Van France's Thoughts On Walt Disney World Leadership

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

This week I am going to wander briefly over into Jeff Kober’s territory. If you haven’t been reading his weekly columns, I would suggest you take a look: (link) and if you enjoy what you read, pick up a copy of his recently published book, The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney, available at (link).

The Disney Company used to be held up quite frequently as an example of a company that “got it right” when it came to not only customer service but how its employees were treated.

A few years ago, I began working on a book to be titled Walt’s Way: The Secrets of Disney Leadership the Disney Company Has Forgotten—before other things got in the way.

The book would have elaborated on the skills Walt Disney had as a leader that could be copied by others and the skills that Roy O. Disney had as a manager that could be copied by others. The roles of leader and manager are not interchangeable and require different skill sets, but both are necessary for a healthy company. The book would have emphasized through anecdotes about Walt and Roy how this combined approach created a unique company that once upon a time was considered the model of leadership that other companies should emulate.

I was writing the book because, unfortunately, during the last decade or so, it had become apparent that too many Disney leaders were not using common sense and common courtesy or worse, using the leadership techniques they learned at other companies and as a result were driving valuable employees from a company they had loved for years.

Sadly, it is not hard to find today Disney cast members whose checks are wrong and won’t be corrected until the following week despite bills needing to be paid; whose schedules are wrong or changed at the last minute without warning; who are reprimanded for helping guests or fellow cast members; who were terminated after many years of outstanding service (and countless company recognitions including Guest Service Fanatic cards and Partners in Excellence) because of one confrontation with a new manager filled with his own self-importance but backed up totally by Disney Human Resources and more such abuses that result from poor leadership.

I’ve literally had Disney leaders who, in their personal lives, are caring human beings (and sometimes began their career as low-level Disney cast members) tell me that they are “too busy” to help and that these cast members are whiners and there are plenty of other folks out there especially now who are more than willing to take the poorly paying jobs and “suffer” those situations. It only became important that there was a somewhat warm body in the headcount rather than a quality cast member who could actually do the job.

Outlook, Blackberries, meetings and classes at Disney University and more are not improving Disney leadership, but actually isolating leaders from the legitimate concerns of the frontline cast members and for those cast members without a union, there is no recourse to address poor judgment by leaders. Walt and Roy would have been appalled even though the Disney Company, under their combined leadership, faced similar challenges.

The Disney Company run by the Disney brothers was built upon the basis of respect for individuals. The Disney brothers always had great respect for anyone in the organization, regardless of status.

When Roy Disney made his first trip to Celebrity Sports Center in Denver, he avoided the usual fancy tour. Solo he went behind the scenes introducing himself to mechanics and any other person who was at work. By the time he was through, he had met many people personally and was knowledgeable of the total operation. He didn’t take anything for granted. Roy’s contribution as an outstanding manager to the Disney Company is unfortunately severely underestimated.

Walt was notorious for walking the park and talking with the frontline cast members to get a real sense of what was happening and what needed to be done. Walt would genuinely and sincerely recognize cast members, even the mavericks, and would not hesitate to chastise leaders who treated cast poorly.

One of Walt Disney’s pet peeves was to have somebody say, “It’s not my responsibility.” In addition, he had a great eye and a sensational memory for details. He could notice a light bulb that was not working one day, and remember to check up on it a week later. It was just about impossible to give Walt a “snow job” on any project. He dug into every project until he himself was totally aware of all aspects of it and didn’t rely on Human Resources or Legal or any leader to try to summarize it for him.

One of the quotes I love is from a person I interviewed who worked with Walt: “Walt got you to do what you didn’t want to do…and enjoy doing it.”

As proof that the Disney approach was different once upon a time, I am going to include some excerpts from the 1971 Walt Disney World Opening Leaders Guide (only 32 pages—try to find a leadership guide that length and clarity today). It was illustrated with artwork of Disney characters. The cover has Snow White leading the Seven Dwarfs, a perfect example of how gentleness and enthusiasm could tame and direct a variety of personalities.

