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Book review: Leadership strategies at Disney World

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This is a pic I snapped of our kids watching and waiting for their turn on Cinderella's Golden Carousel. Late at night just before the fireworks started. While they won't remember it, this is one of the images I'll always remember of their childhood.

Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies From a Life at Disney

By Lee Cockerell

Doubleday, $27.95

We'll always remember when our daughter was asked for her first autograph.

She was four and we were vacationing at Disney World. Our daughter was self-basting in a canary yellow polyester princess dress and matching bling that she insisted on wearing in the 30 degree weather.

Our more sensibly dressed son was two and, unlike his parents, just couldn't get enough of the It's a Small World attraction.

While hiking across the park for our third boat ride of the day, we were stopped by a cast member (Disney-speak for employee). The cast member knelt down, took an autograph book and pen out of her back pocket and asked if our princess would sign her name.

"I'm not really a princess," my daughter confessed. "'Are you sure,' asked the cast member. 'You look like a princess and you act like one too.'"

So my daughter scratched out her name with great attention to detail and then got showered in castle-shaped confetti.

By the end of our vacation, our daughter was like a paparazzi-seeking, red carpet-seasoned starlet, giving autographs to any cast member who asked or passed by.

Turns out that asking pint-sized guests for autographs is called a Take 5 at Disney — a five second show of customer appreciation.

"Think of them as real-life versions of those random acts of kindness you read about on bumper stickers," says author and former Disney executive vice-president Lee Cockerell. "All those seconds and minutes repeated thousands of times a day add up to better customer relations than you could buy with a big corporate public relations budget."

Cast members are trained to look for Take 5 opportunities and held accountable for making them happen. Creating magic through ongoing training and informal learning is one of Disney's 10 leadership strategies. Others include:

  • Making sure everyone matters and that everyone knows it.

  • Breaking the mould. "Your job as a leader is to figure out what the organization should look like, not just to do your best within the existing design," says Cockerell.

  • Make your people your brand.

  • Eliminating hassles.

  • Learning the truth. "If you don't know the facts, how can you possibly make the best decisions."

  • Burning the free fuel of appreciation, recognition and encouragement that drives employee engagement.

  • Staying ahead of the pack by being a lifelong learner.

  • Being careful what you say and do, because your employees are always watching and listening.

  • Developing character. What do you stand for? What are your core values? Where do you draw your lines in the sand?

Says Cockerell, who ran Disney's resort operations for more than a decade, these 10 common-sense strategies build strong leaders. Strong leaders get you happy and productive employees. And happy and productive employees get you happy and loyal customers, repeat business and invaluable word-of-mouth marketing.

"In studying the guest satisfaction surveys at Walt Disney World, I've seen a clear trend," he says. "People who say they had a memorable interaction with a cast member invariably give an excellent rating, and they are also far more likely to return on their next vacation."

Cockerell says Disney has a 70 per cent return rate among visitors and the lowest employee turnover of any major North American hospitality company in the industry.

"The formula is simple," he says. "Committed, responsible, inspiring leaders 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."

Leaders are expected to adhere to the Four Cast Expectations, Disney's version of the Golden Rule. Make me feel special. Treat me as an individual. Respect me. Make me knowledgeable.

Disney has essentially the same set of expectations for how cast members should treat every guest.

"Disney leadership trains cast members to fulfil these expectations by treating them the same way. Leaders do unto cast members the way they want cast members to do unto guests."

It's a winning formula and why we'll be back in the Magic Kingdom this spring, waiting for another slow boat ride through It's a Small World and looking forward to those magical Take 5 moments.

The courage of Detroit

Even if you're not a sports fan, check out Mitch Albom's "The courage of Detroit" in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated.

"They say your teams are a disgrace and your city is dying. They say you are the past and you will never win again. And yet your are from Detroit and there is strength in that," writes Albom in defense of his city.

And could Detroit's estimated 16% unemployment rate and 40,000 abandoned homes be a preview of what's in store for your community in these tough, and getting tougher, times?

