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Send Your Volunteer Teams Back to School: Lessons from Disney University

Guest services training from the Magic Kingdom's manual.

As a church leader, you rely on the hundreds of volunteers on teams throughout your church to make everything happen week after weekthey are the heartbeat of your ministry.

How would you like to learn some lessons that will help you set the stage for success to ensure enthusiasm for team development?

I want to invite you to go back to schoolactually, to a university.

Welcome to Disney University

The lessons you will read below and next week are distilled from Disney U, a new book by Doug Lipp, former head of the training team of Disney University. Over the past month I have enjoyed first reading [the] book and then engaging Doug in conversations about the value of Disney U to church organizations.

As a guest services team leader at Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C., I immediately saw the value of these lessons to our guest services teams. However, these lessons have application to all volunteer teams in your church.

Are you ready to go back to school?

Lesson 1: Setting the Stage for Success

How does Disney develop the world's most engaged, loyal, and guest-centric employees, year after year?

The simple explanation for the Disney University's success can be attributed to the levels of support and clarity of purpose found in the Four Circumstances, the organizational values Van France, founder, identified as vital to the success of the Disney University.

Van's Circumstance #1: Innovation

France's background included experience as a trainer in manufacturing and the military. He disliked the idea of a "training department," but felt that the idea of a university was exciting. Historically, a university was ahead of the times, leading people into exciting adventures.

Van's Circumstance #2: Organizational Support

Dick Nunis, director of operations at Disneyland when Disney University was founded, had an education degree from USC. Nunis saw the advantages of branching out from a simple orientation program, and backed the concept of Disney University from the start.

Van's Circumstance #3: Education

Walt Disney established his own unique school for training the Disney animators when traditional art schools couldn't provide the quality he was looking for. In 1932, Disney began requiring evening classes, eventually adding half-day classes, as well.

Van's Circumstance #4: Entertain

France had many friends in the Art Department at Disney. As a result, the handbooks and training aids were always creative and interesting, rather than the oppositedull and academic.

The Four Circumstances also greatly influenced Van's leadership lessons, which are applicable to all organizations and are as relevant today as they were back then.

Application: How are the values of your organization brought to life?
How are they communicated to team members? How often? By whom?
Does everyone know the values?
What happens when these values aren't upheld? Are there consequences? Exceptions?

Lesson 2: Capture Hearts and Minds

Disney's organizational values drive the strategies, which in turn drive Disney's success.

The Disney University makes certain that every employee is properly introduced to the company and understands the importance of the brand: Disney values, Disney history, and Disney traditions. This context further enriches the specific on-the-job training sessions conducted by the operations team that employees must attend immediately after orientation.

Everyone at Disney knows his or her role in keeping the parks friendly, well maintained, and efficiently operating. This way of business involves a huge investment of time, training, and money that not many others are willing to make.

The Disney University's success is due to its uncanny ability to capture the hearts and minds of the thousands of cast members it serves.

Application: Capturing hearts and minds.
Are your training goals aligned with your organizational goals?
Are all your different departments engaged in your training efforts?
Does your leadership team demonstrate unwavering support of team member development and training efforts?
Is there a culture of learning and training?


Lesson 3: Art and Science

The Disney parks are a balance of science and art.

Building and maintaining Disneylandthe attractions, restaurants, shops, and arcadeswas just the starting point: the science. Maintaining the feel of Disneyland and cast member morale is the art.

Far too many organizations have difficulty obtaining this balance of friendliness and technical competence. At Disney, it is this never-ending pursuit of perfection [that] keeps the parks relevant and competitive.

Application: Art class and Science Lab in your organization
Is there something in your organization that's just not working right?
What needs to be done to change this environment?
What are the barriers?
Who in your organization can lead the way?


Lesson 4: Walk the Park

Walt Disney knew the value of learning as much as possible about the front lines by spending time on the front lines.

Van France, like Walt, favored walking the park to gather information. Often armed with his camera, Van tirelessly sought the opinions and thoughts of cast members and guests.

After the park had been open for seven years, Van realized the 1955 model of orientation and cast member training that had been so successful during Disneyland's early years was no longer sufficient. He faced a paradox: preserving the past while preparing for the future.

He had to balance fundamentals while preparing cast membersincluding managersfor a much more complex future.

Application: Gathering facts and feelings by walking the park
What is the equivalent of walking the park in your organization? Who does it, and how frequently?
How could this strategy be improved? More people involved? More frequently?
If leaders aren't walking the park, what is the excuse?
Is there a reality gap between the ideals espoused in your organization and training programs and the realities of the job?


Lesson 5: Be Willing to Change or Be Willing to Perish

One jarring element can undermine a host of favorable impressions.

To make sure that a guest's last, and lasting, impression after a wonderful day in the park isn't ruined by a don't-ask-me-it's-not-my-job attitude, Disney provides three extra days of interpersonal skills training for the cleanup crew. Disney believes in a proactive approach to head off potentially damaging situations.

It might seem strange to train street cleaners in customer service, but Disney learned years ago that these cast members receive the greatest number of unstructured questions from park guests.

With all the changes to the Disney organizations over the years since the opening of Disneyland, Van knew that it was more important than ever for the university to create programs that would carry on the traditions, philosophies, and dreams that Walt Disney had left for the organization.

Application: Be willing to change or be willing to perish
How does training in your organization remain relevant and credible?
How could training processes, programs, and staff improve "substance"?
To what extent are the history and traditions of your organization perpetuated and built upon?
What traditions should be maintained in your organization?
What traditions are impeding progress and innovation?

That's if for this week. I hope you've enjoyed these lessons from Disney Universitybut more importantly, I hope you are challenged to apply them in your church.

Next week: 5 More Lessons from Disney U
In 2 weeks: Hands On Learning The "Magic" Behind the Scenes

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