Lee Cockerell retired as the Executive Vice President of Operations for the WALT DISNEY WORLD® Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, a position he held for ten years. His responsibilities encompassed a diverse mix of operations, which included 20 resort hotels with over 24,000 Guest rooms, 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, 5 golf courses, a shopping village & nighttime entertainment complex, the ESPN Sports Complex and the ancillary operations support functions.
Lee joined the Disney organization in July 1990 as Director of Food and Beverage and Quality Assurance for the Disneyland Paris hotels. Prior to joining the Walt Disney World Co., he spent seventeen years in various executive positions with the Marriott Corporation and eight years with Hilton Hotels.
Lee is the best-selling author of four books on leadership, management and world class customer service;
Creating Magic…10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney is now available in 21 languages.
The Customer Rules...The 39 Essential Rules for Delivering Sensational Service is currently available in 15 languages.
Time Management Magic…How to Get More Done Every Day
Career Magic…How to Stay on Track to Achieve a Stellar Career
Lee and his wife Priscilla reside in Orlando, Florida. Lee enjoys teaching leadership, management and service excellence seminars, traveling, dining out and most of all spending time with his three grandchildren, Jullian, Margot, and Tristan.
[Podcast Transcript Using Artificial Intelligence]
Umar Hameed 0:06
Are you ready to become awesomer? Hello everyone, this is Umar Hameed, your host and welcome to the No Limits Selling Podcast, where industry leaders share their tips, strategies and advice on how to make you better, stronger, faster. Get ready for another episode.
Umar Hameed 0:35
Hello everyone, today I've got the pleasure of having Lee Cockerell here with me today, he was the VP of Operations at Walt Disney Resorts, and to hold that position to have that high quality, not only in himself, but the thousands of employees, that's a really hard trick to do. And now he's retired, and he's helping leaders around the world become awesomerly. Welcome to the program!
Lee Cockerell 1:00
Hey thanks! Thanks for having me on. Appreciate.
Umar Hameed 1:03
That is brilliant! So tell me how did you end up at Walt Disney? Did you come in at that level, or did you work your way up?
Lee Cockerell 1:10
I actually worked my way up from getting into the hotel business after getting out of the army, I started as a waiter at the Washington Hilton and DC. I worked for Hilton 8years all over the country including Chicago, New York, LA and then I joined Marriott for 17 years and became Vice President of Food and Beverage because I focused on the food business. And...
Umar Hameed 1:31
Lee Cockerell 1:32
...I got recruited by Disney in 1990 to go to France and open Disneyland Paris. So I did that for three years and then I was brought back to Orlando to be in charge of operations there, which I did for 10 more years.
Umar Hameed 1:43
Let's backtrack a little bit, what did you do in the military?
Lee Cockerell 1:46
I was a cook.
Umar Hameed 1:48
Oh! then it all kinda connects. So tell me, what about your military experience set you up for success when you went into the private sector?
Lee Cockerell 1:58
Well, you know, when I went in the army, I dropped out of college because I didn't go to class when I was young and immature, and I really, you know, that army, you quickly learned discipline, and there's a right way to do it, and you follow orders and do the right thing and do it right. And, and took a lot of discipline, which I needed at that age. And so that's I learned a lot about following through getting things done. And I think the army when you go through basic training on those long hikes...
Umar Hameed 2:29
Lee Cockerell 2:29
...you learn that you're better than you thought you were, yeah.
Umar Hameed 2:33
That is amazing. And one of the things that I find is that the army is really process driven, would that be a true statement?
Lee Cockerell 2:40
Oh absolutely! There's one way to do it, Let's see army way.
Umar Hameed 2:44
Yeah, this...gonna help me complete this phrase from the army. "If you see something on the ground, pick it up, if you can't pick it up, paint it, if you can't paint it salute it."
Lee Cockerell 2:55
And Disney's the same way there's one way to do things at Disney and Marriott too, there's one way to do things at Marriott you do. That's the way you do it, that's why you get consistency, and the...
Umar Hameed 3:06
Unless we get excellence as well, because once you have a process, you can improve it, if you don't have a process, then you're just trying different things.
Lee Cockerell 3:13
Absolutely! Process is the one thing so many people miss. You know, right now, that's the problem with getting the vaccine. There's no process in place so it's chaos.
Umar Hameed 3:24
Yeah! And so but Lee, you don't understand, I'm a creative person and this process is bugging me down is... "Do you want me to do a good job? And you want me to follow your process?" And the answer is follow the fricking process, because that's what great companies do.
