Today, December 5th, Is Walt Disney’s Birthday. That’s Something to Celebrate!

Walt Disney the Iconoclast at his prime (1955)

Today, December 5, is Walt Disney’s birthday. Born in 1901, Walt Disney passed away on December 15, 1966 at the age of 65. As a legendary and iconoclastic entrepreneur, his rags-to-riches life story is one of amazing and inspiring entrepreneurial courage and success.

Walt Disney was a tenacious visionary who dedicated his life to the pursuit of entertaining and educating the masses. Time magazine declared Disney as one of the top 20 “Builders and Titans” of the 20th Century, in good company with people like Henry Ford, Sam Walton, and IBM’s Thomas Watson Jr.

In a poll conducted in 1967 by the University of Michigan to ascertain opinions as to the greatest entrepreneur in American history, Disney placed second, right behind Henry Ford, and ahead of such luminaries as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Nelson Rockefeller, and other industrious giants of American business.

Curiosity, Confidence, Courage and Commitment

What made Walt Disney different from most was his possession of rare attributes of entrepreneurial tenacity, curiosity, confidence, courage, commitment and imagination. He lived a value-centred life that helped to guide his assessment of problems and opportunities, and most importantly, his decisions and actions.

Walt Disney was able, time after time, to organize capital, people, and processes in order to take an idea he conjured up in his imagination and create it in reality in a way that positively influenced the lives of millions of people.

In his heyday, Walt Disney was the world’s most recognizable and popular entrepreneur and global celebrity. In 1966, the year of his death, an estimated 240 million people worldwide watched a Disney movie, 100 million watched a Disney television show every week, and 80 million read a Disney book or magazine. In 1968, there were almost ten million visitors to Disneyland in California, more people than visited the U.S. National Parks combined.

Prime Mover and Innovator

The key creative force and prime mover behind all of this was Walt Disney himself, as those who worked closely with him were quick to acknowledge.

Walt’s career as an artist began in Kansas City in October 1919, at a time when technological innovation was just beginning to drive changes in cinematography and movie exhibition that would continue over the following decades.

While many companies were making cartoons ‘shorts’ to be exhibited prior to the feature movie back in the early decades of the twentieth century, Walt Disney’s studio was the first to successfully add synchronized music and sound effects to animation (Steamboat Willie, 1928); introduced the first full-color cartoon (Flowers and Trees, 1932); added depth to visual dimension with the multi-plane camera (The Old Mill, 1937); created the first full-length feature cartoon (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937) which proved that animated features were viable if they were done with Disney quality and integrity; and expanded the audio dimension with RCA in the development of multi-channel sound (“Fantasound” for Fantasia, 1940).

Walt was the first Hollywood mogul to embrace television and establish its commercial value (1954); introduced the first TV infomercial (one of his first TV shows was a documentary on the making of his soon to be released live-action movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea); demonstrated the educational potential of television through entertaining nature documentaries; captured the imaginations of Americans for a manned space program to the moon; redefined the amusement park and invent the theme park (Disneyland, 1955); brought his animated characters to life through robotic animation entertainment (Audio-Animatronics, first introduced in The Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, and on a greater scale by Disney at the New York World’s Fair in 1964); and demonstrated the viability of modern transportation systems like monorails and automated people-movers.

He was also a maverick of service innovation and set the benchmark for customer-focused managerial practices and service standards that more than a half a century later, most service companies can only dream of emulating.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Walt Disney thrived on the challenge of pushing forward the boundaries of applied technology in the field of entertainment. He was the consummate first-mover and early-adaptor, and shrewdly and purposefully used these technological innovations to his competitive advantage. His perpetual forward momentum to pursue his ideals against all obstacles and nay-sayers made him the poster boy for the idealized American entrepreneurial spirit.

Walt Disney is the untiring business hero who, time after time, risks everything he owns to create something new, something bigger, something better, only to wake up the next morning with a new dream and a bigger vision to work towards as soon as he can muster up the time and resources to devote to it. He developed ideas, incubated projects, and experimented with concepts and technology development for years, and in some cases for decades, before bringing them to commercial fruition.

