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“How That Happened” Episode 35: Lee Cockerell – Creating Disney Magic in Your Organization

Interview Transcript


Lee Cockerell:               So if you really want to know, you got to dig down, keep asking why? Why? And why? And why? And get down to try to fix the base problem. And it may be simple thing as people don’t feel respected, or might feel a special thing like they didn’t have training. They didn’t know. Nobody told them.


Aaron Ackerman:         From HoganTaylor, I’m Aaron Ackerman, and this is How That Happened, a business and innovation success podcast. On each episode of the show, we sit down with business and community leaders behind thriving organizations to learn how business and innovation success actually happens.


                                    Thank you for joining me on another episode of How That Happened. I’m really excited about our guest today. Joining me today is Lee Cockerell. Lee served as the executive vice president of operations for Disney World Resort for 10 years. He and his team of over 40,000 cast members were responsible for 20 hotels, four theme parks, two water parks, a shopping and entertainment district, the ESPN Sports Complex, probably some more I’m leaving out there. Lee also opened Disney Land Paris, and prior to Disney Lee held leadership positions at Hilton and Marriott as well as serving in the US Army.


                                    Since retiring, Lee’s been really busing helping organizations and individuals all over the world become better leaders. In addition to his full schedule of speaking and consulting, Lee has also authored three best-selling books and has a highly-rate leadership podcast and a blog, and on top of all that I know Lee is a professional family man with grandkids and all of that that you would expect. Most recently, in fact I think just maybe in the last couple months or so, Lee has launched Cockerell Academy, which is an online platform for training and leadership, customer service, and time management


                                    And let me just say one thing about Lee personally. I’ve been a follower of Lee’s for a long time, have read his books and enjoy his podcasts, and one of the great things about Lee, and if you have listened to Lee and read his material I think you’ll agree with me, but he has a really special talent to take things that are complex… I mean he led one of the biggest companies in the world with more moving parts than you can imagine and just has this special ability to simplify things into a real understandable and easy to apply concepts. And so I’m really looking forward to our conversation today. Lee, thank you so much for joining today.


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for having me on.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. So like I said, I’ve followed you, read your stuff for years, and you probably don’t remember but the first time I became aware of you, you came to speak at a Oklahoma Society of CPA event, probably more than a decade ago I would guess.


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah. Joe Hornick actually put that on.


Aaron Ackerman:         Okay. Yeah your guy here in Oklahoma City Smith Carney, right?


Lee Cockerell:               I think he retired on me.


Aaron Ackerman:         Well that happens. I mean you retired on us too, but not really. Retired from Disney but you’re continuing to really help people globally. So I want to just start with a question that’s personal to me. When I read your book, Creating Disney Magic, one of the things that really stuck out to me and has been influential as I’ve grown and developed as a leader is your concept of ARE, or ARE. And again, it’s one of those things that you really simplify, you put a concept around it. So tell everybody, what is ARE? And then how you crystallized or came up with that framework that’s so easy to think about and then implement.


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah well I thought everybody’s looking for free fuel. Fuel’s gotten pretty expensive, including the Exxon and all those, and all the issues we have with energy around the world. But I finally came to the conclusion, and I wasn’t very good at this in the beginning of my career. I had to learn it. And I decided ARE stood for appreciation, recognition and encouragement. And literally, as I practiced that over my career, I found out that that’s probably the strongest fuel in the world. It really drives human performance. Actually it keeps divorces down too, appreciation, recognition, encouragement. And you think of it as a simple thing. I don’t think there’s a person alive that doesn’t want it. We all know how important it is for our children to develop their self-esteem, their self-confidence, belief in themselves, to feel safe.


                                    And in these times we’re living in now, it may be more important than ever. The anxiety level around the world is at an all-time high. People are really worried about… There’s those days when even if you think you’re bulletproof, you need some encouragement, or your kids do, or your wife does, or your parents may be having issues. I mean it’s amazing. There’s plenty of opportunity, if you think about the people you run into all day. I said the reason it’s important is, everybody has 10 problems you don’t know about, so you stepping in there and saying something nice or giving them security or some appreciation goes a long way. It makes a lot of people sleep better tonight. So just eventually, I got it. Because I was pretty autocratic early in my career, and I was so insecure because I dropped out of college, didn’t have a college degree. So I was Mr. Insecure.


                                    And I grew up in Oklahoma. My mother was married five times. I was adopted twice. I got my name Cockerell when I was 16 by husband number four. So I was the most insecure guy that walked the Earth. And that made me hard. So when I got a management job, I could just push people around that way they’d leave me alone, and I probably abused my position. And over time I had to learn. My mother and grandmother would’ve killed me if they knew I was behaving that way. And I knew better. But you get into a corporation, this was the ’60s when I started, and that’s pretty much what management and leadership was, two or three people tell everybody what to do and we’re not interested in your opinion. Go away. And so I just picked that right up. I thought it was great, get people to get me coffee and be scared of me. But that’s not the case. And I’m glad I made the turn, and most of us need to make it way earlier, especially for our families.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. Well that’s right, and not only does that fuel work in the office setting, but obviously at home too. So was it something that you figured out just through trial and error? I know you talk about mentors in your career like Mr. Marriott and others. So how did you finally come to the conclusion that that’s a better way than bossing people around or whatever?


