Leading Disney in Difficult Times: Lessons From Covid-19

Leading Disney in Difficult Times: Lessons From Covid-19

We are recording this podcast on the last day of March, 2020. A traumatic event like this Coronavirus Pandemic makes one feel like he or she is out of control. But what makes a leader great is not so much because they are in control–though they need to exercise great self control–but rather, because they enlarge their circle of influence in times of difficulty. We present seven things leaders at Disney is trying to do to intentionally lead through this crisis.

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NOTE: Two days after this podcast was released, Disney issued furloughs on its non-essential employees. They have managed to pay everyone for five weeks. They continue to care for not only the health care premiums the company was paying for, but what the employee was paying for as well. They have also committed to paying for people who were being compensated on the Aspire program, which provides college funding. That’s more than most companies have done. Still, it’s very hard news for thousands of Disney Cast Members throughout. Hopefully this pandemic will soon come to an end.

Again, providing this podcast is problematic, because this isn’t over, and there will surely be more to come, even events that may overrule the concepts shared. But I think other people and organizations are trying to get a grip on things, and this provides a benchmark to learn from. On that note, be sure to listen to the entire podcast.

1. Stay True to What You Value

Disney is about creating happiness. A guest coming down with the virus is not going to create happiness for anyone. An infection that spreads is even less so. How does Disney create happiness? For decades its’ number one standard is Safety. Safety matters.

I did a post/podcast on the Disney’s number 1 standard, safety. Check out Episode 49. In our podcast, we share succinct statements by Disney that drives this.

2. Withdraw From Spotlight & Speculation

I did that Safety podcast at the same time that the Disney Skyliner had a mishap. With all that Disney was investing to build out it’s number one resort, all that seemed to be talked about was the incident about the Skyliner. Disney knew right away that it must do everything it can to manage what it may say about any given incident.

Disney has limited the amount of news coming from the organization. It does not want its name written in connection with the word Coronavirus or Covid-19. It does not want to be the poster child or the hero in this situation. They want to lay low and minimize their press. Look at their websites, and you see very little about the major disruptions that as come to this organization. Even if Disney was able to make itself the safest place in the universe, perception is reality. Therefore, their best course is to lay low.

We contrast this in the podcast with an Amazon worker who was fired after he led a walkout at a New York City facility. This is leading to terribly negative publicity for Amazon.

3. Keep Engaging Your Customers

One of the things Disney has done has been to put Frozen II direct to Disney+ ahead of the intended release date. It also has made Onward available for online rental or purchase.

Forbes has stated: “They get to sell these early releases as Disney not as a distraction but rather as being there for families in a time of need. Well played.”

Frozen II. Image by Disney.

During this same time Disney is offering to those guests whose reservations were cancelled free dining plans. They are providing incentives as well to those whose Disney cruise was cancelled. We cover the implications of this as well in our podcast. All of this lends to better engaging your customers in times of difficulty.

4. Be Intentional & Proactive. Better Yet, Anticipatory

Disney Cruise Line has always had in place several proactive, even anticipatory measures when dealing with Norovirus on its ships:

  • Changing Out Tongs
  • Encouraging hand washing before entering restaurants
  • Manning restrooms during busy evening hours

More recently, it took even more proactive, anticipatory measures.

  • Removing Self Service Dining
  • Doing Fever Checks on Both Guests and Crew Members
  • Holding doors open in those restrooms so guests don’t touch them.

The result was that while other cruise lines ended up being breakout locations early in the spread of the virus, Disney stayed out of the press until the very last cruise, where they found out after all guests had disembarked that some had come down with the virus. We offer additional examples on the podcast.

Service Consistency on the Disney Cruise Line
Disney Cruise Line. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

5. Get Out & Serve

There is nothing like service to build espirit de corp, camaraderie, and a bonding like no other. People Disney has a great tradition of doing so much of this through their VoluntEar program. While they haven’t been able to mobilize during this time of sequestration, food left over from the hotels was given to charities, and they will continue to find new ways to serve moving forward.

Image by Disney.

6. Avoid Termination at All Costs

Disney stepped forward practically before any other major US corporation to say it was going to do its best to keep its Cast Members on the payroll.

Just a few days ago on March 27th, Disney penned another email to its employees, the same one I broke down a few minutes ago. Then it added the following:

“The Walt Disney company has been paying its Cast Members since the closure of the parks, and in light of this ongoing and increasingly complex crisis, we have made the decision to extend paying hourly parks and resorts Cast Members through April 18.”

Meanwhile, Disney executives are receiving pay cuts at the company looks to save as much money as possible during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) closures. The pay cuts are as follows:

  • Bob Iger – Forgoing entire salary
  • Bob Chapek – 50% pay cut
  • Executive Vice Presidents – 30% pay cut
  • Senior Vice Presidents – 25% pay cut
  • Vice Presidents – 20% pay cut
Bob Iger & Bob Chapek. Photo by Disney.

7. Stay Supportive of Employees

If you want to be successful as a manager or owner, be more supportive of your employees than anyone else. If you truly show more concern, more empathy, more of a listening ear, more care than others, employees will work with you, not against you. We share a powerful example of this in a letter Josh D’Amaro, President of Walt Disney world, sent to Cast Members.

You do not want to make a time of crisis the opportunity for your critics to prove how little you care for your employees.

Josh D’Amaro, President of Walt Disney World, sent out an email out to the Cast today. We share the entire letter on the podcast, but at the heart of it is this quote, which was shared in bold:

We are the Cast Members of the Walt Disney World Resort. We are the heart and soul of this special place. We are a family. We are … the magic.

Josh D’Amaro. Photo by Disney.

Souvenirs for You & Your Organization

As in all Disney at Work podcasts, we offer the following for your reflection and consideration:

  • How are you keeping yourself and others focused on what really matters, on what you really value?
  • What are you doing to send and maintain the right message?
  • How are you staying connected with your customers, by showing them how valuable they are?
  • Are you intentional and proactive in times of crisis? Better yet, how are you anticipating times of crisis?
  • How are you finding ways to focus you and your employees on selflessly serving others?
  • Are you doing everything you can to avoid terminating your employees?
  • How are you personally sacrificing as a leader for your employees?
  • Do you care more than anyone else about your employees?
  • How are you staying employee supportive? If so, what are you doing to make that happen?

Does Your Organization Need Help in Difficult Times?

Good news! We offer real tools, with best practices from great organizations, to include Disney. Check out this site for an overview, and contact us today to see how we can help you move your organization through the chaos and to the next level.

J. Jeff Kober