What We Can Learn about Organizational Culture from Disney

August 9, 2018

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jody Dreyer to learn more about the culture of the Walt Disney Company and how we might apply some of their principles to our own organizations. Don’t miss out on these incredible insights she had to share.

GH: You held over 20 positions with the Walt Disney Company; can you tell us a story from that time that exemplifies the Disney culture?

JD: I worked for Disney for 30 years and held over 20 positions within the company but I actually started on the college program, a time when you’re looking around and taking everything in. After training, we went to our work assigned area which for me was right on Main Street. My boss’ boss’ boss (three levels up!) was actually walking me there and as we’re walking down Main Street, he’s talking about the importance of paying attention. And as he’s talking, he actually spots a little piece of trash and picks it up without breaking his sentence! And that would become a trend I would notice throughout my career at every level of the company, that everyone, quite literally, picks up trash.

I think there’s a true sense in the Disney culture that we’re all in this together. While we all have different daily tasks associated with our job, we ultimately share the same purpose of making the experience fabulous; and sometimes that means picking up trash. That exemplifies Disney culture and I’m so glad it was instilled in me from my very first day; I call it the best lesson I ever learned. A fun sidebar: going all the way back to Walt Disney he was thinking about trash before the parks even opened; they actually researched how many steps people would take to throw away trash before just dropping it and spaced trash cans accordingly. So there’s a whole science around trash! Attention to detail really shows and Disney is, of course, notorious for that.

GH: Most recently, you were the Senior Vice President of Marketing. What role do you feel marketing can play with building organizational cultures of enduring greatness?

JD: I think marketing is storytelling and so to a certain extent we’re taking the culture of who we are and magnifying it. Sometimes organically, sometimes through paid media or other ways to get the word out such as social media; the key is knowing your story well and then cultivating it. I like the word cultivating because it’s all about planting seeds and helping things grow. We know ourselves well then plant seeds by looking for those great stories that exemplify our culture and telling them well.

GH: In your book, “Beyond the Castle: A Guide to Discovering Your Happily Ever After,” you share about some of the principles behind the magic of Disney. What is one that readers can apply to their work today? 

JD: I think the biggest overarching principle is that the magic isn’t really magic at all. Spoiler alert: everyone wants the secret pixie dust that you can just sprinkle and then thrive. But the thing about pixie dust is you have to give it away and spread it, and that takes hard work – not magic.

We can all tend toward having destination anxiety, where it’s all about this point in the future and how will we ever get there. But the truth is that happily ever after can start today, it just takes attention, deliberate action, and hard work. For example, taking the time and effort to go all the way back to basics around hiring and training. There’s a lot that can be done early on that makes a big difference, just think of the story I told from my early days at Disney. I think there are a lot of people out there in business that do not understand their organization’s culture and why they do what they do. I’m a big fan of discovering the why before we get into tactics; passion can fuel purpose and purpose can fuel passion.

GH: You will be a special guest at the Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship this November. Can you share about what gets you excited about speaking to this group of leaders?

JD: We talk about 4 C’s at Disney: Character, Culture, Curiosity, and Celebrate. So to use a Disney phrase, at the Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship we’re going to have a lot of characters getting curious about and celebrating culture! I love working with leaders who want to grow and get better which is why I’m so excited about the Fellowship. This is a group of like-minded leaders who will be able to share best practices and learn from one another, then use the fuel that’s generated to create momentum in their own organizations. I think that’s going to be a real winning combination.

Regardless of the type of organization you work for, we all play a part in creating culture, so as Jody said, sometimes we all have to pick up trash! I want to encourage all of you to join us at The Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship this November 12-15 at the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now through August 31, you can use the code JODY to receive 10% off your registration. I hope you’ll join me as we experience the power of a group of leaders who want to get better and do better, to impact organizations and to impact the world.

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