Book Jeff

Empower Everyone to Make Magic

Have you ever wanted to work in Human Resources? Yeah, me neither! But I am on my way to Boston this week to speak at an HR Conference on the future of work and to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Walt Disney Company. I’m looking forward to the challenge!

First, it’s interesting to think about how much work has changed over the past ten decades. When Walt and Roy founded The Disney Brothers Studio way back in October 1923, I don’t think they had to worry about “quiet quitting” the way HR Directors do today. Back then, the only way you left your job was with a loud, angry resignation. Then you drove off in your Model T knowing your coworkers could run and catch up, but at least you had a head start!

Secondly, the challenge of managing people might well be why Walt spent the research and development dollars on audio-animatronics technology. Managing robots, even a malfunctioning Mr. Lincoln, is easier…way easier…than managing people. Walt even admitted this to the young Tom Nabbe when Nabbe kept pestering Walt to transfer him from his role as a newspaper boy on Main Street to the title role of Tom Sawyer before Tom Sawyer Island opened in the summer of 1956. Annoyed, Walt told Tom, “You know, I could put a mannequin…that wouldn’t be leaving every five minutes for a hot dog and a Coke.”

Walt eventually nabbed Nabbe for the role of Tom Sawyer, and Tom Nabbe went on to work for Walt and the Walt Disney company for more than fifty years. Today, Tom Nabbe is a Disney legend. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Tom, along with several other Disney Legends/Imagineers, and asked them about Walt’s Disney’s unique style of leadership and management of Human Resources.

What stood out for me in every interview is how they all remember Walt as just a “regular guy” and asking them about Walt’s death, more than fifty years later, still leaves them in tears. These are grown men, in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, who probably can’t remember what they ate for breakfast (to be fair, I can’t either), but they remember their time working with Walt Disney in great detail and are still too emotional to talk about the day he died.

That’s leadership.

That’s the world’s greatest storyteller playing the part of the world’s greatest HR Director.

Walt Disney understood that Human Resources isn’t just an isolated department that pushes paper and manages the hiring and firing for an organization. No, Human Resources is leading the interactions with your organization’s greatest asset, it’s people. Everyone works in Human Resources. We are all in the people business.

It is tempting to think we can hire in silos. This person is responsible for this job. That person is responsible for that job. After all, that is why we have job descriptions and organizational charts, right? And to some degree, you aren’t wrong. There are times when people need to stay in their lane. Or maybe their “Lightning Lanes.” Haha.

But Walt abhorred org charts. Instead, he made everyone responsible for picking up the trash—including himself. He challenged everyone to create happiness. He empowered everyone to make magic. Walt’s dream required a team, not silos.

And so does yours.

Today, it might seem easier to quit on people before they inevitably quit on you. Or you can do it Walt’s way. Hire well by hiring people better than yourself. Train well by making sure everyone knows your history, culture, and how to provide a great guest experience. Treat well by creating a company culture that fosters community and makes team members want to stay fifty years and beyond.

You won’t always get it right. That’s okay. You aren’t a robot. And Walt didn’t get it right either. His animators went on strike in 1941, immediately after the construction of a brand-new studio in Burbank. Instead of celebrating, picket lines formed, and Roy eventually sent Walt to South America so he could settle the five-week long strike directly. Walt returned less autocratic and more supportive and collaborative.

How have you changed in your role as a manager or leader? Hopefully, you aren’t still doing things the way they were done one-hundred years ago, or even the way you were doing them thirty years ago. As humans, we must evolve.

So must Human Resources.

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