Thank you for listening to The Champion Forum Podcast with Jeff Hancher! In this week’s episode, Jeff talks with Lee Cockerell about his career with Disney and the many lessons he has learned over his life. Lee started his career in the hotel industry. After being fired from his second position, he continued working hard and eventually earned a job with Disney in 1990 to open the Disneyland Paris project. Lee worked his way up and became the Executive VP of Operations for 20 years at Disney World, leading 40,000 cast members, 20 hotels, 4 theme parks and so much more. One of his lasting legacies was creating a leadership development program that has since trained over 7000 cast members.
What advice do you have for people who want to advance in their careers?
Have a good attitude and work hard. Bosses always like people who do that. Become an expert in something before you jump around. I became known for how to make a profit in the food and beverage industry. I worked on that for 25 years. Get educated and get experience. Work somewhere where the pace is good and you can learn a lot quickly.
Q: As a leader, how does an employee’s attitude affect how you view them? Has your attitude ever positively or negatively affected your position at your company?
What did you learn in your career that could help people navigate adversity?
Truth is the best route: the reality is, you don’t know what will happen. People are looking to you to see how you handle the situation and how you respond. Your employees can handle the truth, even if it isn’t always the most comforting news. Your role, as a leader, is to stay available and keep your people close to you. How you respond in a crisis changes from day to day, and even hour to hour. Make sure that you surround yourself with good people who will help you come to the right decisions.
Q: Do you find it easy to tell your employees the truth, or do you tend to speak too positively? What effect has this had?
What would you define as the biggest accomplishment of your career?
Throughout my career, I moved from being an autocratic young manager, because of my insecurities, to a secure leader. I learned how to hire great people and train great people. In the old days, I used to just want to use my authority because when you’re insecure, you don’t trust anyone. You want to control everything, but the reality is that you can’t control anyone. A leader’s biggest problem is always going to be people, so you need to learn how to pay attention to them so that you can sense what they need. You can do that by being direct and asking, “Is there anything else you need?”
Q: Did you expect Lee to give the answer he gave? How can you apply his advice to your own workplace?
You struggled with insecurity early in your career. How did you develop your confidence and the ability to communicate?
I had to understand that I couldn’t underestimate what I could achieve or what I could learn. Once I stopped underestimating myself and I dedicated myself to having a good attitude and developing my organizational skills, I started to find more success and confidence.
Q: How has insecurity held you back in the past? What helped you move past insecurity?
What book had the biggest impact on you? The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
What decision would you go back and change if you could? Every choice I made brought me to who I am, but if I had to choose, I would finish my degree and treat people better earlier in my career.
What would your obituary say? I want my legacy to be that I was a great teacher.
What is your biggest fear? I worry about my family being okay.
What skill do you have that has helped you the most? My ability to stay cool, calm, and collected. When you’re a leader or a parent you have to be in control all the time.
What is a champion to you? Champions help others. I know I want to be remembered as someone who was helpful and kind. Sometimes it’s hard, but you can bite your lip and be nice to people because you don’t know what they’re going through.
In the podcast, Lee describes some of the ways that Disney helped its employees during natural disasters and how the Disney cast members went above and beyond for their customers. How do you go above and beyond to support your team members?
Do you know the career aspirations of your employees? To make an impact on your team members, you need to know where they are going! Spend some time reviewing your employees’ career goals with them and identify a way that you could help them move toward that goal.
Write your own obituary as you would want it to read. Make sure that you include both personal character and accomplishments. Is there anything you would want in it that you haven’t made progress on? What can you do to change that?