Lee Cockerell 3:37
Yeah! that is so true. And a lot of people have to learn that because a lot of people want to do it their way they want to be the Lone Ranger, they think they're better. And it's an ego problem sometimes for people to fall in line and do it the right way, so yeah, that was good learning.
Umar Hameed 3:53
So we're gonna, I'm gonna tell you one more thing that we're going to dig deeper into that, somebody had told me this. I'm not sure if this is true, but it should be true. That asked me a question. Subway sandwich shops, you know, are the gazillion franchises around the world. And they said, "Who are more successful farmer franchisees or MBAs?", and they said, "Farmers kick the ass MBAs all day long because you give them a process, they follow it," and that's the process for success. And the MBAs are like, I know better than you and they try and tweak things and it doesn't work.
Lee Cockerell 4:22
Well, there's something to that I've had a lot of people from Harvard and Stanford and Yale report to me and I don't have a college degree and there was something missing sometimes like persistence and learning new ways to do things and being humble and listening to other people, so yes, you're right.
Umar Hameed 4:41
So tell me what comes up on a process that either you created or you were adopting, then as a leader, you went you know, we need to tweak this process. So do you have one of those things comes to mind where there was a process you made better?
Lee Cockerell 4:56
Yeah, I mean, at Disney is just the same. We're always improving the process, you know, every day, it's kind of the attitude we don't call it six sigma, or lean, we call it, you know, we need to improve everything a little bit every day, whether you're a secretary, whether you're a waiter, whether you're no matter who you are, and that's kind of the same example...
Umar Hameed 5:18
Lee Cockerell 5:18
...segment talks about them. So any process from how we entered let people in the park to how you get on a ride when we created a Fastpass system using new technology, how you get your paycheck when you used to get a check, and now you get paid online. And I would say every process at Disney over time is changed and technology drives a lot of that, because it's available now.
Umar Hameed 5:42
So tell me about this one thing to have something on your wall that says, you know, "We are driven to improve." And there's a difference in having that written on the wall and having that imprinted on the hearts of the people that are the employees. So how do you go from just platitudes to a set of beliefs, like how do you indoctrinate that? Because right now you're working with other companies helping them do that, so how do you manifest that idea into the hearts of people?
Lee Cockerell 6:09
Yeah, I tried to get them back to the basics. I think too many people have gotten too complex, they are not remembering the basics their mother taught them about, and at Disney, the three things we do better than anybody else and anybody can do as we hire better. First of all, we're extremely careful who we bring into the organization, we have a process for that we have a profile we go through, we're very, a lot of attention to detail on who we bring in. After that, we are very clear with people before they join us about our expectations for their performance, their attitude, being on time to work, personal appearance, clarity of expectations. There is no misunderstanding or mocking them our army, the sergeant was very clear. And like your mother was your mother was very clear with you when you were growing up. And second thing we do, we train better, we train everybody, we test them and then we enforce the training. That's a...just like your mom.
Umar Hameed 7:03
How do you even enforce the training?
Lee Cockerell 7:05
Our management's out and about and they are observing, and they are correcting just like your mother there when you're out in the street, she had a little conversation with you and anytime you weren't doing something, I always tell people manage like a mother, they know exactly what they're doing. And they use all the skills of empathy and discipline and the...like this one...
Umar Hameed 7:26
So are you saying that I can cough my employees, is that what you're saying?
Lee Cockerell 7:30
The personal weapon. yeah!
Umar Hameed 7:32
I love that. The...
Lee Cockerell 7:34
And the last thing we do we create a culture that is where people wake up in the morning want to come to work place where everybody matters, and they know it. You know that's the key.
Umar Hameed 7:43
Let's dig down into creating a culture because there's one thing saying it, then how do you eight define the culture, and then how do you highlight and reward good behavior and capture those stories? Because sometimes saying what it is, is like dead but if you can get a story that manifests what really happened. I want to tell you about Tabitha, this is what she did and this is actually exemplifies what we do makes it a living and breathing. So how do you define the culture, f you go into a new organization? And then once you've got it defined, how do you instill it into the employees?
Lee Cockerell 8:19
Yeah, well the culture certainly one thing that Disney there's a lot of education, the first eight you spend eight hours before you do anything learning about Disney, the stories, how it created, what it means to the guests around the world, how strong the brand is, how why people come, the fantasy of getting away from reality, having a place was clean and friendly. And I always tell people, the chances you having a bad time at Disney is extremely low, because we have so much clarity around taking care of the people showing you care, being committed to the employees to the cast members. So you know, the leadership is not there to bully people around, they're there to teach and we...