This guide was written by the legendary Van Arsdale France. France co-created with Dick Nunis the first Disneyland training programs and conceptualized and developed the Disney University, the training system now used at all Disney Theme Parks worldwide. He was named a Disney Legend in 1994 and died in 1999. It was France and Nunis who created the once respected “Traditions” training program after the death of Walt to keep alive the basic concepts of what made Disney great.

France made his share of mistakes in his career, including leaving the Disney Company to work with competitor C.V. Wood on a project called “Freedomland.” However, it is evidence of how valuable Van’s approach was to training that he was one of the few people to leave the Disney organization for a competitor and yet be welcomed back. That’s one of the reasons why he was charged with training new leaders for Walt Disney World.

I knew him in his later years and that’s why I have a copy of this document (that doesn’t have a Disney copyright, except for the illustrations) as well as two early rough drafts of his sadly out-of-print autobiographical book “Window on Main Street” that detailed his career at the Disney Company along with some great uncensored anecdotes of how leadership actually worked.

Let’s look at a few snippets from the leader guide and think about how this approach might seem different from the approach of some of today’s Disney leaders:

Introduction: Opening is Different

The next two months in Florida will be the most critical months in the history of the Disney organization. There is nothing to compare to the opening of a Theme show such as the Magic Kingdom. When combined with the total destination concept of Walt Disney World, it adds up to being the most massive investment of talent and money in recent history.

Those of you who were midwives in Disneyland’s initial opening...the Winter Olympics...or the World’s Fair in 1964, have been through the birth pangs which exist in any situation of this kind. On the basis of any comparison such as size, investment or complexity, the opening of Walt Disney World will make any previous opening in history look pale.

The reasons for this are fairly simple. On the one hand, you can’t take the show on the road for a try out performance before the grand opening on Broadway. The total concept is solidly established in brick and mortar, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to cut and/or materially alter at the last moment.

Most importantly, the opening is critical from a financial point of view, and the way it is handled is a matter of life, and sometimes death, from a publicity and guest relations standpoint.

It’s all the difference between the operation of a peace-time army, and a landing on the Normandy Beach or Iwo Jima. Plans, titles, procedures, all may have to be altered to cope with the situation at hand. This situation is to smoothly open Walt Disney World to the public on the basis of previously determined schedules.

This particular leaders’ guide is designed specifically to serve you during the critical 30 days of August and September of the year 1971 AD in Orlando, Fla.

YOU….as a person with some leadership responsibility…are in the important position of being able to help make or break the Disney record for sensational success in pioneering ventures.

YOU…don’t have to be a salaried supervisor. At a time like this, titles and all become of relatively minor importance. Performance under fire is what counts.

If you are well versed in the management principles of Harvard, Yale, University of Florida, Rollins College, or even USC, you’ll just have to forget most of these text book pontifications for the next 60 days.

We are now switching from the Marquis de Queensbury rules to professional hockey. It’s blood and guts. I hope you enjoy it…and survive.

—Van A. France

Traits for Good Supervision

1. Understanding: All problems are not the same. Each has to be treated on an individual basis.
2. Consistency: Try to treat all hosts and hostesses alike. Be firm, fair and also tolerant.
3. Follow Thru: This is most important of all. If a promise is made, keep it.
4. Dedication: One must really enjoy this type of work, and not just because it’s a job. In essence, it may sound a bit “corny” but I firmly believe, “you’re only as good as the individuals you supervise.”
5. Have a Hobby: If you happen to have a hobby, this always helps to keep you loose. Also, it gives one a pleasant disposition at work.

Tips for Working With People in Your Work Group

 Perhaps one of the most critical problems for leaders who are in various facets of the leisure industry is that they are continuing to use old-fashioned leadership methods which were designed for manufacturing, mining and commercial industries on the 1930s era. New methods are needed for gaining top performance in motivating people to enjoy their work in jobs for which their parents and schools did not train them. If you insist on staying with some of the old methods which don’t work, you may find that the parade of progress will leave you behind, among those mentally fossilized people who complain that people just don’t want to work any more.