Walt assumed many roles over his 45 year career: he was a cartoonist, film-maker, technological innovator, TV celebrity, Hollywood Studio mogul, serial entrepreneur, business executive, urban planner, and real-estate tycoon. He was visionary and successful in each phase of his career, but success never came easily. The story of Walt Disney is the story of his struggles to overcome business challenges and obstacles along his life trajectory.

The Benchmark for Excellence

Walt was a chronic perfectionist. His explicit attitude was that he would spend whatever it took in terms of time and money to make Disney films like Snow White and Pinocchio, and other Disney projects such as Disneyland and his involvement in the 1964 New York’s World’s Fair the benchmark of excellence. Many times he drove his company to the brink of bankruptcy in pursuit of his unique vision of what could and should be, in terms of improved quality, technological innovation, “product” perfection, and overall excellence. He put top-line creation ahead of bottom-line profits, By committing to do more and go further than his competitors would dare even imagine, he was able to deliver unique value to consumers, and win their admiration, respect, good-will, and ultimately, their entertainment dollars.

Walt Disney was a passionate pursuer of values; a man struggling to create in reality the ideas he incubated in his imagination. He brought unbounded enthusiasm to each of his projects and had unshakable confidence in his own ability and that of his staff to achieve the desired results where others saw only looming disaster. The perceived recklessness of Walt’s behavior helped him earn a reputation amongst bankers, competitors, and even employees and friends at times, as being difficult to do business with and needlessly irresponsible. They failed to see the world of business opportunity, risk, reward, and value creation the same way Walt did.

Time and again, Walt Disney proved them wrong.

Pursuing Opportunities and Overcoming Barriers

Where Walt imagined the possibilities inherent in opportunity and sought ways to overcome barriers so as to create valued products to make customers happy, others focused their imaginations on perceiving only the barriers and risks that stand between new ideas and success. Where others saw only storm clouds, Walt saw both the storm clouds and the rainbows that would inevitably follow.

Throughout his career, Walt held contempt for the viewpoint as popular in his day as it is now, that business leaders should provide products of the lowest quality standards the buying public will let them get away with, because doing so is the best way to minimize financial risks and maximize profits.

Value and Respect Your Customers As People

For Walt, this minimalist viewpoint betrayed proper human and business values and diminished human dignity by demonstrating disrespect for the customers, and equally important, demonstrated a disrespect for one’s own character and integrity. Customers are the people the business is organized to serve and who hold and play the cards that will determine whether a business will be successful or not. Walt never lost sight of the fact that to stay in business he had to find ways to balance his own personal passions, interests and values with those of audiences he sought to entertain.

Walt was “old-fashioned” enough to believe that success was achieved by earning an honest buck. His personal values were also his business values, and he held fast to those values throughout his careers in order to guide his difficult and turbulent path to entrepreneurial greatness.

How Walt put all of this together to build an empire that still dominates 50 years after his death is the story I tell in my book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press). Illuminating Walt Disney’s path to success can provide inspiration to anyone seeking to traverse their own paths to entrepreneurial and managerial success by turning imagination and future vision into tomorrow’s reality.

Happy Birthday, Walt Disney!

Barry Linetsky is the author of The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success, published by Theme Park Press and available at amazon.

Starbucks’ Howard Schultz on the Importance of a Business Mission

Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash

I really like this quote below from Howard Schultz, executive chairman and former CEO of Starbucks, on the importance of a business mission, and how they used both a top-down and bottom-up process to ensure inclusiveness when developing their strategic framework. Note that what Schultz was seeking first and foremost was an expression of guiding values and beliefs to frame a shared purpose and behaviour that would resonate and give meaning to Starbucks’ people and their aspirations.

The excerpt is from his book Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time (Hyperion, 1999: 131). Read more

The Business of Fake News

An example of what national networks deemed newsworthy based on their hierarchy of values in 2016.

The Internet and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have democratized the news business. Anyone can now participate as self-proclaimed media, regardless of their credentials, viewpoint, and moral integrity.

