Starting at the top is essential, but you need the right mix of people within your firm to really be successufl. Disney calls this “cast excellence.” The corporate culture at Disney is, by design, well-defined, clear to all, and goal-oriented. It can seem challenging to implement this at a law firm, but I’ve seen it done (take a look at our member firm in Australia, Hall & Wilcox, with their emphasis on Smarter Law). Jeff Williford of the Disney Institute challenged firms to think about their corporate culture, and whether the existing culture is what they want – internal branding is important, as is communicating your culture up front and early.

If you communicate your culture up-front, others can make the decision if they want to engage with you or not.  For example – Disney doesn’t allow anyone with visible tattoos or mohawks to work there, and they communicate that early so people can self-select out. Similarly, Hall & Wilcox has a transparent culture of collaboration and community, with a fully open plan in their offices – when you interview, you know right away whether that’s something that would work for you or not.

Williford challenged us to think about some questions as part of our organization’s culture:

  • How are you communicating your culture to potential hires?
  • What are your firm’s non-negotiables?
  • Can people self-select out?  
  • Do people really know who you are before you apply?

Williford said that at Disney, one of their non-negotiables is friendliness – if they have two equally qualified people, they will hire the nicer person.  Did you smile during the interview? No matter what job you have at Disney, you’ll come into contact with somebody.  So they hire attitude versus aptitude – similarly, clients hire attorneys they know, like and trust. Aptitude is teachable; attitude is not. This will differ for your firm based on what your non-negotiables are though, which is why it’s essential that those are defined up front.

Disney has four key strategies for selecting their cast:

  1. Communicate your culture.
  2. State non-negotiables up front.
  3. Treat applicants as guests.
  4. Hire attitude versus aptitude.

#3 is particularly interesting here as it pertains to law firms – do you treat all of your new team members, from professional staff to associates to laterals, as you would a client of the firm? It sounds extreme, but there are real examples of how this works successfully in corporate cultures. Disney is one, Zappos is another – when you treat your team members well, each and every one of them, you create rabid loyalty among them and a passionate desire to extend that to the firm’s clients.

Once Disney has hired someone, they conducts an orientation, called “traditions” for all of their people to show them what they’re all about. Those in the classes are from all positions at Disney – everyone takes the same classes. Disney also does a cast member survey every year and has monthly meetings with them – how often do you meet with your team?

Disney’s key strategies for communication include:

  • Soliciting information from everyone
  • Showing individuals how they contribute
  • Meeting diverse communication needs

Williford says it’s essential to find your key messages and repeat them.  Ask how teammates want to be recognized – this can influence their experience, and subsequently, the guests’. Once again, this is about the value being placed on the experience of your team members, which further engages them in the success of the firm and makes them want to share that experience and value with clients.

Disney’s key strategies for care are:

  • Treat employees like customers
  • Promote a supportive environment
  • Recognize employees

Leaders go out into the parks and look for cast members doing something right – they then recognize those employees.  How can you do this within your own firm?  This makes employees feel as though they are a part of the success – and they are.

Williford showed several videos during his presentation, but one with cast members had a employee comment “Every day I am privileged to have a small part in making someone’s dream come true.” Williford said that even in the legal profession, we “create magic” – how are we making someone’s dreams come true?