Training Employees to Envision the 'Big Picture'

How does a large enterprise with multiple segments develop employees who are high performers within their units but also fully aligned with enterprise values and goals? Walt Disney World found a way, and it is changing how corporations approach employee development.
By Dave Desouza

Many companies have distinct operating segments or units with different goals. They work for the same company but are often focused on their units independent of the overall goals of the enterprise. The assumption is: Meet the segment goals, and the company will succeed.

This was not workable for a company like The Walt Disney Company (TWDC), which needs the magic to flow whether employees are working on the next blockbuster film or greeting children in a character costumes in the parks and resorts. The company decided to change its employee development approach so that employees at all levels in different enterprise segments have an enterprise view of growth and success while giving their best work performance, no matter where they work or the job they hold.

The Big Picture of Employee Alignment
Employee alignment means different things in various companies, but all definitions have a single common core element. There is a "big picture" in which each person plays a role.

When companies were less complex, the big picture was easier to manage because it usually meant a single enterprise with typical functions like sales, marketing and finance. That big picture has dramatically changed over the last decade or so as companies acquired, merged, expanded into different markets, developed new technology segments and globalized. The dynamic nature of the corporate world has challenged executives to find ways to develop employees within their segments for superior job performance while also helping them maintain sight of the larger business mission and core values.

TWDC has several large business segments with each doing significantly different missions. The diversified company has a core mission of international family entertainment but, according to its website, it has business segments in media networks, parks and resorts, experiences and consumer products, studio entertainment, direct-to-consumer, and international. The description of Disney's leadership explains the strategic direction for TWDC is "generating the best creative content possible, fostering innovation, and utilizing the latest technology, while expanding into new markets around the world."

Developing Magical Employees and Leaders
The company has developed an aura of magic and wants all of its employees to be the person who creates the magic, whether working on the next movie that uses advanced technology or checking tickets as people enter rides or making people laugh while dressed in a Goofy character costume.

The challenge for leaders is helping people meet their career goals and utilize their creative talents within their segments while never losing the ability to create a magical experience for customers. Like all companies, customers are the source of success.

Walt Disney has approached the learning and development process by aligning all employee training and leadership professional development with a focus on the company's core value of delivering an exceptional Disney experience. Non-management employees are fully trained to deliver their best performance in their particular positions within context of the magical Disney experience. Every employee must be able to deliver on the company's vision.

The Disney Institute is the professional development and business consulting division of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. The Disney Institute offers courses for its own employees and also has public courses for which anyone can register.

The focus of the leadership courses has three concepts. "Vision and values" addresses personal values and alignment of personal values with organisational values. The concept of "behaviours over intentions" focuses on leaders developing authentic behaviours that reflect values and vision, rather than simply judging their own performance on intentions. The "purpose before task" concept teaches leaders to develop teams by helping their employees understand the larger goal so everyone works for a common purpose when performing work duties.

Being an effective leader in a company where each segment is expected to routinely create magic takes a unique development approach. TWDC's leaders must be able to manage change that occurs on a routine basis. However, the same principle of development used to align employees – common purpose – applies to leadership development.

A good example is the Change Leadership Programme (CLP) which addresses the company's value that leadership is responsible for team success. Recognizing the Disney experiences are constantly changing, the CLP was developed as a strategy to elevate common enterprise principles across leadership and human resources professionals, in recognition that leaders are the ones who drive change. CLP has four foundational phases: Dream, design, build and realize. After completing the foundation phases, leaders complete experiential exercises designed to evoke creativity and new ideas that would impact the entire enterprise.

Own the Vision
The same themes run through all employee training and leadership development. In the simplest words possible, they are summed up as: Own the vision, personal empowerment and common purpose.

Employees do learn tactical skills needed for their particular jobs, but TWDC focuses first on the big picture. That is why the first training class that Cast Members attend teaches their purpose is to create happiness. For leaders to keep a team motivated to create happiness, they too must understand the big picture and not just the picture of their particular segment or unit.

TWDC invests heavily in developing and maintaining an aligned organisation. Companies of any size that have multiple segments or units can take a page out of the Disney professional development book. Job training is important, but developing a workforce that shares a meaningful purpose is of equal or even more importance. The common purpose ties the different segments or units together so that everyone is working toward the same goal. Leaders are the valuable links between their staff members and the company's mission and values.

TWDC has proven their training and development strategy works, and it can be emulated. It represents a major change from traditional professional and career development processes because understanding the common purpose takes precedence over learning specific job skills.

Disney wants the woman selling hotdogs on Main Street, U.S.A in the Magic Kingdom creating just as much magic as the company's CEO.