New Beginnings

It’s been a while since I’ve written, but it’s also been a hectic couple of months. But, it’s been an amazing couple of months. I finally achieved one of my life goals (and a secret goal of starting this blog), and took my dream job with the Walt Disney Company. And now, I can finally share the details of how I got to this point.

It all started, appropriate to the timing of this post, as a New Years Resolution in 2011. It took a lot of internal struggle just to get to the point where I could make this resolution. I had always wanted to work at Disney. It was my dream company, with a product I’d be excited to work on and values I’d identify with; but there were parts of me that were scared to try. I didn’t want to leave my hometown where all my family and friends were. I was quite comfortable at [my former job] and I didn’t want to “leave the devil I know for the devil I don’t know.” I could go on and on, because there will always be reasons not to pursue your dreams. But in the beginning of 2011, with my MBA behind me and my friends succeeding at achieving their life goals, I got inspired. I decided that this was going to be the year I set my mind to achieving my dream.

My New Year’s resolution was not necessarily “get a job at Disney in 2011,” although that’s what I hoped would end up happening (SPOILER ALERT: it did!). My New Year’s Resolution was to do one thing every single day that would get me closer to my job at Disney. This took on a variety of meanings from applying for jobs (I applied for a grand total of 32), to researching different aspects of the company, making new contacts at or affiliated with Disney, writing blog posts, or honing my technical skills. I wrote this as a task in my day planner for every single day of the year, and if you know me well you know that I absolutely live to check off tasks in my day planner! As an aside, this helped me with 2 of my other resolutions to learn Italian via Rosetta Stone and work out 6 days a week. I highly recommend a day planner to anyone who doesn’t have one. That overdue, unchecked task really taunts you.

Anyway, back to the journey. There were some setbacks. I felt pretty confident when I finally submitted my first resume, after days of tweaking and sending to friends and family for advice, only to immediately receive a rejection email within 6 hours of submission. The same followed for the next 3 resumes I submitted. It got better from there, but only in terms how long it took for my rejection letter to come. The long lead times between submission and rejection provided me with some glimmer of hope that maybe this whole ordeal wasn’t totally pointless. It wasn’t until mid-July  that I was invited to my first phone screening interview, which led to a phone interview with the manager, an in-person interview, and, finally, a job offer.

That period from applying to offer took about four months, and during that period I never stopped my daily Disney task to make sure that if it didn’t work out I wasn’t falling behind. I even looked into moving to Orlando toward the end of the year without a job to better network and be more available for interviews. If I hadn’t secured the job when layoffs at [former company] were announced, I am about 95% sure I would have offered to be separated.

Finally, let me close with just one really simple thought about this whole experience: having your dream job 100% rocks, and I highly recommend it to anyone. This is such an obvious statement that it doesn’t even seem worth stating, but if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have taken me 4 years to work up the courage to realize that this was what I really wanted, so maybe it isn’t that obvious. It’s been a lot of change, but it’s exactly what I worked for and wanted, and I’m excited to build a career here.

I’m thinking really hard about New Year’s Resolutions for 2012, so expect to see a post on that in the near future (Hint: More blogging will likely be a theme for 2012). It worked out last year, so why give up a good thing? I think of it as my Personal Annual Review, but I’m only accountable to myself. It’s motivating to have goals and checkpoints for yourself to do the things you really want to do.

Happy New Year, make 2012 your best yet!

Great Service Starts with Great Leadership

Before I left for vacation on Wednesday night, I could already foreshadow a post about my trip to Walt Disney World. I could feel the topic start to emerge in my mind before we ever left the Orlando International Airport, where we were greeted on the ground level by cast members waving us in the right direction with their Mickey Mouse hands. And when the cast member checking us into our hotel said “Good evening, Princesses!” I already had a title in mind. But none of these were the moments that really exemplified Disney’s leadership potential.

