One of my favorite places to be is Disney World. I know, a bit cliche, but it’s true. Every time I walk down Main Street towards Cinderella’s Castle, I have a bit of a lump in my throat. As a kid growing up in the city of Philadelphia, trips to Disney theme parks were not in the cards. Don’t get me wrong, I did not do without, but vacations were an extra and our blue-collar family kept ends met and little else. So, at 18 years old, when I first went to Disney World, the anticipation was high and, thankfully, my expectations were met.
What struck me the first time was how nice and engaged the staff were. Pleasant smiles, helpful directions and exemplary service were delivered across the board. Again, coming from Philly, I wasn’t used to that. I mean no disrespect to the City of Brotherly Love, but seriously, most of the “helpful directions” given involved one finger and it always pointed up. I could hardly grasp why these people were like this, other than through some sort of powerful Kool-Aid guzzled each day.
Now that I am a bit smarter about employee development (you see I said, “bit”, right?), I realize that Disney is strong in culture and in personal ownership development for each employee. The employees really believe that they are delivering a magical day to everyone. Talent is deeply important to the entire Disney experience. Corporate Disney spends money and time to find out how to capitalize every skill in every moment.
In Investing in People: Financial Impact of Human Resource Initiatives, Cascio and Boudreau (p. 224) use Disney Theme Parks to speak about talent. To the common observer, one of the most important roles is that of Mickey Mouse. Let me warn you that if you read further, I may be destroying a truth for you. There is a person inside of the Mickey Mouse costume; it’s not really Mickey (grab a tissue). The demeanor with which Mickey engages with guests is important, but let’s think about what Mickey does. He waves, puts his hands to his mouth in a laughing gesture, poses for pictures and walks around certain areas of the park. Mickey has bodyguards who help lead him around; those same people protect him from the throngs of fans and speak on his behalf. There isn’t much development happening once the basics of the role are mastered. This role adds value to the experience and thereby, to the overall organization. Think about it, how stinky would it be if Disney World had no Mickey Mouse (yeah, that’s right, I said “stinky”)?
But consider this: How crucial is the Mickey role to the strategic value of the growth and development of that talent for the organization? Not very. Waving, laughing, posing – doable. In learning, the charting would look much like a plateau curve – quick learning of the role at the beginning and then a sharp, flat leveling off. Let’s instead think of pivotal talent.
Pivotal talent is where the investment in development would produce organizationally significant improvement and value. In the Disney example, think of the street sweeper. This role is multi-faceted. It’s not about just sweeping; again, if only that, then the learning would be quick and then flatten out. The process would be demonstrated, measured and affirmed/corrected. The reality is that the sweeper is often asked questions by the guests. “Excuse me, can you tell me which way to Tomorrowland?” “Can you tell me what time fireworks will happen tonight?” “What time does the park close?” Direct guest interaction happens. Street sweepers will even walk guests to the spot they’ve had trouble finding. The street sweeper role is pivotal to the success of the experience at Disney World (and other Disney properties) and it demonstrates constant development opportunities for this talent.
The mission of Disney is is to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. They do this, in one way, by providing exceptional guest experiences. The investment in the development of customer service, knowledge of services and offerings, recommendations for guest experiences and more will come to fruition through street sweepers. This makes this particular portion of talent pivotal for Disney. And yet, Mickey is the star.
Think about the companies you work for or with. Consider the talent that they have. What roles serve multiple purposes? Is that role pivotal to the continued success of the company? Would investing more in those roles advance the strategy of the organization? It’s not about just being the celebrity or the main focus. Do you think that Martha Stewart is pivotal or valuable? Investing more in making Martha Stewart more “MarthaStewarty” would be a waste of resources. Instead, in this case, developing that talent that serves to advance the brand and to make differentiation happen should be priority.
HR professionals can sometimes slip into the star-struck trap and focus more on Mickey Mouse rather than the street sweeper. Measure the value the role brings to the organization. Where would more investment matter? Are the right people in the roles that are pivotal? If not, how do you get them?
I can’t wait to get back to Disney World this year. I am planning on visiting Mickey and the rest of the characters, but I know I will be appreciating the street sweepers much more this time. Mickey may be the star of the show, but the street sweeper makes the guest engagement enjoyable and worry-free. Find the street sweepers in your organization and develop them!