All for one and one for all

All for one and one for all

He was renowned for his creativity and superior crafting ability and was successful beyond compare, yet even the great Walt Disney did not presume to be able to accomplish his goals without the contributions of a well-coordinated group working alongside him. “I don’t propose to be an authority on anything at all,” he once explained. “I follow the opinions of ordinary people I meet, and I take pride in the close-knit teamwork of my organisation.”

The Walt Disney team

That Walt Disney so readily acknowledged the value of collaboration is a measure of his greatness—or perhaps a cause of it. In any event, his belief in the team concept was such that he promoted it both in his films and throughout his company. In fact, teamwork is a crucial element underpinning the Disney ‘be our guest’ philosophy. To wit, exceeding guests’ expectations requires a well-rehearsed cast, with every member playing a significant role.

In the area of feature animation, The Walt Disney Company has traditionally tapped the collective power of its workforce by using a long-standing process for determining the value of various concepts for production. As a first step, the senior leaders discuss ideas from several sources to decide which to pursue.

As the project moves along, directors, art directors, and the head of back-ground production all join in the give-and-take of planning. The dialogue eventually produces a consensus, and company insiders insist that no one ever asserts an attitude of possessiveness. The teamwork continues throughout the long process of animation, camera work, adding sound, and editing until, at last, the film is ready for release.

References to teamwork also are sprinkled throughout Disney films, but none better illustrates Walt’s belief in the value of collaboration than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For many of us, those seven distinctive little fellows—Happy, Sleepy, Doc, Bashful, Sneezy (originally named Jumpy), Grumpy, and Dopey—are childhood friends. Each was carefully drawn with his own distinguished characteristics, yet we remember them first and foremost as a team, always going off to work each morning whistling a happy tune. Walt purposely made the notion of cooperative endeavor an integral part of that script, with the dwarfs illustrating how different talents and personalities can be brought together to accomplish shared goals.

Many of the companies we work with have become convinced, like Walt Disney, that it takes a multifunctional team to produce the best possible show. They are using teams in their everyday operations and deriving benefits—such as enhanced problem solving—that help to ensure long-term success. Look to these examples to guide your organisation in tapping the latent power of its collective wisdom.

Signals of a good leader

In our seminars, we can not seem to stress enough how critical leadership is in producing a healthy corporate culture where teams can flourish.

The kind of leadership required in the best of cultures has been put in a nutshell by the late Edward R Murrow, one of the world’s most credible broadcasters, whose story was dramatised in the movie Good Night, and Good Luck, which was nominated for six Academy Awards. He said, “To be persuasive, we must be believable. To be believable we must be credible. And to be credible we must be truthful.” Leaders have to earn their credibility through action and through example. The only effective communication—the only reality—is performance. And leaders must perform in order to earn trust, and before a sense of common team purpose can emerge.

Greater leaders such as Isadore Sharp of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts demonstrate through their actions how maintaining a competitive edge in business can only be accomplished by generating wealth through human resources, not through physical assets.

In the 1990s, Isadore sought an opportunity to break into the Atlanta hotel market. Finally, in March of 1997 he got his wish and took over management of the Ritz Carlton in midtown, a 40-year old hotel with a well-known history of changing ownership, contract employees, and perpetual difficulties.

During the week prior to the legal agreement’s becoming effective, Isadore brought in an experienced general manager from another Four Seasons property to help brainstorm ideas for creating a smooth transition for the hotel’s existing employees. The GM knew that in his hands lay the responsibility for establishing credibility with these employees who were fearful of how the change of management would affect them in the long term. The agreement became effective at midnight, and Four Seasons management was on board for a mere six hours prior to the 6 a.m. arrival of first-shift employees. The GM and his leadership team had decided they had only one chance to set a tone of believability in the value of the team. Their goal was to treat their new team members as though they were coming home to a place that was safe and secure. They needed to paint the picture of a new culture before the employees entered the building that morning. And paint they did. At 12:01 a.m., a painting contractor began to transform the ‘back of the house’ (employee break rooms and locker rooms, or the ‘heart’ of the house in Four Seasons terms) from a drab off-stage area that guests never see, to a bright freshly painted employee lounge rivaling the on-stage guest areas. The transformation was more than just a fresh coat of paint, however. New uniforms awaited the arriving employees, as well as steak and eggs cooked by the hotel chefs. Senior staff served breakfast, and then the GM welcomed them to their new home at Four Seasons.

Nurturing the staff is golden rule leadership in action. The leaders of Four Seasons, from Isadore to the GM to the management team, believe that at the end of every day, it is the staff that will either make or break them.

“Issy said the front doorman contributes as much as the GM in any hotel—maybe more,” remarked Doug Ludwig, former CFO and executive vice president, during our interview with him at Four Seasons corporate office in Toronto.

Excerpt from ‘The Disney Way’ by Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson. Reproduced with permission © 2007, Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Limited. Price: Rs 299.