I was sitting in a quiet (well, relatively) sidestreet corner of Main Street just enjoying the ambiance one night when I heard yelling. There was a cast member, sprinting down the street shouting “Cinderella! Wait!” at the top of his lungs. He slowed to a jog and finally stopped at a little girl, no older than five, wearing a Cinderella dress and tiara. He kneeled next to her and pulled a pair of (plastic) glass slippers from behind his back and said “You left your glass slipper behind at the ball!” At this point, her mother tried to explain that she didn’t have Cinderella slippers and these couldn’t be hers. The cast member, of course, insisted that the glass slipper fit on her foot so these must have been Cinderella’s! In other words, they were hers now, and without the $20 price tag that comes with them in the merchandise stores. He then whipped out an autograph book and asked the little princess if she would mind signing it. During this whole ordeal, her face was absolutely lit up. She couldn’t believe he really thought she was Cinderella! And I’m sure she probably felt like it.

I know what you’re thinking – cute story about some Disney magic, but what does it have to do with leadership? Well, let’s take a step back and think about everything that had to happen to make this little girl’s magical moment happen.

First, and most importantly, cast members have to want to make these moments happen. It’s rare that you see a frowning face on a Disney cast member, except of course at the Haunted Mansion where they’re in character. If you think that’s just a coincidence, think again. It all starts with strategically hiring candidates who align with the Disney values. You can teach skills – anyone can ring up merchandise, sell you a hot dog, or clean your hotel room. What you can’t teach are the values that Disney cast members have to share that allow them to be enthusiastic about their jobs even when it’s 100 degrees outside and kids and parents alike are at their crankiest! The first piece of leadership that it took to make this magical moment happen is making hiring decisions that support the values and the culture of the organization, because that’s how you find cast members who want to make magic happen. There’s no commission system for magical moments, it doesn’t pad anyone’s paycheck to put that extra smile on someone’s face, but Disney hires people who care about more than that – they care about their Guests.

Part two is the culture of the organization. It has to be a culture that not only allows magical moments to happen, but actively supports them. If this cast member saw this little girl walking down the street, got this magical idea in his head, and then had to jump through hoops and bureaucratic red tape just to get authorization to give away a pair of plastic souvenir shoes (er, I mean glass slippers), this little girl could have gone back home across the country by the time it could have become a reality. Disney’s culture empowers their cast members and removes barriers of bureaucracy that keep most other would-be-comparable companies in their dust in terms of service.

For this one magical moment to take place, a whole lot of strategic leadership had to happen at much higher levels of the company. The emotional capital moments like these build are very difficult to measure, and would certainly be very easy for an executive to shun. Losing merchandise profits in favor o some immeasurable emotional benefit? Not a chance in most companies! But that’s why Disney is different, and that’s why this particular magical moment isn’t the only one, it’s one of thousands that happen every day.

Service is all about anticipating the wants and needs of your customers. No matter what you do, even if you are not employed in a defined service industry, you provide a service to someone – maybe even within your own company! Think about how you can better anticipate the wants and needs of your customers. How can you meet or exceed those needs? What’s standing in your way? What recommendations can you make to your senior leadership to remove those roadblocks that keep you from providing more magical service? And, most importantly, do you care enough about your customers to go to bat for them on this? Disney does, and it seems to have worked out pretty well for them. They’re only the largest entertainment conglomerate in the world, after all.

A Job Begun is Half Done

Mary Poppins sure was on to something when she said that. Have you ever gotten so far behind on something that just the thought of starting it puts your stomach in knots? It doesn’t entirely keep you from being productive. Maybe you go do other, smaller tasks to make yourself feel better about not doing that one thing you really need to be doing. My house is a great example. If I fall behind on picking up after myself (laundry, dishes in the sink, etc.), the thought of having to do them all at once as one big cleaning “event” is enough to make me put it off for weeks and let more stuff pile up for the inevitable cleaning event.

It’s easy to do the same thing at work. Sometimes we get so bogged down with the little day-to-day things and ad-hoc requests that we don’t have any time left to devote to getting rid of those daily annoyances. I think all of us, myself included, are programmed to do the things we’ll see immediate results from. That’s why it’s so difficult to eat well, stay motivated to exercise, save money, and other things that seem to be too taxing in the moment but provide payoffs later. In a society where technology has made instant gratification almost expected, we have a difficult time seeing past the “right now.” But have you noticed that once you get the motivation to start it, you quickly hit your stride and fly right through it?

I challenge anyone who reads this (all 3 of you) to try to look past this. Accomplish one thing you’ve been putting off, put aside little things to do the big thing that can get rid of them, and do something that won’t pay off for at least a year. I’m writing this down and publicizing it to challenge myself. Over the next week, I’m going to do 3 things:

1. Knock out the thing that inspired this post – clean the damn house already. Top to bottom.

2. Get started on a work project I haven’t had time to start doing because of all the other little things that have taken precedence  (probably won’t be posting any additional details on this one, but I’ll update on whether I actually followed through on my challenge!)