Umar Hameed 9:05
So let's say, there's a lot of companies, I'm here in Baltimore, you're located in?
Lee Cockerell 9:10
Umar Hameed 9:10
Florida, I'd be your hometown, my hometown right now I can go and find 50 companies in Baltimore, that have the most amazing culture in their employees manual. But if you actually walk around what they're doing, there is a huge disconnect. So if you will, going into an organization where what they want the culture to be and what it really is, is different. So let me give you a metaphor, and then I'll ask you the question. So one of the metaphor I use is "If we think of a company being like just a white sheet of paper, and underneath that white sheet of paper is a magnet and when you get iron filings and you sprinkle it on the piece of paper, they hit the paper and they move to the lines of flux." So the behaviors and the mindset of the employee are the iron filings, the company is the paper but the culture and the beliefs is the magnet underneath. So if you go into a company that their people aren't behaving in the right way, don't have the right mindset, you can't move individual iron filings, you have to go in deeper at the level of beliefs. So how do you do that Lee?
Lee Cockerell 10:13
Umar Hameed 10:14
And do you think that's a valid metaphor? And if it is, how do you go about changing that magnet?
Lee Cockerell 10:19
Well, we went through that in the 90s, Disney was a very autocratic organization, leadership met two or three people tell us everybody what to do, we're not interested in your opinion, we'll tell you what to do. And we started down a track of understanding we need to make some major changes because the business was changing. The internet was here, people could go online and go anywhere, you couldn't control commercials on TV anymore and expect business. So we...our first president of our company who I reported to at the time he started a program...
Umar Hameed 10:50
And he was?
Lee Cockerell 10:51
Judson Green, he was...
Umar Hameed 10:53
Lee Cockerell 10:54
First,he started a program called Performance Excellence took us about three years. First, he got in front of all the management and talk to them about we were going on a new bus ride, and you better get on the bus because those days are over of you pushing the employees around and intimidating them and we're going to start listening to them, we're going to include them, we're going to involve them, we're going to be more careful when we put people in leadership positions, we're going to an on and on and on and the...
Umar Hameed 11:19
Pause right there for a minute, Lee coz I just want to interject there, and then we'll go further along. So that is all brilliant! But I suspect there were a bunch of VPs saying, "Mark my word this bullshit is going to be over this is never gonna work." There had to be like some resistance there, and did you witness it? And then how did he win those people over to finally go, "Okay, this is the new way!"
Lee Cockerell 11:41
Yeah! well, it took time and we fired a bunch of them. And 50%.. 50 executives left the company over three years, the major ones had been there 34,35,30,35 years because they couldn't go there. They couldn't, they just couldn't change had been too locked them...
Umar Hameed 11:55
So themselves select out, or were they asked to leave or a combination?
Lee Cockerell 11:58
I would say part of...It was combination, some just left because they were probably had been there long could retire and just went ahead and laughter and others we had to let go because like couldn't, they couldn't make that change to be serving the employees instead of telling them what to do. And then then every single time we hired a new manager, we were 10 times more careful we used to be, there was no longer you, if you stayed around long enough you got into management, it had to be on performance, we had to see you in action, we had to understand who you were. Because in the old days, if you stood if you stood in line long enough, you would become a manager just because of time. Now it's 100% performance, and your behavior, your attitude, how you treat people, respect for people, having a sense of empathy and discipline to get things done, get them done on time. And so it took time over time. All of a sudden, three years later, we had better management. And our leaders were all required to be out with the cast members 80% of their day, not in the office, they had to be out there with them, working with them, helping them, jumping on a cash register, helping them with inventory. And so it's a very involved. Everybody in the company spent a lot of time out with the guest and with the cast members, making sure that we're seeing what we want. And correct in it, you know, we have a lot of young people that need some a lot of training, a lot of development, they have good attitude, they have a good heart, they have, but they don't know the basics. And we so we spend a lot of time on that. And we hire people with a good attitude and passion, we're willing to teach them in the technical part. We say people with a good attitude and passion are high potential people. They can do about anything if you educate them and train them.
Umar Hameed 13:47
I'm not sure what is called in a few moments when they go to your academy but before we go there, Walt Disney started teaching corporations how to build that kind of culture.
Lee Cockerell 13:56
Umar Hameed 13:57
Are you familiar with the program, what was it called?
