Disney Shares Its Secret Sauce: Can Dealerships Benefit From the House of Mouse’s Playbook on Culture?

Since its founding in 1923, The Walt Disney Company has had a uniquely powerful, some might even say magical influence on America and the world. Almost 100 years later, in 2016, it was named “the world’s most powerful brand” by brand valuation and strategy consultancy Brand Finance. With the growth of online giants like Amazon and Google, it still ranks 25 on that same list today and is moving up.

Last year, Disney was named the world’s 14th most valuable brand by 24/7 Wall Street, just behind BMW and IBM. Watch Disney hold its own with the biggest brands in the world in this gif of the changing Top 15 Best Global Brands from 2000 to 2018.

Can this century-long success story be attributed to Walt Disney’s vision to create the happiest place on Earth? If so, is there anything to be learned from his approach?

Walt knew from day one that in order to achieve his dream, he had to give as much attention to employees (“actors,” he called them) as to customers (“guests”).

Like dealership employees, Disney actors experience long hours (especially in the company’s early years), weekend work, and a lot of customer face time. Disney’s solution to happy employees, as laid out in Doug Lipps’s recent book Disney U: How Disney University Develops the World’s Most Engaged, Loyal, and Customer-Centric Employees, involved three main components: training, communication, and trust.

Training: The ‘Human Architect,’ and Disney University Keeps the Excitement Going

There is more flexibility today in creating employee titles at work. Apple has geniuses, and many companies have a Director of First Impressions, a Head of Futuring, or the like. This can be very empowering for employees. Walt Disney might have been ahead of the trend on this one.

When preparing to open Disneyland in 1955 in Anaheim, Calif., he hired not only theme park architects, but also a “human architect,” Van France, to focus on shaping the employee experience.

France’s plan included in-depth new-hire training that focused on educating employees from day one and could be summed up in the message, “We take care of the cast, the cast takes care of our guests, and our business thrives.”

Disneyland got off to a very strong start, but after seven years morale did begin to dip, as can happen with new ventures. The team realized that new-hire training wasn’t enough. Disney University was born out of the desire to keep all employees trained and engaged throughout all company changes.

Photo courtesy Orange County Archives

 Jim Cora, a trainer with Disney for 43 years, said: “Marketing is the time and money you spend to get people in the door. Training is the investment you make to get guests to come back and cast members to stay; it creates loyalty. … I never canceled a training program if it helped our show.”

Van France also developed four “circumstances,” as he called them, which were basically company values. These are innovation, organizational support, education, and entertain. He and the team were building a legacy to last.

Communication: Data-Driven Change

Following a lot of solid success, a second round of burnout began to appear about a decade following the founding of Disney University. Walt Disney World had recently opened in Florida, requiring an immense amount of planning and workforce.

The team dove deep into solving the newly emerging problem of employee discontent.

Top executives walked the park almost daily to talk to cast members and get a feel for the environment. They held meetings involving members from every business unit, with an aim to move from “silos to synergy.” They would need further data from the source: employees themselves.

Surveys were sent out to all employees, and changes were made based on feedback. This began the company’s strong focus on internal communication, something that has added exponentially to Disney’s success. As they put it, they had been solely “external customer”-focused, but now were “internal customer”-focused too.

Professional development was offered to all employees at all levels. Support and recreational and social opportunities grew for cast members, such as the addition of a day care center (in 1972 – again, ahead of the times) and of an onsite gas station offering low gas prices. Disney U staff and division HR managers designed creative ways to connect with employees, including via whimsical billboards, upgraded break areas, and weekly informational videos broadcast on TVs in the break rooms.

It worked. In just two years, employee retention jumped from 17 to 72 percent!

Trust: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

There is great comfort and inspiration in this feeling of close human relationships and its bearing on our mutual fortunes – a powerful force to overcome the ‘tough breaks’ which are certain to come for most of us from time to time.

Walt Disney

Trust is another hallmark of Disney’s success.

Having received exceptional training, open communication, and feedback-influenced upgrades, employees could be given trust to make the best decisions regarding customer service, Disney’s executives understood.

Disneyland® Resort in California

Regular fun activities is another perk hard-working employees are rewarded with. The Disneyland Recreation Club got its start organizing a bowling league, an art club, and the annual employee Christmas party. Minnie’s Moonlight Madness, an after-hours event inside the park combining elements of a scavenger hunt and a trivia game, typically hosts over 300 teams of four people (one of whom must be a current employee). The teams answer questions about Disney history, theme parks, television shows, and movies during the three-hour marathon. The annual Disneyland Masquerade Ball is another employee-favorite activity. 

The popular “Disney VoluntEARS” is available as the corporate philanthropy program.

Dealership Takeaway

If dealerships want to share in a little of Disney’s secret sauce, it wouldn’t be difficult. Most already have strong values supporting both the community and employees – why not revisit these values, clarify them, and communicate them?

Social media makes it easy to share your values. And AutoAlert’s Pando communication and collaboration tool is perfect for establishing open internal communication with and among your team. It gives your employees the best way to stay connected while also providing them opportunities for increased sales and improved customer connections. Training is a breeze with Pando too.

You can even conduct surveys on it and implement feedback-based change, leaving nobody left out.

With values solidified and communication strengthened, trust between employer and employee becomes so much easier. Walt would agree: This makes your dealership a happy place to be.

We want to know … what’s worked best for your dealership in creating happy employees?

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