Good ideas can come from anyone on the team! A good leader will value all ideas and suggestions regardless of who makes them. Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton always listened to front line employees because they were the people who were interacting with his customers every day. To him, a good idea was a good idea whether it came from an overnight janitor or a district manager. So cast aside those preconceived notions; you might just find the next big idea that will revolutionize your organization.
Imagine you’re being honored with an award that was voted on by your colleagues. An exciting honor, right? What if nobody bothered to invite you to the meeting where the award was being handed out and the manager who oversaw the team who voted on it was seemingly not enthusiastic about handing out the ‘honor’ in the first place? Obviously the organization would have been better off not doing anything; as a matter of fact, they most likely made things worse. Believe it or not, this anecdote actually happened and is an example of the pitfalls of doing something just because it is expected and not because the organization genuinely wants to do it.
Recognition programs can vary wildly depending on the organization and its budget. Some places offer huge bonuses or exciting rewards while others offer items of little or no value. Even the small awards can mean a lot if they are offered with GENUINE appreciation. Awards offered solely because they are expected can be more demoralizing than not offering anything at all. Great leaders know that a quick note of genuine appreciation can do more to make someone’s day than a valuable award presented with little enthusiasm just because the Human Resources department mandated it.
Walt Disney completely understood this. He may have sometimes been a bit sparing with compliments, but when he provided them, he MEANT them. That’s why his employees were so loyal. Mr. Disney left us over fifty years ago, yet the people who worked for him still gush about how great a boss he was and ardently defend his memory. Richard Sherman, pictured above between his brother Robert and Walt Disney, still gets teary-eyed speaking about Walt Disney:
“Walt was always a great believer in the team. He felt that the team made the pictures, and he was the captain of the team. He just got the best of everybody in the world. So, I’ve always felt very happy that people know our songs, and I feel very lucky that I was a part of that team.”
“On what would have been Walt’s 100th birthday at DISNEYLAND, I began to play his favorite song- ‘Feed the Birds’ when a bird suddenly flew down from a tree and landed right on my piano. It stayed there until I finished the song, then as quickly as it flew down, it flew away. I’m convinced, that that bird was Walt.”
Walt Disney earned such loyalty from his employees by genuinely appreciating their efforts and talent. If Mr. Disney handed you an award, gift or compliment, you knew he was sincere and genuinely appreciative. Not all of us can have the same impact on the world as Mr. Disney, but by genuinely appreciating the hard work that happens around us, we can try to have a positive impact on our respective organizations.
When Colonel Harland Sanders began franchising his fried chicken restaurants he constantly traveled around the country to do his own taste tests. Since he had created both the secret chicken recipe and the unique cooking process, he knew just by tasting the food whether a particular restaurant was following his procedures to the letter. If they weren’t, he would head to the kitchen to give the staff a refresher course. Colonel Sanders was a leader who knew his business well enough to be able to do it himself.
Obviously, Sanders was a unique leader. As the company founder, he had created the very system that made him famous around the world. Nobody would expect the head of Kentucky Fried Chicken today to know as much as Colonel Sanders did about the chicken cooking process. However, he or she should have more than just a cursory understanding about how the restaurants are run; as well as how decisions made at the upper levels of management will affect the customer experience.
On the reality show Undercover Boss, however, we often see how little some company executives know about their businesses. The show follows a different CEO or division head each week as they don a fake disguise and visit different locations to see how things really happen out in the trenches. The strangest thing about the show is that it can find enough executives willing to go on it to begin with. We can forgive the predictable fumbling around as they try to make burgers, take customer orders or work on the assembly line, but the real shocker is how often the leader appears surprised about how some cutback or policy change negatively affected operations out in the field.
It seems obvious that cutting staffing, maintenance or supply quality will have an adverse effect on customers and employees, but often the show features the leader shaking their head in disbelief. ‘Cutting back on the maintenance budget resulted in less efficient operations and customer complaints? Who’d have guessed?’ The show often ends with the leader telling the camera that things will change, but why did the company choose to make such important decisions without considering the implications in the first place? And why didn’t they actually go out to the trenches to gauge how a change might affect operations? Often the answer is that the only thing that mattered was the bottom line or that management thought it knew better than the people on the front lines.
Good leaders don’t have to know the minutiae of the business like Colonel Sanders. They should, however, have an understanding of how their decisions will affect their front line staff and customers. Walt Disney constantly walked around Disneyland to see how things were going or what might need improvement.
He spoke with guests, experienced the park like a regular paying customer and tried to understand the park’s everyday operations. He often consulted with front line staff to figure out the challenges they faced and get suggestions for improvements. He might not have been able to operate Matterhorn Mountain, but he certainly understood how staffing and maintenance cutbacks would affect its daily operations.
Taking time to understand the organization’s operations and how each piece fits together is not only a sign of a great leader, but it can also help reduce unforeseen consequences when budget and policy changes are made. Plus, customers and employees appreciate being genuinely listened to. An organization might still run into problems, but having an ongoing dialogue with all stakeholders will result in them being much more patient when any slip ups occur.
Too many organizations give lip service to professional development. While staff are encouraged to take classes to improve their skills, little time is actually devoted to such things. Employees find themselves in a situation much like that of Cinderella- they can pursue professional development IF they complete their regular assignments and IF they can find the time. The organization might say that it values professional development, but its actions show the opposite to be true. Even if an employee can fit such luxuries into their schedules, they are often not permitted to apply their new skills to anything practical. Management further demoralizes its staff by importing new talent from outside the organization rather than promoting from within. In more extreme environments, management demeans its existing staff by not even considering them for open positions. As most people can attest, using the phrase “national recruitment” often means “existing staff need not apply.”
So what can Mr. Disney teach us about actually valuing professional development and searching for hidden talents throughout the organization? Just take a look around his Magic Kingdom of DISNEYLAND. Mr. Disney learned early on that the so-called experts were more inclined to summarily dismiss his ideas as impossible without really thinking about them. An outside architect had told Mr. Disney that the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Submarine Voyage were impossible to build. Not one to easily take no for an answer, Mr. Disney assigned some of the early model building and design to employees that hadn’t previously done such work. One such employee- Imagineer Harriet Burns- later recalled how much she had learned on the project. Not only did she learn the ins and outs of model building and scaling, she also learned that she could actually accomplish such tasks. By identifying her hidden talents and showing confidence in her skills, Walt Disney made an already top notch employee even more motivated to succeed. Not only did he give her time to learn something new, he gave her a chance to apply those new skills to a real world project that is still enjoyed today.
This was not an isolated incident. Another example can be found inside Pirates of the Caribbean. The attraction needed a song to tie things together, but instead of asking his staff song writers to put something together, he asked Imagineer Xavier Atencio to write something. Despite never having written a song before, Mr. Atencio successfully penned the attraction’s signature ditty Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me). Mr. Atencio put it best when he marveled that:
“I didn’t even know I could write music, but somehow Walt did. He tapped my hidden talents.”
The song that he wrote is still heard around the world in the various Pirates of the Caribbean attractions at Disney parks.
By identifying hidden talents and finding practical uses for them, Mr. Disney built a loyal, talented and successful team that made the impossible possible. His staff accomplished great things because he believed they could do it and he encouraged them to step outside of their comfort zones. So many organizations could learn a thing or two from Walt Disney’s leadership. While it is very easy to talk about valuing professional development and nurturing hidden talents, it often seems to be a challenge for an organization to actually value these things in practice. Those that do can often accomplish great things and maintain a loyal, efficient workforce. Walt Disney truly valued these attributes and his team literally built mountains.