I didn't have a podcast and actually I didn't even know what a podcast was ‘til three years ago and so that became my brochure if you will. Who I am for my business and it could be changed easily and then I could… I do most of my promotion of my business on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. I keep LinkedIn I would say is 99% of the posts are my blog and my podcast, so people want to go to my… they don't go there and they don't hear me Lee Cockerell talking about brushing his teeth or going to Starbucks for coffee, it's about business and I make those places and Twitter too and then Facebook, I'll have a more personal things on there but again all my podcasts go on there. My courses, my books, stories from the newspaper today that relate to one of my books, and so I think you’ve got to sit and think what are you going to do, why are you doing this, what do you want, who's going to be your customer, and so mine is my website… this leadership management and customer service lessons in leadership management and customer service that's what I do. If you want me to talk about Finance, no I don't do that. I don't talk about marketing. I don't talk about… that's my spot and then people say well how can you say you're expert in time management, Lee. I said because I know more than you do about it. I'm an expert, I've been doing it for 35 years and I can teach you how to do it, but so I think you got to be relentless, I don't have anybody working for me I answer my own phone, I answer my emails, I don't want any humans involved in me because that creates problems and issues. And I love it and I learn a lot too so when I speak, I go to the meeting early so I sit in the whole day before I speak so I learn a lot of things too and then I can say well now I'm an expert in law enforcement because I've been sitting in with the sheriffs.

So it's just, I guess the big thing, you better love what you do or you're not going to be successful. You got to love it and if you don't love it, I tell graduates you can make mistakes for the first 10 years, you know. Change jobs if you hate your work, you don't like it go do something else, but don't get a wife, a mortgage and kids before you know what you like to do because you get stuck. Yeah all of a sudden you can't move you can't sell the house, the kids are in school, you want to really… the biggest mistake people make is they're doing things they don't love and then they're miserable and they do it for 40 years and it affects your health, your attitude, it affects the people you're around. Can you imagine if you didn't love what you were doing, how the students would be affected? They would… and I meet a lot of professors that, I don't know what their problem is they don't like students, you don't like students are in the wrong business. If you don't, if you don't like kids don't have them, you know. So that's the kind of advice I give. Love what you do, get into it, and for me it was being available.

I moved 11 times, I go where the opportunities are. We've moved all over the world, we've had fun, we've had exposure and experience. That's the name of the game, exposure and experience, that's what I would tell them and then check… Everybody that does what you're trying to do you check them every week, you check their websites, you make sure they don't have any new ideas you don't know about, and then be great, you know? Just be better than everybody else that's what you got to do and that's hard.

Scott: Yes, yeah, it's tremendous advice because we and I usually run a class on personal branding and try to tie in some marketing concepts into not just career improvement but also life improvement and for some of that I lean on some other leadership consultants like Marcus Buckingham and talking about playing to your strengths rather than spending your whole life getting bogged down in weakness fixing. And I think that's really what you're speaking to here with, you know, don't get into this career that you hate just because there's, you know, some dollar amount at the end of the rainbow because ultimately you'll be miserable and you probably won't be very good at it, and that's all going to be projected to your co-workers, your employees and your customers.

Lee: And we see that with young people coming up now they want to do things that make a difference. I see it with my grandkids, they are into what they want to do not how much money they're going to make if they're making a difference.

I got a grandson just graduated with biomedical engineering and he wants to work on robotics. He wants to invent things, he doesn't even think about salary. I think he gets so inspired when he creates a little improvement in a medical pump, I mean so that's loving what you do and I'm… I watch him and I'm jealous of him sometimes, he really he knows what he wants and it's not money and fame. It's just doing a good job for people so that's great.  The younger generation’s going to be better than we think.

Scott: Right, I agree and I think that typically, not always, but typically the money follows if you have your path where you have passion and interest and if the money doesn't follow hopefully at least happiness does, right?

Lee: Well, when you're better than everybody else, the money will follow.

Scott: Right-right

Lee: If you're the expert.

Scott: Great, that's tremendous.

Lee thank you so much for all the advice and for chatting with us and I know we've just gotten kind of some small nuggets of information from these big areas where you're an expert, so I'm going to be sure to share as many resources as I possibly can to give my students more exposure to the incredible work.

Lee: Thank you.

Scott: You're a very inspiring person, like I still have that poster on the wall probably in part because you were willing to sign it for me even though I was just an intern.

Lee: There you go, and fifteen years later paid off for me so.

Scott: But I'm so excited to share this interview with my students and with my LinkedIn connections and I hope that we can touch base again in the near future.

Lee: Sure, any time. Happy to do it.