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah. I mean I had an incident about 15 years into my career where one of my managers, I think you mentioned it, was transported to the hospital for observation because he got dizzy and it turns out, he told me it was because I was coming. He was suffering from anxiety because my reputation for everybody gets there long before you do. And it arrives a couple days earlier, months earlier. And I really was embarrassed about that. He and I had dinner and I started thinking about it and I started going to seminars on leadership and I started reading more about leadership. I started trying to understand the concept of my job was not to push people around.


                                    Some people asked me what I did at Disney. I said, “I didn’t do anything. I just made sure things got done.” Because a lot of people jump in and want to do everything and want to approve everything, because they don’t trust people. And I didn’t trust people. I grew up when you don’t trust people, you think you can do it better. So I went through that and I just slowly but surely started learning. Peter Drucker’s book I read, which really impressed me. And of course the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Leaders I read. And those seven simple things, they turned the light on. I guess education is supposed to turn the light on, and it did. And I started slowly but surely practicing it better. And once you practice something long enough it becomes who you are.


                                    I always tell people, “If you hang out in a bad culture, you’ll be come bad. If you hang out in a good culture, you’ll become good.” We all adjust to survive, and we’re influenced by our culture. And I grew up in Oklahoma in the ’40s and ’50s, and it was pretty… I would say we had a white school, a black school and a Native American school. I didn’t know any better. It’s amazing what you don’t know. And then I went in the Army. That woke me up to diversity and there are other people in the world. Then I got in the hotel business. Everybody in the hotel business is from somewhere else, and you work with people from all over the world. Since then, I’ve traveled and done work in 45 countries around the world and I have a new appreciation for people.


                                    Not governments. I don’t have any appreciation for government. Just people. Good people. And we get those mixed up sometimes. So it was a trip. But along the way, I really learned that people appreciate you when they help them. People appreciate it when you train them or you give them a break or get them the right interview or ask about their grandkids instead of just being the boss. I’ve totally changed. I’m not the boss anymore. I want to be remembered as a teacher, not a boss. Nobody likes a boss.


Aaron Ackerman:         Well the other thing that I think goes along with that that you talk about and write about is, as a leader, really as anybody, but as a leader and as you say, a leader is not necessarily a person with authority, right? It’s somebody who leads and has those characteristics. But our words are really impactful, and sometimes we underestimate how meaningful something we say, good or bad, is to the person we’re talking to. And so that ARE, we may not think it’s a big deal for me to take 30 seconds or 90 seconds to give a little encouragement or send an email, but it may turn someone’s day or year or life around, right?


Lee Cockerell:               Absolutely. You have no idea what they’re going through, because in America when we all ask each other how we’re doing, we all say we’re great which is the biggest lie in America. We got 20 problems and kids and wives and parents and all these things, employees that work with us and work for us. So I think first thing is to forget that. People are not great. They have a lot of issues, a lot of worries. And you can make it better because if you’re the boss, so-called teacher, you have the maximum influence. It’s like with your kids. You and your wife are 100% the most influential people in their lives. Ever. And your wife’s the best leader in the world.


Aaron Ackerman:         No doubt.


Lee Cockerell:               Mothers are the best leaders. They have empathy and they have discipline, and they know the long-term vision is to get those kids ready for life, not to get them… I said I didn’t make my son’s bed, but I made sure he made it. I didn’t do his chores, but I made sure he did them so that when he left, he… Mothers are just incredible. They are amazing.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. And your book The Customer Rules, I think you say something along the lines of, one of your rules is what would your mother say? Or do what your mother would say. Something along those lines.


Lee Cockerell:               And you can tell all your listeners right now, they got a big decision to make and they don’t know how to handle it, just call their moms. She knows. It’s usually a hard thing. People don’t want to deal with hard things, but mothers are used to dealing with hard things. So I said, you’d call your mom and say, “I got this guy not coming to work on time. What do you think I ought to do?” She said, “Well have you talked to him?” And then, “Yeah I talked to him six times.” “Okay then fire him. Get to the point.” I mean mothers don’t play around.


Aaron Ackerman:         That’s right. No I was talking to a group recently and I said something along those lines. If you’re not sure what to do, do what your mother would tell you to do. And if your mother’s a jerk, do what your grandmother would tell you to do. And if you think your grandmother’s a jerk, then chances are you’re probably a jerk. You’re the problem, not mom and grandma.


Lee Cockerell:               I’ll have to remember that. That’s a good one.


Aaron Ackerman:         Hey another story I really love, and I hate to rehash things that you’ve written about and talked about a lot, but this is so good, and I’ve used it talking to groups before, and I always give you credit. But The Flies in the Kitchen. Tell just a little bit about your Flies in the Kitchen story and really to me I think it demonstrates the importance of taking personal responsibility for everything in your sphere, in your life, in your work and everything.


