These 4 Principles Drive Disney’s Organizational Culture

CommPRO Global, Inc.  |

“Develop your sense of humor and eventually it will develop you.”

-Walt Disney

Disney is a name that carries clout and evokes images of excellence - and that also goes for The Disney University. Mention this highly-regarded institution to any business leader and the question that often follows is:

“How do they develop the world’s most engaged, loyal and customer-centric employees, year after year?”

The simple explanation for the Disney (DIS) University’s success can be attributed to the levels of support and clarity of purpose found in the Four Circumstances, organizational values promoted by Walt Disney and the founder of the Disney University, Van France. All play vital roles in creating an organizational culture that has sustained “The Happiest Place on Earth” at Disney theme parks for over 57 years.

Absent the kinds of values found in the Four Circumstances, employee development and organizational culture initiatives are bound to fail; even the best funded organizational “universities” are doomed to become universities-in-name-only.

Circumstance #1: Innovation

Leaders must be innovative and comfortable with risk.

This circumstance reveals the traits associated with those who break new ground: the pioneers who are not afraid to take risks. Van France took Walt Disney’s lead by relentlessly focusing on being innovative, creating an ever-evolving learning culture by challenging the status-quo.

Similar to Walt Disney, Van France brought up pointed and controversial ideas that kept the Disney leadership thinking. France’s zeal for creating The Happiest Place on Earth through innovation, and challenging entrenched behavioral patterns and beliefs, is evident in a passage he created for an early 1980’s Disneyland management training program:

“Budgets, schedules, reports, more reports, union negotiations, training programs, meetings … more meetings, handbooks, cover-your-ass memos and the endless things which take up your time are of no value unless they end up producing A HAPPY GUEST.”

Van didn’t hesitate to stir the pot.

Circumstance #2: Support

Leaders must provide overt, enthusiastic and sustained support; be cheerleaders of employee development!

This circumstance adds a component lacking in too many organizations; unabashed organizational support. From Walt and Roy Disney, and then to many generations of Disney leaders, management participates in Disney University programs.

Unless those from the highest ranks of management back employee development, it won’t happen; leadership must be intimately involved and set the tone. Picture the following: When the Chairman of Disney Studios sits down with a group of managers—participating in a multi-day Creative Leadership seminar— to discuss the creative side of making and distributing films, everyone listens.

No one is ‘too big’ to participate in training at Disney.

Circumstance #3: Education

Employee education and development must be woven into organizational culture.

Without a doubt, this circumstance reveals the roots of the Disney University; Walt’s long-standing value of providing employees a tailored, relevant training and education experience.

Walt often brought into the Studio prominent educators and artists, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, to give classes and lectures to the animators. Their innovative ideas and outside-the-box thinking became an invaluable source of inspiration.

Education, offered consistently and with creativity, is an indispensable commodity held in high esteem in the history and culture of The Walt Disney Company.

Circumstance #4: Entertain

Employee development … ranging from the front lines to the executive suite … must be entertaining, engaging and memorable … not boring and forgettable.

Van France and generations of Disney University leaders share Walt Disney’s belief that it is possible to entertain and educate. Employing entertainment as a training strategy goes well beyond telling jokes and laughing. It is a powerful tool that can increase trainee engagement and ensure the retention of new concepts.

A famous Walt quote reflects the roots of this value, “When the subject permits, we let fly with all the satire and gags at our command. Laughter is no enemy to learning.”

Culture is Much More Than Pixie Dust

Van France and his team of employee development pioneers brought to life the values found in the Four Circumstances. Disney corporate leadership along with Van and his team of strong-willed visionaries created a corporate culture and an organizational DNA well before these words were ever in vogue. They didn’t just go to the store, buy pixie dust and start throwing it around. Their tireless devotion to perpetuate Walt Disney’s dream, plus the game-changing business concepts they created, helped build a resilient organizational culture that has overcome tremendous challenges and is respected around the world.

Excerpt from Disney U: How Disney University Develops the World’s Most Engaged, Loyal and Customer-Centric Employees Published by McGraw-Hill Professional, March, 2013

About the Author: Doug Lipp helped create the first international version of the Disney University at Tokyo Disneyland and then lead the Disney University Training team at Disney’s corporate headquarters, The Walt Disney Studios. He mentored under a number of Disney visionaries, including the Disney University founder, Van France. He is a consultant to corporations around the world.

You can find the original article at CommPRO.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:


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