Walter Disney was an American entrepreneur, animator, writer, voice actor and film producer. A pioneer of the American animation industry, he introduced several developments in the production of cartoons. His most famous creation was of course Mickey Mouse. As a film producer, Disney holds the record for most Academy Awards earned by an individual, having won 22 Oscars from 59 nominations. He was presented with two Golden Globe Special Achievement Awards and an Emmy Award, among other honours. Several of his films are included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The company he built is still having a profound affect on modern media more than 50 years after his death and has revenue in excess of $60bn. So, what can we learn from his leadership?

All employees are valuable

One of Walt Disney’s key leadership principles was about the importance of building relationships with employees and colleagues. His people-management skills were essential to helping him achieve his vision, and he believed a successful leader must maintain healthy relationships with all of his people. He once said:

“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

This of course can be easier said than done. Harvard Business Review research has shown that as a person rises through the ranks, they often lose touch with those at lower levels within the organisation. But leaders have a choice as to whether or not they let this happen to them. There is a great story about Walt Disney that highlights this point perfectly. One morning, while visiting the Disneyland Park before it opened, Walt invited some low-level maintenance workers to stop what they were doing and join him for a chat. When their manager found them talking with Walt, the manager asked Walt if he could have the workers back to finish their work before the park opened. As they went back to their assignments, the manager felt compelled to ask Walt why he was spending his valuable time talking with these workers. Walt’s answer was simple “Good ideas come from everyone.”

Speak to your customers

Walt was convinced that the only way to run a successful business was to understand what made your customers happy and do more of it and understand what they disliked and fix it. But unlike the modern day, where everyone does this in a detached manner, with online surveys and the like, Walt believed the best way to get true customer insights was through direct interaction and observation and he didn’t just mean the customer service person getting feedback from customers. He wanted all of his people to understand customer experience.

So, when it was suggested that an administration building be built for the management at Disneyland, Walt was completely against it. He said: “I don’t want you guys sitting behind desks… I want you out in the park, watching what people are doing and finding out how you can make the place more enjoyable for them.’” And, when Walt learned that his staff had been leaving the property to eat lunch, he said. ‘Stand in line with the people…don’t go off the lot to eat like you guys have been doing. You eat at the park and listen to the people!’” Walt even went so far as to construct a personal apartment inside Disneyland, above the Fire Station and overlooking Town Square, from where he could watch guests (customers) as they got their first impressions of the park.

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