Episode #49 - Interview with former Disney Executive Lee Cockerell

Lee Cockerell is the former Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World® Resort. "As the Senior Operating Executive for ten years Lee led a team of 40,000 Cast Members and was responsible for the operations of 20 resort hotels, four theme parks, two water parks, a shopping & entertainment village and the ESPN sports and recreation complex in addition to the ancillary operations which supported the number one vacation destination in the world."

One of Lee's major and lasting legacies was the creation of Disney Great Leader Strategies, which was used to train and develop the 7000 leaders at Walt Disney World. Lee has held various executive positions in the hospitality and entertainment business with Hilton Hotels for 8 years and the Marriott Corporation for 17 years before joining Disney in 1990 to open the Disneyland Paris project.

Lee has served as Chairman of the Board of Heart of Florida United Way, the Board of Trustees for The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the board of the Production and Operations Management Society and the board of Reptilia a Canadian attractions and entertainment company. In 2005 Governor Bush appointed Lee to the Governor's Commission on Volunteerism and Public Service for the state of Florida where he served as Chairman of the Board.

He is now dedicating his time to public speaking, authoring a book on leadership, management and service excellence titled, Creating Magic…10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney, which is now available in 13 languages and his latest book, The Customer Rules…The 39 Essential Rules for Delivering Sensational Service. Lee also performs leadership and service excellence workshops and consulting for organizations around the world as well as for the Disney Institute. Lee has received the following awards: 

  •                 Golden Chain Award for Outstanding leadership and business performance from the Multi-Unit Foodservice Operations Association (MUFSO).
  •                Silver Plate Award for Outstanding Operator in the foodservice industry from the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association (IFMA).
  •                Excellence In Production Operations Management and Leadership (POMS) from the Productions and Operations.
  •                Grandfather of the year from his three grandchildren, Jullian, Margot and Tristan.

Lee and his wife Priscilla live in Orlando Florida.

Topics discussed with Lee

1.    Ever meet J.W. Marriott? Yes.

2.    Joined Disney 1990, to open Disneyland Paris? (Euro Disney), which in the early days lost $1 million per day.

3.   Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney (2008) 

The Customer Rules: The 39 Essential Rules for Delivering Sensational Service (2013)

Time Management Magic (Jan 2015)

4.    Walt Disney World = size of San Francisco, or 2x Manhattan, 59,000 Cast Members

a.    Mickey = Teamster (13 or 14 unions in WDW)

b.    70% return rate

c.     Lowest turnover in hospitality industry

5.    Formula: Committed, responsible, inspiring leadership create a culture of care, which leads to quality service, which leads to Guest satisfaction, which leads to measurable business results and a strong competitive advantage.

6.    “Because all business problems boil down to leadership problems. The soft stuff is actually the hard stuff."

7.    Strategy #1: Remember, everyone is important: Cast was given freedom to set it’s own productivity targets. They set them very high!

8.    Feelings are never translated or passed on properly in a command chain

9.   No micromanagement = Trust!

10. Disney Institute Definition of Culture: “The system of values and beliefs an organization holds that drives actions and behaviors and influences relationships.” Established by design, not chance.

11.  You mentioned no price consistency at Disney’s food and beverage, because no one person in charge. How has pricing improved?

12.  What do you think of Disney’s new surge-pricing scheme?

13.  Your response to 9/11: evacuate 50,000 from theme parks; free hotel rooms; food vouchers; suspend charges for phone calls anywhere in world; costumed entertainers to occupy frightened children.

14.  Structured interviews by psychologists over the phone, create detailed profiles, powerful tool 1994?

15.    ¼ of the 25,000 Sommeliers work at WDW, sells more wine than any single site in the world (Vegas)

16.    Magical Moments and Take 5

17.    25 steps between trash containers!

18.  Sacrifice efficiency for safety and security (or Take 5, and MOMs). Snow White and Four Dwarfs

19.  Customers are human beings = Guestology

20.  Trading Pins! Two guys got idea at Olympics = millions dollar business!

21.   20% = active change agents; 30% = resist change; 50% on fence

Thanks to Lee for sharing how Disney spreads Pixie Dust, and how your organization can do it, too.