Disney Legends recall Walt Disney and the 'Yes, if....' way of management
Written by Robert NilesLAS VEGAS - Walt Disney didn't create or build the theme park industry, contrary to what some folks have claimed over the years. What he did, veteran attraction designer Bob Rogers said, was to create and manage the team that built the theme park industry.
Published: November 19, 2009 at 4:53 PM
With that, Rogers introduced a panel of five Disney legends who were part of that team: Sculptor Blaine Gibson, Engineer Bob Gurr, Consultant Harrison "Buzz" Price, Composer Richard Sherman and Imagineer Marty Sklar.
From left, Marty Sklar, Blaine Gibson, Bob Gurr, Richard Sherman, Buzz Price and Bob Rogers
Combined, these five men possess more than a quarter millennium of experience and wisdom in the theme park industry, Rogers said. Rogers, founder and CEO of BRC Imagination Arts and a former THEA Lifetime Achievement Award winner, brought together these colleagues of Walt Disney at the 2009 IAAPA Attractions Expo to talk about what made Walt's management style so effective, and what today's managers might learn from the way Walt did it.
Working with Walt, Gurr said, "you're going to leave the room more inspired than when you came in it. To me, that's leadership."
Walt hated negativity, Sherman added. He was a very positive man who focused on making improvements, rather than laying blame. Sherman told of one Disney co-worker who criticized a gag in a film the group was working on.
"'I don't care if you don't like it,' Walt said. 'Tell me what we can do to make it better'," Sherman recalled.
Walt found a way to push improvement without laying blame. Take a look at what he said - he's not glossing over a problem with the gag. He implicitly acknowledges it could be better. But rather than indulge an employee's criticism of another worker, he demands a positive, forward-thinking attitude - "what we can do to make it better."
All the panelists told stories about how Walt kept employees engaged and contributing by not shooting down suggestions, but instead steering employees toward improving their ideas.
Price described Walt's approach to suggestions as the difference between responding "'Yes, if...' or 'No, because...'."
Harrison 'Buzz' Price
Nor did Walt offer his employees empty praise.
"There were no 'attaboys' from Walt," Gurr said.
"All we ever heard was "'Hmm. That'll work'," Sherman said.
But that didn't mean Walt couldn't be effusive with praise. He'd walk down the hall and gush about an employee's ideas to co-workers, who'd then head back up the hall to see what that employee was doing and to congratulate him, Gurr said.
"You had to get [praise] second-hand," Gurr said. "That way, no one got a puffy head."
"He knew how to use one employee's word to stimulate another," Gibson added.
"Walt was the greatest casting director who ever lived," Sklar said. "He knew not to pigeon-hole anyone. You never know what you might find when you give someone an opportunity."
Marty Sklar, left, and Blaine Gibson
Indeed, Sklar joined the company as a UCLA journalism student in 1955, hired to write a tabloid newspaper for Main Street U.S.A. He went on to write for Walt for 10 years, and eventually ended up as president of Walt Disney Imagineering. Gibson joined the movie studio as an animator and ended up as the lead sculptor for WDI. Bob Gurr holds a degree not in engineering, but in design.
"Bob never engineered anything... except everything at Disneyland," Sklar quipped.
To drive home the point, Rogers turned to the audience and asked for a show of hands: "Think back to what you studied in school. Now, how many of you are doing something fundamentally different?"
The majority of the audience raised their hands.
The key to sticking with Walt was never to tell him 'no,' but instead find a way to rise to the challenges that he gave you, Sherman said.
Gurr told about being hired to design the shells of Disneyland's Autopia cars, then being asked by Walt to design the rest of the cars, too. When the ride opened, it ran 40 cars. By the end of its first week, only two still worked, Gurr said.
"That was a pretty good invitation that you needed to learn more," Gurr said of his experience. He said that Walt asked him what he needed to make the cars work more reliably.
"Well, a couple of mechanics to work here and keep the cars repaired," Gurr replied. Within hours, workers showed up at the Autopia site to build a garage.
"Walt could see a need and fix it," Gurr said. "But he didn't criticize the situation you found yourself in."
"Enthusiasm was one of [Walt's] greatest assets in teaching," Gibson said.
Ultimately, that enthusiasm paid off.
"One thing that [Walt] never let is forget was it is all about the audience," Sklar said. "Do something that people would like."
Something theme park audiences have loved over the years has been the music of the Sherman Brothers. Richard Sherman closed the session by spending 10 minutes on the piano, recalling the circumstances under which he and his brother wrote some of the Disney theme parks' most beloved music, including "In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room," "There's a Great, Big Beautiful Tomorrow" and, of course, "It's a Small World."
My audio recording of Sherman's performance is available at this link.
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