As a child, I liked Disney just fine. I wasn’t a superfan, though. I didn’t collect Disney stuff. And after I went to a Disney park for the first time I didn’t torture my parents to take me back. But as I grew up and became an avid reader and musician I started to appreciate the depth of mythology and classical music in features like Fantasia.
I began meeting people in my hometown who worked at Disneyland and shared lots of stories about secrets in the park and after hours parties among employees. When I started learning about business, I became more interested in the company. Like its products, the company had its own mythology. That is something I did obsess over as I was getting my degree in literature and writing. I have, in fact, written about mythology and its role in building a resonant brand in many of the business articles I have published.
Disney had a mystique and intrigue because we never really saw the reality behind the gates. Many who worked there reported a cutthroat culture and the expectation to work long days under Mickey’s iron glove. But that was never my experience. Every moment I worked at the park, and every experience I had at Imagineering was magical. Yeah, I said that.
The story of my time at Imagineering is long and fun, but I’ll spare you the details for another time. This series of articles is about what I learned there, and how those lessons made me both a better business person and a better human.
Lesson 1: Nail the Interview
In my teens, I happened to live in Orange County, California, eight miles away from Disneyland. I never went without a summer job while in school, so I was looking for one when I heard about a friend going for an interview at the Park. What he recounted to me was both fascinating and horrifying.
If you were selected for an interview, you entered a room with a big conference table and two interviewers. Seated at the table were a number of other interviewees. They would both answer questions and observe your answers. What the interviewers looked for was how you “performed” in front of the others, whether you were attentive when they were talking, your general comfort level, and I’m sure a number of other things.
I was granted an interview, so when I entered that room, my friend had prepared me. I greeted everyone in a friendly manner, asked their names and smiled. When they were talking, I paid attention, nodded, said “cool” and generally engaged without being over the top. When it was my turn I would refer to experiences others had, mentioning them by name and smiling at them. The interviewers were quickly on to me. I could see they knew that I knew the system, and the subtly shook grinning heads at me (that seems to be a theme – see later). My preparedness worked and I got the best job available, working in front of “guests” on the rides in Fantasyland. The less outgoing applicants who made it through my interview ended up in less public-facing jobs.
To this day, I do my research before any important meeting with someone. I get to know anyone I’ll be meeting with from their online profiles. I look for experiences or other professionals we know in common. I contact shared connections and ask about them. If possible, I call them or send them a note ahead of time with mentions of those commonalities and let them know I look forward to our meeting. And when we chat in person, I’m attentive and give them the floor as much as possible.
Lesson 2: Run Your Own Business
Having worked at Disneyland as a seasonal employee for four years through my first couple years in college, I had the opportunity to put my resume on file with the Walt Disney Company. I wasn’t quite sure what that would mean for future work – it just seemed like one of the many cool things the Park did for its “cast members.”
So immediately out of college I got a job as a technical writer for a local insurance software firm. I was in my first year, in my first in-office job, and I was starting to learn what it meant to work in a corporate environment. But one day I got a call from a recruiter who said they were from Walt Disney Imagineering. Where? Maybe I hadn’t been paying attention, but I didn’t know Imagineering was even still around – I thought they had built Disneyland and were done. Well, I was really wrong.
The day of my interview I showed up in a little room in an unremarkable office in Glendale attached to a building that used to be a bowling alley. The HR people there took my vitals and I was introduced to an older gentleman who sat me down in a tiny room, picked up my resume, read it to himself with an amused look on his face, and shook his head while doing so. I wasn’t really sure what was going on.
When he finally did talk, I used a redirection and quickly asked him what he did there, and what he was looking for. That way I knew what to sprinkle into my answers. It was a good conversation that didn’t last too long, and I didn’t really know where I stood. But since I had driven a good ways for this sit-down, I asked him “Why were you laughing when you were reviewing my resume?” He responded, “Because you had the job when you walked in.”
He went on to explain that the fact that I studied aerospace engineering until my senior year in college, and then graduated with a writing degree and teaching credential were great qualifications. It was perfect education for the blended technical and creative nature of the division – something he rarely ran across. What really put me in the pole position, though, was the fact that I had started my own logo design business at seventeen.
He explained that Imagineers needed to be whole problem solvers. If something went wrong, you had to be able to quickly come up with a solution by thinking outside of the box. You couldn’t point the finger at someone else, or wait for someone who knew more than you to fix it. People who ran their own businesses learned how to do this, or they had failed. He was amused because it was like I was designed for the job, he said.
As I settled into my new job in Technical Publications and started to branch out to be included in lots of different projects, I saw first-hand what happened when every one of my peers had this problem-solving orientation. It wasn’t pretty. There was a lot of head butting and yelling. Everyone came up with solutions they were passionate about. Normally, contentious meetings are not something you’d think were good for a business, but in this case, it drove world-leading innovation. Why? Not simply because the loudest or most important person won, which happens in most businesses, but because you didn’t leave until you were convinced the best solution had been beaten into a shape that you personally agreed would work.
Today, I miss those meetings. The structure and unwritten rules of respect prevent you from speaking your mind and being considered part of the solution. At Imagineering we came up with the best answers to the hardest questions. Every time. We did this by being deep, independent thinkers who fought passionately for our ideas. We were not just attendees at a meeting – we all acted like this was our meeting. We fully understood the challenge, and the outcome was incredibly important to every one of us.
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10 Lessons I Learned as a Walt Disney Imagineer About Business and Life