Lee Cockerell 13:59
Called the Disney Institute. Actually I was involved in it and I worked with him 10 years after I retired teaching those classes around the world too. Was very successful because a lot of people wanted to understand how did Disney get these kind of results and reputation and so they start teaching them and there's 6,7,8 courses on how to hire better, how to train better how to treat your people better, all of those things and companies come. And the...
Umar Hameed 14:29
So here's the question for you, Because, you know, no doubt, Disney has amazing training programs but a lot of people that come to those training programs have the best of intentions and one of the things was that when we started this conversation, we were talking about tenacity and sticking with it. So some of those people go back and I suspect would think magically their organization is going to change. So can you share a couple of stories don't name names, some huge successes people came they saw the light and they went back and they transformed their organizations, and other people went back and they struggled, and when they struggled, how did you guys help them figure it out?
Lee Cockerell 15:07
Well, there's two kinds of things, so people come for a two or three day class, I would say most of those people go back and don't get much done. And then there's other companies that hire Disney to come in and work with them on site...
Umar Hameed 15:18
Lee Cockerell 15:19
...for up to a year, year and a half, two years, very expensive. And they guide them through it and, and they have we help them hire somebody to be in charge of this to report to the CEO so they can have direct power but if you will, to get things done and to for the top person to know what's going on and how it's progressing. Because if the person...
Umar Hameed 15:41
Lee Cockerell 15:42
...doesn't want it, it's not going to happen unless CEO wants it, you're not going to get the resources, you're not going to get the time, you're not going to get the somebody pushing it every morning, every day all day to the other high level executives who may not like this, just like they didn't at Disney. So that's the one that works best, I would say like most seminars, a lot of people go to, unless you're committed to it, how many go back and really implement, you know, I teach a time management seminar, most people are so disorganized, not even funny, I would say 15-20%, maybe go back and implement it and do great 80% don't even remember what course they went to. Because, you know, people just they don't have the discipline to improve themselves. And we've got to get people to take responsibility for their own development, not just our company developing in them, you know, you've got to get organized, you got to be a good manager, you got to be a good leader, you got to be competent in technology, you got to be competent in relationships, there's many things and I think a lot of people just kind of focus on their technical expertise, and, and everything, every problem you have in life as people, if you don't learn how to manage and lead the people and be there for them and respect them, you're not going to ever be successful. I've told you, you know, even chick-fil-a, it was not about the chicken, it's about the people, you know, the chickens fine, the chickens never...
Umar Hameed 17:02
Lee Cockerell 17:04
Umar Hameed 17:05
What's kinda interesting is, uh, the best leaders that I've come across in my career have been leaders that employees would take a bullet for them. And one of the reasons was they respected their employees, they brought out their best in their employees. And just by doing those things, it was pretty fundamental. So let me tell you, I used to do these trainings around the country and one of the exercises I would do is say, "Okay, I want you to think about who has been a leader in your life" and so for some people, it's their grandfather, or their mom, or their first boss, or the football coach, whoever it is, and I said, "Think of one of those leaders and think of the attributes that leader had that you really appreciated." And then people you know, go back to a fonder time and they think of those attributes and then we would write the attributes on the wall, and we'd have hundreds of attributes on the wall. And then I would get the 30-40 people in the class to go, "Okay, whichever one you think is the most important attribute, go next to it and put five checkmarks next to it, so it's got the most check marks, and then number two would be four, and then number three would be all the way down to one for the fifth most important one for you." Here's the interesting thing, that I would be with PhDs in Boston, tire workers without a high school education in Dublin, Virginia, all around the country, no matter who the groups were, the master list was always different. But when they went down to the five most important and we crowd sourced in that group, those five were always identical no matter where you went. So fundamentally, intrinsically, we know what leadership is, but to build leaders., that's a different story and that's one of the things your institute does, right? So tell us about your institute and how you help build great leaders.
Lee Cockerell 18:48
Well, I think the keys are, I don't know what the five were for y'all but you know, the one thing we really...
Umar Hameed 18:53
Let's talk about good looking, so I've got that covered! No, I don't...
Lee Cockerell 18:59
We're making sure we're building trust, that people know about them, we're available for them, we will step out there and help them when they need help with something and...
Umar Hameed 19:10
So letme pause you right there for a second, Lee. Because I get a sense if you wanted to do that with me, and we were in that kind of setting that, what you're saying, and what you're feeling would align and I would just feel that I feel connected with you. And I could get another leader that could say the same words but you could just tell that that frickin guy does not mean it.
