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Disney: The Meaningful Organisation?

Disney: The Meaningful Organisation?

What makes Disney magical and how HR practitioners can learn and leverage on these principles?

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by Ben Whitter

In the summer of 2016, the latest Disney theme park will open in Shanghai in a $5.5 Billion joint-venture with the state-owned enterprise, Shanghai Shendi Group. It’s an exciting and ambitious development for the Disney brand and one aspect in particular that has been studied in some depth in relation to this global giant is the employee experience.

At a time when there is apparently a worldwide employee engagement crisis, when the very concept of ‘engagement’ is starting to look like history, Disney,  according to many former and current employees, is the source of much inspiration through the way in which it connects its employee and customer experiences.

From their connected ‘Cast Members’ (terminology used to describe its employees), to Disney University (where new employees learn about the vision, purpose and values behind Disney), and to their overall employee and customer-centred ethos, Disney has been consistently cited as a model to follow across sectors.

Globally, with only 13% of employees highly engaged within the economy, there have been pointed suggestions that something is fundamentally wrong in the way organisations are built and developed yet Disney and the +90,000 employees who complete its annual staff survey express high levels of pride in Disney as an employer and as a business.

This undeniably strong connection between the consumer brand and the employer brand simply did not happen by accident. It has been cultivated throughout strategy, business operations, and a conscious mandate to link staff with customers to deliver more valuable and meaningful experiences.

Widening the focus, but in a connected manner, organisations in general are starting to deeply question how they can create their own brand of magic and meaning; the questions are getting louder as the current drivers of meaning within organisations are fading because we heard in 2015 that:

  • Human Resources is old-School, incomplete, and leaves much to be desired, is it time to say bye, bye to that function and move on?
  • Performance management has seen better days and is being scrapped by leading employers and former advocates.
  • Benefits and perks alone are not enough, free food anyone?
  • The leadership challenge is getting bigger every day, do we really need managers anyway?
  • Workplace culture is fluffy talk and matters little to the bottom-line. Is it really important that employers think about the cultures they create within their organisations?

This crowded narrative is challenging the shape of the future workplace, and for all the talk of change, the status quo remains the same in one very important way and always will do.

The truth is straightforward. It is our human quest and mission to find meaning within our lives and work that really ignites our performance and ability to make a huge contribution in whatever we are doing. Would anyone really disagree with that?

This ‘engagement’ factor. This utopia of high motivation, high commitment and subsequent high performance to deliver great results and outcomes for an employer, a business, an organisation, or any institution is something a lot of employers invest in and make plans to achieve (as much as they can or want to).

But many don’t as the implications of our individual and collective search for meaning remain underplayed and not very well explored within organisations. How could this be?

"The most important days of our life revolve around moments of meaning where we find a purpose which powerfully drives us beyond what we initially thought was possible."

We flow forward sometimes with relative ease as challenges and obstacles are swept away because we are so very connected to something so much bigger than ourselves. When this happens, do you think we have been ‘engaged’ or have we simply found the meaning we were searching for?

As Disney seems to understand within its theme park business, a great employee experience creates ambassadors. A great customer experience creates ambassadors. And the two combined? Well, that is a force to be reckoned with. I recall a trip to Disneyland in Hong Kong. There was one ‘cast member’ who didn’t really offer me that brand of excellent Disney customer service I had consistently experienced. My instant, and politely delivered, response was something like ‘this is simply not good enough for Disney.’ Wow. Ambassadorship of the highest order…from me! I was a committed customer and a fan of the Disney business. It seems bizarre to advocate in this way for a corporate multi-billion dollar juggernaut, but we all have our favourites I’m sure, and therein lies the magic of successful businesses at any level.

If it’s as simple and plain as creating meaning within the workplace for employees, how many organisations really and genuinely understand this and build their operations and strategy around it?

Bob Iger, CEO at Disney says that:

“I want Disney to be one of the most admired companies in the world, and we cannot do it without our employees…I want us to be admired by the people who know us best–our employees. I want people to be proud to work here, to feel good about what we do and how we do it…That’s why it’s so gratifying to hear that the vast majority of our employees are proud to work at Disney.”

Our colleague, Bob Kelleher of the The Engagement Group, will tell you that ‘employee engagement is not a programme, it’s a culture’, and in this regard the workplace becomes an experience not just for our customers, but our staff too in what becomes a meaningful partnership.

Think about that for a moment or two. What were the key moments of your work life that brought real meaning to you and the organisation? When did you perform to your highest potential? At what point in your career did you move forward with absolute confidence and belief in what you were doing? Meaningful organisations make this happen with you, not for you. It’s a meaningful partnership, and if you both hit the sweet spot, performance and success follow in abundance.

Rethinking the concept of engagement (or HR for that matter), is nowhere near new or original. It’s been around just about long enough for people to start to realize that it could well be flawed in many critical ways, as Bersin pointed out for us last year.

For those reasons, and many more, the employee experience has come into real focus to deliver more meaningful organisations. As many colleagues have mentioned on my previous posts, it appears that connecting everything within the employee experience makes total sense in much the same way as we try to do for our customers. Employee and customer-centricity. Sounds good, doesn’t it? It should. Customers engage because they find meaning in your brand and it is absolutely the case that employees go through a similar process based on their experience of organisations as not just an employee, but also as a potential or current customer, which is a powerful combination.

The rise of the meaningful organisation is upon us and is the reason why the Academy of Management is exclusively focused on the topic of ‘Making Organisations Meaningful’ at their 2016 conference.

Why is it becoming so important? Because every single thing we do within organisations carries meaning. I’m not going to give you a top 10 things that create meaningful companies list just yet. I would simply ask you to reflect on your day, your year, your career and tell me how meaningful it was for you and your team. There’s a list that really matters.

Today, tomorrow, and right now, seek to become aware of the meaning that surrounds you. You may, as Simon Sinek advises, want to Start With Why, but I know at the end of your career when you look back on your success and your ‘perceived’ failures, that you will no doubt hope to Finish with Meaning.

That’s where success can be found: within meaningful organisations, meaningful careers, and ultimately, meaningful lives.