Creating Magic; Common Sense Strategies Book Review

I came across Lee Cockerell’s book Creating Magic while meandering through the boutique stores in Devonport one Saturday in December 2012. I finished highlighting the phrases in Easter and yet it’s taken until October to get this post up. Originally it was the subtitle ’10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney’ that intrigued me.  Especially when I realized the author, Cockerell, had in fact been Walt Disney World® Resorts Former Executive Vice President of Operations. Surely such a large organization would take more than common sense to be as sustainably successful as it appears?

Company culture is a popular phrase idealized by employees today. Who doesn’t fancy themselves working in Google-like environment? But Cockerell was an executive of a multi-billion dollar organization.  According to the book’s rear cover Disney sort to inspire employees, and indicated the book would share the magic with readers.  Surprisingly only two of the ten strategies were about organizational structure or procedure.  The remaining strategies dealt with people.  Cockerell says the “80:20 ratio reflects the vital importance of inspiring, motivating, teaching” respecting people (p. 16).  It’s these soft skills that are hardest and time consuming. Respecting and appreciating employees like Google does I wondered?

Creating Magic wasted no time with ‘The Disney Formula for Success’ being shared on just the seventh page:

Leadership –> Cast (Employee) Excellence –> Guest (Customer) Satisfaction –> Business Results

According to this book, leaders need to be generous, respect employees as individuals and be committed to their self-improvement (directly and in-directly related to their role or even the organizational mission). This sort of ‘people focus’ is trust-based and very personal.  When leadership is interested in employees to this level it “yields … dividends in [employee] co-operation, motivation and productivity” (p. 28). Everyone wants passionate employees! Cockerell had success when he tested his employees by allowing them to set their own productivity goals and accountability measures. A risky move?  Creating Magic explains how such a move needs to be managed with trust. For Cockerell’s team it turned out to be a very profitable. Disney employees were passionate and “happy to come to work, and … eager to give … energy, creativity and loyalty (p. 33).

Another risky experience for managers, covered in Creating Magic, is ‘letting go’. I know I have thrived when I was given room to flourish! Now as a leader myself, I realize ‘not being a micro-manager’ is a continual deliberate choice! Cockerell says this choice is sustainable when employees understand how their role specifically contributes to the overall mission.  We need to “give people a purpose, not just jobs” (p. 118). Managers need to ensure they are visible and accessible to help and guide employees. Responsibilities, authority and expectations need to be clearly communicated or significantly more management (and stress) will automatically be required.

There were a couple of acronyms mentioned, but my favorite was ARE (which stands for Appreciation, Recognition and Encouragement). Cockerell recommends ARE being applied to all employees (AND their families) regardless of their position in the organization.  He says it’s “a cost free, fully sustainable fuel, one that builds self-confidence and self-esteem, boosts individual and team performance (p. 188). To do this, managers need to know their team personally.  Feedback and even rewards will be maximized when delivered based on their individual personality and preference. Cockerell acknowledges that being personally involved takes more time. But has immediate and significant long-term benefits.  Being able to collect employee concerns and ideas as they arise seems like a priceless benefit to me.

Cockerell suggested lots of things to help employer/employee relationships. Two of the suggested questions I thought sounded really sensible for employers or team-leaders to ask:

“Is there anything standing in the way of great performance?” (p. 171).  And
“Is there anything else you want to tell me?” (p. 178).

Like the author I have noticed this last question –when sincerely asked- often opens up a fresh perspective on both known, and unknown issues.

Ideally leaders are in tune with operations enough to proactively sort issues.  However, from time-to-time issues arise. When they do, Cokerell made an interesting point. Issues usually are procedure or policy based. It is important to fully analyze situations and environments, don’t presume anything!  Staff “discipline is necessary only when someone intentionally ignores procedures” and their responsibilities (p. 147). I also agree with Cockerell’s suggestion that correction never be in front of an audience and that it should be done “quietly, directly and honestly to the person involved” (p.67). This ‘no fuss’ resolution is important to ensure the organizational culture is not negatively impacted.

As leaders we should be motivating and inspiring all stakeholders. Everyone needs to understand expectations of them and how to participate in the team culture.  It is a leaders responsibility to gain support and action from staff towards approved objectives. I personally found it reassuring to realize it’s OK to set standards high – as long as I’m 100% committed to empowering staff to surpass them. Credibility as a leader is hinged in consistency – not just financial outcomes either. From the content of Creating Magic it seems the things that are the most challenging (the people areas of leadership), actually have the biggest impact on sustainable success.  I will finish with a quote that will continue to challenge and inspire me, “when you have … moral authority, people will trust you and believe in you, and then you can accomplish anything” (p. 257).

If you are interested, below is a 20 minute interview filmed in Disneyland with Cockerell sharing his thoughts (which I felt were very relevant) on ‘creating magic’ for organizations or individuals.

I hope this has whet your appetite and you will read Creating Magic – you may like to buy a hard-copy or soft-copy here.

UPDATE: Cockerell has since made available a ‘teachers guide’ for use in classrooms. After reading it I felt it could also be used in adult/corporate book clubs too. They probing questions will help you relate the contents of the book into your current environment. Very cool! If you go to Cockerell’s site, click on ‘Lee’s Books’ Tab. Then click on the cover of Creating Magic a link will appear to download the guide. Or click here.

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