As media consumers, we hope that the criteria for acceptability are the veracity of the story and quality of reporting, but that’s not always the case. In today’s “post-modernist” culture, where irrationality and emotionalism are embraced as valid windows into knowledge and truth, wishes often take precedence over facts both for reporters and their audiences. And with the abuse of truth and facts culturally rampant at this time, the result has been a competition amongst those in the news supply business to manufacture headlines, and sometimes entire stories, in order to have them go viral and to trend. Read more

Foundational Thinking for Good Business

Good epistemology is the foundation for Good Business

High-level conceptual thinking is a critically important skill for successful business leaders. This skill consists primarily of the process of observation and logic to form concepts of increasing integration and complexity. When done right, lower-level concepts become embedded in higher-level concepts, with each rising conceptual level being an integration of appropriate and valid lower-level concepts.

The structure of higher-level concept formation is one that moves from lower level perceptual observations and concepts that can be affirmed from the direct evidence of the senses, to highly abstract concepts that subsume multiple levels and broad integrations of lower and intermediate level concepts. This process of concept formation allows us to embrace and manage the increasing volume of information and complexity embedded in higher-level concepts and work. Read more

10 Disruptive Meeting and Workshop Behaviours to Avoid

People abuse meetings and meetings abuse people.

We are all victims of far too many unnecessary and meaningless meetings.

While managers always complain about this scourge of corporate life, they are themselves commonly the reason for bad meeting behaviour. Rising through the corporate ranks sometimes appears to be a license for engaging in and promoting such disruptive, unproductive, and costly behaviour. Read more

Author Barry Linetsky

Dr. Leonard Berry’s 10 Lessons of Service Quality

Dr. Leonard Berry’s Lessons of Service Quality 1993

While working in the Corporate Planning & Development division at Aetna Canada with SVP Dobri Stojsic in the early 1990s, our small team of strategists was charged with developing a customer service strategy for the organization that would help Aetna become “the recognized leader in service to targeted financial intermediaries and group sponsors.”

This was no small undertaking.

In searching for a methodology to develop a measurable strategy, we discovered the pioneering work of three academic leaders in the field: Leonard Berry, Valarie Zeithaml, and A. Parasuraman. At the time, the work was generally referred to as SERVQUAL. We gathered as much of their published work as we could find and used it as the basis to develop a unique service quality strategy

We created a theoretical and practical process at Aetna that was extremely successful in developing a multi-faceted customer-focused service-quality game plan that was meaningful to customers and employees, and significantly improved the service culture and brand reputation of the company over a number of iterations.

The process we developed for Aetna was later converted into a service quality strategy MBA course and taught for a number of years by Dobri Stojsic in the University of Toronto’s MBA program (now Rotman School of Management). We also converted it into a consulting product for The Strategic Planning Group to help many of our blue chip clients develop and implement service quality plans, among them two large Canadian banks.

On January 15, 1993, Dr. Leonard L. Berry, one of the masterminds behind the original service quality research, Dr. Leonard L. Berry gave a talk titled “Lessons of Service Quality” at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto at an event sponsored by the University of Toronto’s Institute of Market Driven Quality (IMDQ), founded and lead by Dr. Douglas Snetsinger, who was also Director of Rotman’s MBA program at the time.

At the time Dr. Berry held the JC Penny Chair of Retail Studies and was the Director of the Center for Retailing Studies in the College of Business Administration at Texas A&M University, and was the former national president of the American Marketing Association. He is the author of a number of excellent books: Service Quality: A Profit Strategy for Financial Institutions (1989); Delivering Quality Service: Balancing Customer Perceptions and Expectations (1990); Marketing Services: Competing Through Quality (1991); On Great Service: A Framework for Action (1995); Discovering the Soul of Service: The Nine Drivers of Sustainable Business Success (1999); and Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic: Inside One of the World’s Most Admired Service Organizations (2008).

A more current profile of Marketing Legend Dr. Berry and 2016 interview can be found here.

Here are my notes from Dr. Berry’s presentation, which are as valid today as they were 25 years ago, and worth revisiting.

Dr. Leonard Berry’s Ten Lessons of Quality Service based on ten years of observation and research:

  1. It is too easy to overlook the customer.
  • When it comes to service, only the customer is judge and jury
  • It’s so easy to get it wrong
  1. Lack of commitment is often based on ignorance of management. They are committed, but don’t know what to do.
  • Middle managers must be on the service bus and involved in all service activities
  • Do a better job nurturing, developing, and promoting leaders into management positions
  1. Service quality is hard work.
  • Too often managers pursue an easy solution to a very difficult journey. Cultural change is hard work
  • Disney cleans every square foot every 15 minutes. They steam clean every square foot every evening
  1. It is important to keep the service promise.
  • Core of service quality is reliability, not friendliness
  1. Service quality is also service system design.
  • Service quality is often designed out of the service system
  • Pull of the old paradigm – doing it the way it has always been done. “If it ain’t been fixed, it will break.”
  1. Service excellence is more fun (not only more profitable).
  • Excellence requires the creation of an achievement culture
  1. Common sense in uncommon.
  • If common sense were common, service excellence would be much more prevalent
  • The frozen food section should be near the checkout
  • Q1: What would the customer think?
  • Q2: Does this decision pass the common sense test?
  1. Lesson of surprising customers.
  • You have to surprise customers to exceed their expectations
  • You have to exceed their expectations some of the time to achieve service excellence
  • Interactive opportunities (responsiveness, empathy, tangibles, assurance) are the way to exceed expectations
  1. Quality service and fair play are inseparable.
  • Customers expect fair play
  • If customers think you are being unfair, they think you have provided bad service
  • Customer trust is an important asset
  • Communicate openly both what and why
  • Guarantee your service
  • Ask the question: not only is it legal, but is it just? Is it fair?
  1. Competitive advantage of passion.
  • Needed to inspire leadership and change
  • Are our businesses (departments) run by dispassionate “just a job” managers?

Barry Linetsky is a Partner with The Strategic Planning Group, specializing in value-driven strategic management, and author of The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017), which is available in print and Kindle editions from amazon. A number of my business journal articles are available here. Visit www.BarryLinetsky.com. Twitter @BizPhilosopher.

© 2017, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.

 

Advice For New MBA Students

Prepare for obstacles on the road to an MBA

Shortly after completing my Fast-Track MBA at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Management in 1992 (now Rotman School of Management), I was invited to address the new incoming Fast-Track class to share my experiences and observations. Read more

Why Visionary Leaders Embrace the Value and Wisdom in Effectiveness

“Effectiveness is evaluated efficiency.” Russel Ackoff

Having completed my book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success and building a website, I’ve been able to spend time this spring and summer between work assignments catching up on some reading in areas of professional and personal interest. Read more

Walt Disney’s Method of Optimizing Success Through Failure

Walt Disney’s Persephone: The Goddess of Spring

Looking back at the long and varied career of Walt Disney, it seems that almost everything he touched – from Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse to Disneyland and Florida’s Walt Disney World – resulted in success.

Walt Disney surely had the golden touch.

The truth isn’t quite as kind. Walt wasn’t always right and his ideas weren’t always successful.

But Walt Disney was curious and honest, and therefore also committed to recognizing and assessing his own failures and learning from his mistakes. “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles have strengthened me,” he said. Read more

Walt Disney, Pinocchio, and Lessons for Leaders

Walt Disney’s Pinocchio

One of the attributes that made Walt Disney unique amongst movie studio heads in Hollywood was that he was both a businessman and an artist. Walt worked everyday with the sensitivity of an artist and the hardheadedness of an entrepreneurial business owner, leading and directing his artistic and technical staff to create high-quality entertainment that would bring joy and happiness to ordinary people.

Long-time Disney animator and director Wilfred Jackson (1906-1988) provides insight into how Walt worked on his earliest feature-length films in a series of retrospective correspondence letters with author and musician Ross Care from the mid-1970s through the early-1980s that are newly published in the book Disney Legend Wilfred Jackson: A Life in Animation (Theme Park Press, 2016). Read more