There are a few basic points which we insist that you understand at Walt Disney World:

1. Take The Servility Out of Service. We take pride in our service profession. Whatever work is done is important. If you insist on calling a ”Food Service Hostess” a “Dish Up Girl,” you’re on the wrong team.
2. Give Personal Dignity to People. If you happen to be a supervisor, you (unless you are unusual)…enjoy your little status symbols. Do you feel those in your crew are any different? Hell, no! They want pride and dignity in their work just as much as you do.
3. Don’t be a Snoopervisor. You’re a leader, not a snooper who hides behind corners looking for faults.
4. Be a “Work With” Type of Leader. Walt Disney World is a gigantic team effort. This means that everyone…EVERYONE…must work together to open successfully on time. Team work…”working with”…people means working with your own crew. This is not an “Officers and Men” operation. It’s a joint venture.

Additional Pointers

1. Be Adaptable. Adaptability is essential for your survival and success. You have to adapt to emergencies that arise and “get along” with other people and conflicting goals.
2. You Lead…Don’t “Manage.” Store the fancy shirt and the cuff links for a while. You have to shoot from the hip…not the cuff. If you can sweep, dig, carry and wash windows, these are important skills. It’s time now to lead the way…not supervise. You’re on the firing line.
3. Don’t Create “Emergencies.” There is a difference between an “emergency” and poor planning. Some “emergencies” are self-created ones which result from the fact that a key person has not properly anticipated potential problems. If, for example, you are caught without a raincoat during the wet season, this is not an “emergency” but stupidity.
4. It’s “We” Time. This is not the time to pass the buck to “they” or ‘the management” or “the employees”…or whatever. It’s time to remember Ben Franklin’s statement at the time of signing the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
5. Keep Your Sense of Humor. To use a couple of tired clichés, it is time to “hang loose” and not get “uptight.” Keep a sense of humor about things…and especially about yourself.
6. Watch Your Batting Average. The odds on the morning line are that you will make some mistakes. You’ll be suckered in on a low ball, or drive into the trap. The name of the game is to keep the mistakes at the minimum. If we have a group batting average of over fifty percent, we have it made. 

Seeing Yourself As Others Might See You

It’s a lot of fun to put tags which we can remember on others. But how about yourself…as a leader. We hope you don’t fall into one of these caricatures.

Peeking Tom is the supervisor who sneaks around corners trying to catch people doing something wrong. If people are trained right, they’ll do right.

Gum Shoe Gus is another name for snoopervisors who get their kicks out of snooping around, rather than leading.

Lint Picking Larry could care less if a person is doing a great job by serving people correctly. His eyes aren’t on overall performance, but on little details with which he can find fault.

Buck Passing Bill never takes the blame for anything. Anything that goes wrong is always the fault of “they” (the people who work for him) or “them” (some other department) or “the management” (rather than an individual).

Paper Happy Pete feels that everything must be put in writing…or on paper. The hell with progress, as long as the paperwork is neat.

Brownie Points Ben worries so much about making brownie points with his boss that he never thinks about the people who are in his crew, and can make him look good…or bad.

You can avoid all these bad caricatures and just be Larry the Leader…a human being who works with others and is fair…firm…and understanding.

 All of this is excellent, common-sense advice even today for any company and there are many more pages in this leader’s guide with similar insights. As you can tell, Van had a sense of humor and a tendency of straight talking and was well aware of human pitfalls when it came to leadership, pitfalls that still exist today.

I know there are many Disney leaders who read MousePlanet and the various columns and who also forward some columns to their peers. I’ve seen Jeff Kober’s columns forwarded around. The Disney Company does have and had some great leaders and perhaps in one of these future columns I will spotlight a few of them. These leaders care and want to improve even though they already demonstrate some of the best that Disney has to offer.

However, the Disney Company also has some leaders who are so scared of confrontation with another area or of losing their job that they are also scared to be great leaders and actually lead.

Unfortunately, the Disney Company also has some leaders who are so enamored of their status and their perks (if Disney leaders had to use the same parking and transportation that Disney cast members use, there would be instant changes), fearful that they don’t know what they are doing and may be discovered as a fraud at any moment, or are just poorly suited for the role that they have made life not a magical experience for cast members but have spent several years crushing dreams for fellow cast members.

Probably the most important thing to remember is that someone doesn’t need to have a title to be a leader. Some of the best leaders at Disney are those who are helping their fellow cast members. However, every leader can benefit by reviewing some of Van France’s insights.