3. Do something, or at least start something, that won’t pay off for at least a year. I haven’t figured out what this is going to be yet, but I have some ideas in mind.

If you feel so inclined to take the challenge, let me know in the comments what you’ve decided to do. It’s easier to actually follow through on something if you’ve made it public and have someone to hold you accountable.

What do IV Bags and Reeboks Have in Common?

Remember when Reebok came out with Pump basketball shoes? If you’re my age, this was the coolest thing to hit your elementary school since LA Gear’s lightup sneakers or British Knights! You could inflate your shoes by continuously pressing on the little basketball in the tongue of your shoe for a better fit. I never actually knew back then that the pump had a functional purpose, I just thought it was fun. When Reebok was struggling to compete with Nike’s Air, they needed a game changer. The concept for the Pump came from several team members at an “innovation brokerage” firm who had worked on medical supplies in a previous project. One had designed splints and recognized the potential for splints to provide ankle support in a shoe, while another had worked on IV bags (which eventually became the technology that inflated to become the splint), while yet another had worked with pumps. Three unassuming, fairly dissimilar medical devices came together to develop a component for a basketball shoe that would yield $1 billion in revenue in its first year.

Have you ever had an “aha!” moment about something in your life while doing something completely unrelated? Ever notice how Dr. House always realizes what’s wrong with his patient at the end of an episode because someone says something completely off topic that sparks his brain? Convenient fictional example, I know, but that’s what defines innovation: taking something existing and making it better with something else existing. For another example, take the quartz watch. A commonly found rock solved the problem of inaccurate portable timepieces by vibrating at a constant frequency. The quartz technology was originally developed to be used to detect enemy submarines by transmitting sound underwater (sonar) during World War I. Later used to solve radio frequency problems, it was eventually identified as the perfect constant frequency regulator that could drive accuracy in clocks and watches. No one looked at a rock in the ground and said “Maybe we can use this rock to make our clocks accurate” or even “I bet this thing can tell me where submarines are.” Each discovery came from seemingly unrelated discoveries that built and built into the modern innovations we know them as today.

My takeaway from these examples and my own “aha!” moments is that the best way to be innovative is to cast a wide net of knowledge. Continuously learning is critical, and not just about the things that are immediately related to your job or your interests. Following only your interests means, at best, you’re going to adhere to the best practices in your field. But to create a true game changer, you’ve got to look in unexpected places. I’m going to sneak Disney into this post and suggest this exercise written by Disney Imagineer and Principal Engineer for Ride Mechanical Systems from The Imagineering Workout:

Combining ideas develops new ones and strengthens concepts, stories, or creative solutions. It can be very effective in brainstorming when unrelated ideas are put together. The following method is a fast way to combine seemingly different ideas into new ones.

On one sheet of paper, list in a single column all your ideas of interest…Make a copy of the list. Place each list side by side and then slide them up and down with respect to one another until interesting, plausible, or useful combinations start popping up. Once you select a combination, start exploring the relationship between the two elements. What might they have in common? Why are they so popular? Why would they never get along?

The method can be automated, of course, but it is much more fun when you slide the sheets of paper by hand.”

Happy innovating!

Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch had some pretty “out there” childhood dreams. If achieving one of your childhood dreams seems tough, try achieving these six:

  • Being in zero gravity
  • Playing in the NFL
  • Authoring an article in the World Book encyclopedia
  • Being Captain Kirk
  • Winning stuffed animals
  • Being a Disney Imagineer

He never made it to the NFL and had to settle for “meeting Captain Kirk” as a replacement dream, but he made the other four dreams come true. Randy didn’t achieve his dreams out of luck. My choice of words was very deliberate: he made the other four dreams come true. In fact, luck would’ve been the last thing Randy had. He died on July 25, 2008 at age 47 from pancreatic cancer. If you have 75 minutes of free time (and let’s face it, your next 75 minutes are likely to be spent lurking around facebook or twitter anyway), do yourself a favor and watch Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University and get some insights on how he made his dreams come true and how you can too.

Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture