The fact that Disneyworld is celebrating its 50th-anniversary in 2021 brings a bit of sadness to me. All those balloons, fireworks, branded anniversary costumes, and television specials all remind me that it’s been 25 years since I worked at Disneyworld during their 25th-anniversary celebrations. With that in mind, I thought it would be apropos to share with you one of the most critical aspects of business management I learned from Disney University–the design of their company values, otherwise known as the 4 Keys.
What are Disney’s Values?
For 65 years, Disney has relied upon a shortlist of four core values. Not a list of 15 essential characteristics like you see in so many employee handbooks. Not an obscure set of fancy words framed on the walls in the boardroom. Disney has four simple values that every one of their cast members knows by heart and lives every day:
The order of those company values is important, too. They are prioritized to direct cast member decision-making.
How do the Disney Values work?
The best story I heard from a Cast Member about living the values was shared at a SHRM HR Conference years after I left Disney. The Cast Member’s role was to drive a safari vehicle at the Animal Kingdom–a ride with an actual driver, a real vehicle, and live animals. No tracks, automation, or animatronics for this experience. Here’s the story he told:
“One day, as I was driving the truck in the safari ride, I turned a corner and saw up ahead that there was a rhino standing in the middle of the road. And it wasn’t just any rhino. It was a female rhino. There was one truck between us and the rhino, and the truck slowly approached the rhino and started honking at it. The rhino, now startled, strolled off the road and into the field. As the truck moved on, that’s when I knew we were in trouble.
You see, a female rhino means her male rhino mate isn’t far behind. And when you scare a female rhino, the male rhino becomes enraged. And as I suspected, the male rhino got up from the tall grass and made its way towards the next truck coming down the road…ours.
There’s not a lot of training about what to do for every possible human-animal interaction in the park, so I did the only thing I could think of. I relied on the Four Keys.
First, I stopped the vehicle. Disney operates smoothly by working efficiently. We know how long you will wait in a queue line because we know exactly how long our vehicles move, and our scripts are timed to the second. With tens of thousands of people in our park every day, your experience relies on our efficiency. Stopping a vehicle means that every other vehicle behind you stops. And that means the queue line stops. But at this moment, that value was no longer important.
Next, I told my passengers, ‘This is not part of the show. We’ve come across an angry rhinoceros, and he’s going to charge our vehicle. It’s going to be scary, and he’s going to knock us really hard. This is not planned–this is a real-life angry animal encounter. You need to sit very still and no matter what happens, don’t make any noise. Don’t scream, don’t yell, don’t move.’ This was important because creating a magical experience where you feel transported into our ‘show’ is why people come to Disneyworld. Whether you’re laughing or terrified, you can rest assured it’s all part of the experience. I needed my passengers to know that this was not planned.
Finally, as I looked at my passengers and saw a few tourists grab their cell phones and lean out to take pictures and video of the rhino as it started heading towards us, I yelled at them…really yelled at them…’Get your body in the vehicle and SIT DOWN NOW. Hold on tight and get the kids in between you. PUT THE CAMERAS AWAY. It’s going to hit us HARD.’ Being courteous was no longer important.
My primary goal was to keep us safe. Safety is the number one value above all else in our parks.
As I braced myself, I saw the rhino come charging just as predicted. He huffed and puffed, and dust flew behind his feet as he began to run. He tucked his head down into his shoulders. Suddenly he rammed the vehicle with a huge THUD, and the whole truck shook back and forth. I heard gasps, but otherwise, just stunned silence.
And then the rhino gave me a look that said, ‘Don’t ever do that again,’ and turned to walk off after the female. He showed his power, and his message was clear. I looked at my passengers, and while they were pretty shaken up, not a single passenger was injured.”
How do you live your values?
What are your company’s values? If you’re like most companies, I can probably name several of them: service, integrity, honesty, community, excellence, quality, continuous improvement, local, diversity, and kindness.
To make your values really effective, you need to break down the list and discuss the top values. If it’s more than 4 or 5, all you’re saying is that you don’t know what your priorities are, and your employees won’t remember them all anyway.
Values are essential to your company for one reason. They help your employees make decisions aligned with the company’s mission and vision.
Creating a shortlist of critical values and prioritizing it as Disney did is arduous work. It may be the most challenging work your executive team does all year. Sharing stories to illustrate how employees can use the values to make decisions will increase their autonomy, grow their engagement, and positively reflect customer satisfaction and sales.
Done correctly, your values should live on for decades. They shouldn’t require updates at your annual strategic planning session. I know from my experience that Disney’s Four Keys are at least 25 years old, and according to their website, they have led their decision-making for 65 years. It’s only now that they are amending the list to add one new and significant value: “inclusion.”
Are You Ready to Revisit Your Company’s Values?
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