Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a keynote session focused around Disney’s approach to business excellence. The recap I shared has been among one of my most popular posts, and the advice provided by Jeff Williford from the Disney Institute proves to be timeless. Despite a changing marketplace, the tenets that underlie their success remain the same – and that’s perhaps why Disney has proven to be so successful in a sustainable way.

I’d like to break down the post into a series to revisit the key points that Jeff raised in his speech, and why they’re still relevant today. Although his presentation was about how Disney creates a truly magical experience, there are a lot of parallels for the legal industry – we’re also a service industry after all!  Any of the particularly important points that relate to law firms will be in bold throughout the post.

He told the audience that Disney employs more than 60,000 people from 65 countries, with 10% of those being interns, and warned us that his presentation on Disney’s approach to business excellence would be like drinking water from a firehose. But he did say that Walt Disney reminded everyone in 1955 that “it all started with a mouse.” (Which inspires me to encourage all of us to think about how and why we got started – where are OUR roots? Who is OUR mouse?)

Part of Disney’s philosophy is to change the language that they use for everything they do – so “customers” are “guests,” “employees” are “cast members,” and they can be “onstage” or “offstage.”  They have a “chain of excellence” with four parts:

  1. Leadership Excellence
  2. Cast Excellence
  3. Guest Satisfaction
  4. Financial Results/Repeat business

Jeff went through these four points to break them down further. In today’s post, we’ll look at leadership excellence.

Leadership Excellence

It all starts with leadership excellence – Disney believes that if their leaders take care of their people, they will, in turn, take care of their guests.  They know that their strongest marketing is all of their customers, and that inspires them – an intent to return is an intent to recommend.  Marketing supports the experience, and the experience is what brings you back. It’s easy to draw the parallels for lawyers and law firms here – the best “marketing” that you do is through word of mouth. Satisfied clients will return to you, AND will share their experience with others who may need your assistance. While it may seem like a reach that you’re going to inspire the same kind of joy in your clients that Disney inspires in their customers, you can certainly imagine that helping your clients through a difficult situation successfully, giving them sound advice, winning a tough litigation for them, etc. will bring them the comfort and security that makes them want to continue to retain you as their lawyer. And while law firms aren’t typically designed around leadership excellence, the changing needs of clients are requiring more and more strong leadership at firms today and we’re seeing that the more successful firms really do start with that leadership excellence.

Woven through everything Disney does is creativity.  Walt Disney once said “Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination” and as you get older it goes away.  Just like a muscle, the imagination grows flabby if not exercised.  Jeff challenged his audience to color outside the lines – find out what makes us excited and inspired.  He also dared us to take notes in crayons at our meetings, saying “We all need to be pulled back to a time when we were imaginative.” This might sound a little bit extreme, but there’s a reason that we feel more inspired at work when we come back from an amazing vacation, or when we start taking a class that’s outside of our comfort zones, or even switch up our routines a bit. When you stretch your imagination in new ways, it impacts you in all areas of your life, including your work, and can re-instill the passion you have for what you do.

Disney has two fundamental beliefs – that everyone is creative and that your ideas are separate from your identity.  Jeff suggested that we think inside the box, and then expand it.  Disney has four sides to their “box:”

  • Vision: What to be
  • Mission: What to do
  • Customer: Who
  • Essence: What to feel

Disney tries to meet their guests at their emotional level – their staff will be excited at park entrances, but more mellow at exits.  They estimate that they have 60 chances a day to make an impression on you – making the right one helps to build relationships.  Each one of those impressions is important because even one bad one will outweigh 59 good ones. How are you meeting your clients at their emotional level? 

Disney’s first marketing triumph is when they changed “Mortimer Mouse” to “Mickey Mouse” – Walt Disney’s wife pointed out to him that when you say Mortimer, your face looks unhappy.  But “Mickey” forces you to smile!  It’s that kind of attention to detail that has made Disney so successful.

Jeff talked a bit about some of Disney’s projects, including their cruise line.  It ended up being a “successful failure,” as he called it, at first because they had partnered with another cruise line and just had their characters on board.  But once people saw their characters, they thought the entire cruise was run by Disney.  Because Disney had no control over the guest service, it wasn’t successful to begin with.  But Disney Cruise Lines recovered when Disney took over the guest experience.

Jeff mentioned that Disney never used to do weddings – but because people wanted to get married there, they would have “stealth” weddings.  The wedding party would hide what they were wearing, go into the Magic Kingdom with the officiant and guests, and try to get their wedding finished before security would stop them.

This taught Disney an important lesson – you have to listen to your clients because they will usually tell you what they want – did the guests really want to get married at the castle, or did they really want a fairytale wedding?  That’s how Disney ended up offering fairytale weddings.

This speaks to Disney’s overall philosophy of the continuous improvement process – listen and learn, measure, act, re-measure, recognize & celebrate, and share. This cycle is always happening and Disney is always asking themselves what they can add that their guests want. Disney isn’t the only one who can benefit from the continuous improvement process – so can the legal industry. Clients have been saying for years that no one is talking to them and asking for their input. While there must be *some* firms that are doing it, it’s obviously not widespread enough to be making an impact on the clients. That’s a huge opportunity to seek more feedback from your clients, from your team, from your peers, to measure that feedback, act on it, measure again, celebrate the wins and share them. And to continue that process repeatedly, so that you can always ensure that you’re providing your clients and your firm with the service and environment that inspires everyone.

Jeff pointed out that your role as a leader is to listen to your cast, your employees.  If people are complaining that it’s a hassle to do business with you, there’s a problem with your process.  Listening and encouraging to your employees really pays off for you in figuring this out. That extends past your team to your clients – are they finding your billing systems difficult? Do they use a different email process than you do? Are you trying to get them to mold to your systems, rather than the other way around?

Jeff also said that sometimes “helping” your employees isn’t really helping – ask them what’s needed before you jump in.  He recommended involving your people in decision-making and giving them flexibility – for example, empower them to make decisions.  It obviously works – there are a little over 300 cast members there who are celebrating 40 years along with Disney.

Every leader is telling a story about what he or she values, Jeff said.  Are the people back at your office saying what you want them to say? We can see what is important to people based on their behavior – you are showing people this through your behavior. Are you leading by example? Because your team is watching.  

Jeff challenged us to think about what the title of our stories would be.  This will help you identify what’s important to you.  We judge ourselves based on our intentions, but others are judging us based on our behavior.

Think about what your vision is for those things you can control – your team looks to you for that.  An effectively communicated vision creates a shared purpose, inspires passion, sets direction and conveys value.  Walt Disney always pushed his people to move forward, to keep doing the next thing.  How do you inspire your team to do something they’ve never done before? It’s your job as a leader to inspire the “cast” cast to get excited about what you’re doing.

Jeff encouraged us to design our organizational structure for success by implementing effective processes for getting work done.  Disney does this, and they also explore everything so they know what’s going on in their own organization.  How do they do this? They go out into the parks, listen, talk to employees and clients – Walt Disney did this and that’s often how he found his next idea.

And, not surprisingly, my favorite line of the day was “The most important thing you can do is manage your relationships.”