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David Koenig
If Walt Were Alive

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Promotional photo Disney

Walt Disney has been gone for 35 years this month, yet all of us who are disappointed, even angered by some of his company's recent decisions can't help but wonder: Where would the company be today if Walt were still alive?

He'd be 100 years old today. Let's assume he had all his faculties and good health. Would the company be better off or worse? My guess is that if Walt were alive today, he'd have been fired a long time ago. Or, more likely, promoted into powerlessness as chairman emeritus, a ceremonial figurehead trotted out at premieres and award presentations. Smile, Walt. Wave, Walt. That's fine. Back in the broom closet.

At today's Walt Disney Company, the emphasis is clearly on Company. Walt is merely an adjective for marketing purposes. (Who will never be forgotten as long as his likeness continues to sell lithographs.)

The problem is that Walt's guiding principles were polar opposites of current business philosophy.

1. Walt wasn't motivated by money.

Contrary to folklore, Walt didn't hate money. He liked it very much. It just wasn't what he worked for and lived for. He lived to create. And money allowed him to create. The more money, the more grand the creations.

Today, money isn't of secondary importance; nothing is of secondary importance. Money's the only thing that matters.

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Promotional photo Disney

2. Walt enjoyed his work.

Walt loved what he did—and it showed in the finished product. In movies, he pored over every scene, every character, every song. He constantly walked the streets of Disneyland, trying to dream up ways to "plus" the show. He put himself in the guests' shoes, and he got excited about good work. His passion improved the quality of the work -- and the workers.

Today, enjoying your work is irrelevant.

3. Walt listened to his employees.

He didn't view it as beneath him or a sign of weakness to solicit input from hourlies and part-timers. He realized that he didn't have all the answers, so he walked the park with his eyes and ears wide open. If he had a question about Mickey Mouse balloons, he didn't hire a Vice President of Helium-Based Consumer Products to commission a series of spreadsheets; Walt just asked the 16-year-old selling the balloons.

Today, business likes to preach "two-way communication" between employees and management, but it's all talk. From the top down.

4. Walt wasn't afraid of failing.

He knew failure was inevitable. He didn't enjoy making mistakes, but he learned from them and vowed never to repeat them. If something wasn't working, he didn't let pride cloud his judgment. He tore it out and tried something new.

Today, businesses are hesitant to test unproven ventures.

Promotional photo  Disney
Promotional photo Disney

5. Whenever Walt "perfected" something, he grew tired of it and moved on to something new.

Walt hated sequels. Once he conquered one field, it was on to a new challenge. He built his name on cartoon shorts, but lost interest as he turned his attention to Snow White. He seemed to forget about animation altogether when he started work on Disneyland. And theme parks no longer held his interest once he set his mind to designing an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

Today, businesses must fully exploit every penny from a successful property.

6. Walt seemed to know what audiences wanted.

Part from perceptiveness, part from instinct, Walt could sense what worked and what didn't in popular entertainment. He had new ideas, buoyed by old-fashioned values. He didn't insult the audience, he didn't shock them and he didn't trick them. He gave them what they wanted.

Today, entertainment companies seem to have no idea what audiences want. They typically design consumer surveys to justify bad decisions they've already made.

7. Walt understood that he was selling more than a product.

With everything he did, Walt realized that he was selling the Disney name. Audiences bought Disney products, no questions asked, because they trusted the Disney name. Walt was determined not to short-change them. He wouldn't release a product until it was completed to his satisfaction. He wasn't going to take short-cuts to save a penny here, a nickel there. His very name was at stake.

Today, perception is reality. A product really doesn't have to be everything advertised, as long as enough people buy it.

8. Walt thought details were important.

Walt believed in the value of little things. He wanted to charm as well as to impress. He knew that people would notice sloppiness, half effort, blandness. That doesn't mean he would throw away millions of dollars on minutiae no one would ever see (see Disneyland Paris).

Today, if it can't be packaged to sell by the millions, it won't get produced.

Promotional photo  Disney
Promotional photo Disney

Sure, there are plenty of reasons why Walt wouldn't cut it as a 21st Century CEO. One reason is NOT that his business philosophy would fail. After all, it provided a solid foundation and invaluable assets that still power the world's premier multi-billion dollar entertainment empire.

Walt's philosophy—create unique, high quality entertainment for the whole family, and it will be successful—might work today; it's just that today's business world wouldn't allow it.

But, who knows? Maybe one day Pixar can design its own theme park and we can find out.


You can write to David atthis link..

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Promotional photo Disney

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.

After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999); all titles published by Bonaventure Press.

He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.

You can contact David here.

LINKS

Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)

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