"Do you think if your main industry sails away to foreign countries, if the tax base of your city dries up, you won't have crumbling houses and men sleeping on church floors too? Do you think if we become a country that makes nothing, that builds nothing, that only services and outsources, that we will hold our place on the economic totem pole?

"Detroit may be suffering the worst from this semi-Depression, but we sure didn't invent it. And we can't stop it from spreading. We can only do what we do. Survive.

"And yet we're better at that than most places."

Book review: Closing the Innovation Gap

(Here's the link to The Innovation Gap website.)

Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy

By Judy Estrin

McGraw Hill

When Mark Teixeira plays his first baseball game for a few hours this spring, he'll get paid more than what an early childhood educator, elementary or secondary teacher or college professor earns in an entire year.

Teixeira last month inked an eight-year, $180 million contract with the New York Yankees. For those of you keeping score at home, that works out to about $138,888 per game. Sure, there are exhibition games, practices and travel between ball parks. But seriously, $180 million to hit, catch and throw a baseball.

Teixeira might help the Yankees win the World Series. But he's not going to inspire the next generation of innovators who'll drive economic growth, prosperity and social wellbeing for the rest of us. That work falls to educators who get paid a fraction of what Teixeira makes for hitting, catching and throwing around a baseball.

"There is no innovation that is more important for the world than the development of young minds," says U.S. author Judy Estrin, who's co-founded seven technology companies, served as chief technology officer at Cisco Systems and been named three times to Fortune magazine's list of the 50 most powerful women in American business.

"To cultivate next-generation innovators, the most important skill we need to teach our children is how to learn."

From pre-school to post-grad, educators play a key role in helping students master what Estrin defines as the five core values of innovation:

  • Questioning

  • Risk-taking

  • Openness

  • Patience

  • Trust.

"These values are the foundation of innovation," says Estrin. "As a group, they determine the capacity for change of an individual, organization or nation."

Estrin's worried that our educational system as it's currently configured isn't up to the challenge of closing a growing innovation gap. She's especially concerned about the fast-declining number of students studying science, math, technology and engineering in the U.S. In her opinion, the overhaul should start with paying teachers what they're worth and giving them the support they need to do their mission critical work.

"It's hard to attract high achievers to teaching when the profession is not given the respect or compensation that it deserves. We have turned educating our children into the equivalent of an entry-level job that people do for a few years. Fixing the problem will require boosting starting salaries and making sure that there is a way for truly extraordinary teachers to be paid competitively throughout their careers."

Higher salaries will help bring into the classroom more elementary and secondary school teachers with science and engineering backgrounds. "With the current salary structure, those with bachelor's or master's degrees in science have to be very committed to teaching indeed," says Estrin. Along with better pay, teachers need more professional development along the lines of the mathematics for teaching master's degree offered by the Harvard Extension School and the Math for America program that recruits, trains and retains outstanding secondary school teachers through fellowships, full-tuition scholarships and stipends for college grads and mid-career professionals.

"In such a rapidly changing world, ongoing professional development needs to be an integral part of every teacher's job."

Making math and science fun for students would also help, with an emphasis on reintroducing hands-on and team-based opportunities to explore and experiment.

FIRST is an organization that sponsors robot-building competitions for more than 1,300 teams of high school students and has just added Lego League for younger kids. Closer to home, the TechnoChallenge and Popsicle Stick Bridge Building Competition dreamed up by a pair of Mohawk College professors nearly a quarter century ago is worth a long look.

We need a culture fix to go along with changes in the classroom, says Estrin. "One of the main cultural messages that has been lost to young people in recent years is that scientists and engineers tackle problems that are of crucial relevance to our lives.

"Instead of being hailed as heroes, as they were during the post-Sputnik era, scientists are often portrayed as socially awkward geeks. The next frontiers of science are not in space, but right here on Earth. Fighting climate change, battling cancer and other diseases and finding new forms of energy to replace oil are all noble missions."

Let's look for those heroes in the classroom and not at the ballpark.