When The Magic Happens: Onboarding at Disney

Jeff Noel, a facilitator at Disney Institute, spoke in a video about being “The CEO of You,” in which he shares insight on how to inspire leadership at all levels. A major point of focus was the differentiation between task and purpose. “To empower all employees to take on leadership roles, it is important that everyone understands the larger purpose behind a task. Employees should be immersed in the broader context of a project so they clearly can identify the importance of their role and how it impacts the organization.” The only way to start an employee on the right path to next generation leadership, then, is extensive, comprehensive onboarding.

I wrote recently about Facebook’s Onboarding Bootcamp, where technical engineers are treated to a six-week, full immersion onboarding process. Full immersion during the onboarding process is the only way to guarantee a new employee will know his or her role in an organization.

14072998_sThis is what Jeff James, Vice President & General Manager of Disney Institute, says about onboarding a new hire into Disney:

“A new hire will make many judgments about an organization based on their first few days; therefore, onboarding training is crucial for both the employee and the company. This training should go beyond ‘how-to’ training into the ‘why’ of an organization. By sharing the organization’s history and values, new hires will be more empowered to embody the spirit of the company and feel more fulfilled. At Disney, our new-hire orientation is called ‘Traditions,’ and introduces our Cast Members to not only important information they need to know about their new role, but also the legacy and history that remains at the heart of The Walt Disney Company.”

James goes on to say, “Training should not be seen as optional; rather, it should be operationalized and embedded into the fabric of your organization.” He says that, when developing an onboarding program, you should ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What cultural values will be established during this training experience?
  2. Based on this training experience, what room will be left for improvisation by employees?
  3. How will this training reflect care for employees?

On the first day of work, new employees attend Disney Traditions. With a focus on the past, present, and future of Disney, Disney Traditions helps new hires recognize and appreciate the connections they have to the Disney story, their daily impact on the quality of the Disney Show, and the role they can play in the company’s growth and success. But that’s just the orientation. The onboarding process continues much longer past the initial “Traditions” program, and the leadership at Disney set the example for its employees.

In his book, “The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney,” J. Jeff Kober says:

“When it comes to creating priorities, it’s about the individual leader. Leaders really do matter. They matter most when they take the reins, when they pick up trash, when they are involved. An operation is no better than its immediate leadership. Leadership for me is many things, but one of the most important is modeling what you want others to do. If you pick up trash, everyone will pick up trash. If you show courtesy to your employees, your employees will be friendlier to your customers. If you take the time to have a little fun, your employees will make it fun for others.”

Every employee collects trash; whether manning the rides or playing the part of Disney princess. Walt Disney said, when the parks first opened, that he wanted to keep the park clean to the point that people would be embarrassed to throw anything on the ground. That standard has been reached because of the example leadership has set, and the training each employee receives during onboarding. By setting the example, leaders continue to mentor and influence their employees, throughout their career.

In addition to the three questions listed above, use this checklist compiled by contributors at Inc.com to better identify potential leadership candidates:

  • Works well on a team and with other team members; brings out the best in others
  • Is inclusive of others’ ideas and personalities
  • Responds well to feedback
  • Is able to learn from and listen to others
  • Is willing to teach others
  • Is solution-oriented and creates opportunities out of challenges
  • Able to solve customer issues and complaints (within their role), proactively seeking out situations where the problem may not be immediately evident
  • Seeks additional responsibilities while excelling at existing assignments
  • Is capable of working effectively in a multi-tasked environment
  • Finds themselves leading by example even when not assigned the title or direct responsibility; is someone others choose to follow

Many organizations believe leadership is a noun. However, because leadership is dependent on the action one takes rather than the position one holds, the folks at Disney Institute encourage everyone to view leadership as a verb. Therefore, despite job title, everyone should be the CEO of himself or herself (for more information about how Disney onboards and develops the next generation of leaders, check out their video here). In order for employees to become great leaders, they must know their role, actualize themselves, and acclimate to the company’s culture. The only way this can happen is through onboarding.