Lee Cockerell 19:32
Umar Hameed 19:33
They just platitude. So how do you get leaders to really build that trust, not just go "These are the three steps because that would be bullshit," but how do you instill it in them to build that trust?
Lee Cockerell 19:43
Well, I think it's a it's just part of the culture over time at Disney and now we try to instill it in the people that at first it takes time, takes time to build trust, and you've got to do it every day, and it's in everything you say and everything. Be careful what you say and do because you're being judged every second and so not being preoccupied being available for people when they need to see you, making sure you're checking in with them, what they need to do their job better is do they have any issues? How's their mother doing in the hospital? How's the soccer game last night? Going out of your way with special requests to help them when they have a...
Umar Hameed 20:21
Lee Cockerell 20:22
...tragedy. I mean, it's like, I would say, I always tell leaders, we want our leaders to be like you would like for your kids leaders to be when they get in the workforce, what kind of...
Umar Hameed 20:32
Brilliant! And that's great lesson to look at up.
Lee Cockerell 20:34
...you know, what kind of leader does I want to I want my grandchildren to have while they're out in the workforce, and be that kind of leader. And that puts a new perspective on it. To think about it, we do that with the nurses, you know, think about that your mother laying in the hospital bed, or your daughter or your grandmother. And it is because it is somebody's mother, daughter, grandmother and try to help people get a perspective that the customer is not a problem, they are humans, they have issues and our job is to serve. And that's what we do, if you want to be excellent.
Umar Hameed 21:06
If you want to be number one, it's trust. And what are some of the other ones?
Lee Cockerell 21:10
Well, I think Disney trust follows goes into that you do what you say you're going to do., You're reliable, you're credible, you keep your promise...
Umar Hameed 21:19
Walk your talk.
Lee Cockerell 21:20
Yeah! you know, appreciation, recognition and encouragement that we know how to give that because we all want it, me included. That is I call it the fuel that drives human performance is appreciation, recognition. encouragement, certainly drives a marriage, my wife said, "Tell me, you love me, if you love me, don't keep it to yourself." And I say we appreciate your employees tell them, "You're doing a great job, we're glad you're on our team, I hope you stay with us. you're the kind of person we need here." When I was company will go through their life and never get any appreciation in the group difficult times and they have dysfunctional families and when they come to Disney, that's the probably the highlight of their many of them today, because they're living on the edge out there in the world.
Umar Hameed 22:04
So Lee, when we end this podcast, I want you to go find your wife and I want you to tell her this, if it makes sense, because I heard this, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever is, "The love I feel for you is second hand because I get to feel it first."
Lee Cockerell 22:19
Yeah! There you go.
Umar Hameed 22:21
Is it nice?
Lee Cockerell 22:22
Umar Hameed 22:23
Is she over there on the side?
Lee Cockerell 22:24
She's smiling at me across the room right now.
Umar Hameed 22:26
I could see that.
Lee Cockerell 22:27
And, you know, showing love and showing appreciation is not easy for everybody. You know, I grew up kind of a dysfunctional family where nobody exchanged those kind of sentiments and "I love you or I care." I mean, I know they did but it was hard for people to say because he'd been hardwired a different way by their own growth. And I've really had to work hard at that because it's hard, it's not easy. And so we have about half the stuff in our brain is not true and we're trying to get it out of there so we can be better. Yeah...
Umar Hameed 22:59
Brilliant! Lee, we're going to put the links to your academy and your website on this podcast. Lee, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with our audience today. I really enjoyed the conversation. And I'm glad we had a chance to sit down together.
Lee Cockerell 23:14
Yeah! Thanks a lot. Good luck to you, you take care.
Umar Hameed 23:18
That was pretty good! What do you think that was like 25 minutes went by like that?
Lee Cockerell 23:22
Yeah! It's good. I mean it's a...that's a subject that people need to think more about and don't. You know, you're...
Umar Hameed 23:29
Absolutely! And I think there's probably the most important thing you said, the least for me, was I think life is really, really complicated. And a lot of stuff we do is really, really complicated but when you can actually give people a simple little tool that makes it easy to understand. And I think that phrase, "Be the leader you want your kids to be," gets all the "BS" to go away and you kind of go, "Huh, I want my kid to be kind and respectful and a visionary," and it gives us permission to be the leaders we should be because if we said be the leader you want to be then it was like, "Oh my God, don't do that." So thank you for that.
Lee Cockerell 24:05
Yeah,! That's what keeps me going in the right direction. Yeah!
Umar Hameed 24:09
Umar Hameed 24:15
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