Thursday, October 4, 2012

Lessons from WDW 4: Care

This is part four in a series in which I explore the question: What elements of the Disney culture could be applied to educational design.

As I've described in earlier posts, Disney puts a lot of effort into making sure its visitors feel noticed and important. Cast members work hard to make every interaction a positive one. Nurturing this type of customer service doesn't happen through stick and carrot incentives alone. Cast members have to care about the mission as much as executives. They need to feel that they are contributing to a culture that is bigger than themselves, but that they are responsible to.

According to "A Culture of Care," Disney does this by treating their employees with the same VIP attention that they apply to their customers. (See also "Treat Your Employees as Customers") I've never been a Disney employee, so I can't speak to the truth of this, but it is hard to imagine that the passion with which Disney cast members execute their work could be encouraged through mere carrot and stick methods of motivation. I can say that every cast member I've ever asked has told me that they love their work.

That shared sense of purpose (as captured in the quote above), and the cultural expectation that at Walt Disney World (The Happiest Place on Earth) people will be treated with kindness and care does make a difference, but I am positive that it is not easily accomplished, developed overnight, or guaranteed to last.

A cultural quality like caring is something that has to be developed through purposeful attention to living up to that quality at every level and every opportunity. It means taking the time to practice that quality through action, and venerate that quality through word. It means constantly assessing every part of the organization to see that examples of the quality are celebrated and that negative examples are prevented. Without that focused commitment, then an organization will lose that quality over time.

Building a culture starts at the top. If leadership doesn't clearly value a quality (like caring) through action and example, then the people they rely on to enact that quality will not make that quality a part of their work. By treating employees with care, Disney reinforces and models the culture of care that they want to see extended to their guests. The guests, in turn, come to embrace the same culture via immersion. In my experience, it really is hard to be unhappy at Disney World.

So, again I bring this back to education. Many of the very effective school leaders I've met echo the sentiment that real, cultural change takes focus, work and time. If you want your entire school to value something like scholarship or creativity or kindness or individuality, then you have to place that value (or set of values) on a pedestal and integrate that value into everything you do. That value should be the litmus test for the decisions you make every day. Moreover, that value should be part of your collective conversation so that everyone is generating and testing their own examples of that value in their own work. Make no mistake, the culture of a school is directly linked to the values of its leaders and their ability or inability to live those values over time.

This is partly because cultural values can be swamped in the details related to day to day management. It is easy to lose site of values like kindness or honesty when you have to constantly deal with questions of efficiency, compliance, test scores and cost. The needs of the system persistantly demand our attention at the cost of the needs of those around us. But what Disney illustrates is that the cultural landscape (though less measurable and less visible in the near-focus) is what ultimately contributes the most to the experiences of those who are in your care. Happy people contribute more to their own experiences and to the experiences of those around them. Everyone gains more when they feel they are responsible to and can take pride in their affiliations.

So I wonder, as a school leader, what do you value and why does it matter? Are those values evident in your work and visible to your colleagues? Do you consistently defend and celebrate those values? Do set clear expectations and strategies for how those values will guide the work of those who report to you? And do you have strategies for dealing with instances when others work in opposition to those values? What are you doing to build your culture, and what lessons have you learned in the process?

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