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah it does. Well I was working for Marriott, and I joined Marriott when they only had 32 hotels in 1973. So that was a little company. Today they have 7000. Probably wish they didn’t right now with this pandemic. But Bill Marriott came to see us a lot and I was in Philadelphia, and I was the head of the food and beverage business there and we were a big operation. And when Bill came, he doesn’t go to the office. He walks with you. You walk the kitchens, you walk the restaurants, the hallways. He goes to the back docks to check the garbage room is clean.


                                    And that day, I hadn’t been working for Marriott very long and I didn’t really understand the total focus on cleanliness and that sort of thing, and we went to the back dock where the garbage dumpster was and there were flies all over the place and they were getting inside the hallway, and then eventually they worked their way up to the restaurant and he looked at me and said, “Lee if you have flies in your restaurant, you like flies.” And I got it. He meant if you need to issue a fly swatter to every person in the company and give them a quota, get rid of the flies. And if you have rude children, well that must be what you want. And if you have poor health and you don’t take care of yourself, well that’s not your neighbor’s fault. And I really have… That suck with me, always, There’s no blame You own it.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. No I love that story. And the way I’ve internalized that is, you said, “Well you like flies. Or your okay with flies.” And the response would be, “Well no I don’t. I don’t like flies.” But you like the flies more than you like whatever you would need to do to get rid of the flies, right?


Lee Cockerell:               Absolutely. And at your home, if a fly gets in your spend the rest of the day trying to nail it down. So I said you go through the house closing doors until you can get it. But somehow we forget the same principles of, we’re being judged all the time on what we’re willing to accept and who we are. And your kids are watching too.


Aaron Ackerman:         Oh yeah. For sure. Well let me ask you a little bit about customer service. I know this is something that is really important to you, and you had a huge impact in the way Disney, while you were there, the way Disney treated customers. And Disney is known as one of the all-time greats in the world at customer service. In your book, The Customer Rules, you cite a study where people who had stopped doing business with a company were surveyed. And I think close to 75% of those said that either a single bad experience with an individual staff member, or not feeling like they were valued, was the main reason for them not doing business anymore with that company. Something you talk a lot about is feedback and getting the truth.


                                    And so, from that study about a single bad experience or not feeling valued, there’s some communication that company’s not getting. Or if they’re getting it they’re not acting on it, right? Really interested to hear you talk a little bit about customer feedback, how you view that and how you would advise people on that, whether that’s using some formal tool like surveys or calling people, or if it’s just trying to capture those informal moments of feedback. And then what do you do with that? Because most companies have some kind of program where they collect customer feedback, but those same companies don’t usually do anything with it. So talk just a little bit, if you don’t mind, about customer service, particularly with feedback, capturing it and then acting on it.


Lee Cockerell:               Well certainly feedback for all leaders, whether it’s about you personally as a leader, father, brother or husband is important. And I think most companies overdo it. I get something from one of the airlines and they say it’ll only take 10 minutes. That’s a long time. They should know this stuff. But we really came to the conclusion, and I came to the conclusion, there’s only one question. I love that question. They say if you want to know what’s going on, hire a college kid and have him call or send a note to whatever number of customers you want to hear from and ask them, “Would you recommend us to your loved ones? Would you recommend us to your best friends? Would you recommend us to your mother?”


                                    That’s all you need to know. And when they say “Yes” you say “Why?” And they’ll tell you. And when they say “No” you say “Why?” And they’ll tell you. And you’ll get a reading very quickly about how… You’re never as good as you think you are. This is the biggest problem people have. And then eventually people just don’t fill out the forms. And frankly, a lot of people, my grandmother was one of these people. My grandmother didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. She would say it was great no matter what. So I say the other thing is ask your employees what the customers are complaining about. They know. They know and they want you to make it go away because they’re taking the brunt of all of this.


                                    And I think a simple question of asking a customer, “What do you not like that we do here? What do you like that we do? Can we do something better?” Just simple. Don’t go down the line at 42 questions about… And it just goes on and on and on. You’ll find out. And I think you do in a comfortable way of not overdoing it. And I always tell people, “Your customers and your employees know everything you need to know.” They know.


Aaron Ackerman:         Right. And you talk a lot about getting to the truth, which usually is not going to happen easily, or with your first question. You got to keep digging and digging and asking and finding ways to get to the real truth, because especially if you’re in a position of leadership, nobody wants to tell the boss bad news. When you’re the EVP of operations at Disney World, it’s probably hard to get the truth. You’ve got to work at it.


Lee Cockerell:               Well it may be the truth is going to get them in trouble, too. You have three children, you will learn this deeply by the time they’re grown up, that getting to the final what really happened, not that they lie but they just fix the story a little bit to leave their guilt out. And everybody does that. We all shade it. So if you really want to know, you got to dig down and keep asking why and why and why and why, and get down to try to fix the base problem. And it may be simple thing as people don’t feel respected, or might feel a special thing as, they haven’t had training. They didn’t know. Nobody told them. When they hired nobody was clear about expectations for how you treat the customer.


                                    Clarity of expectations, that’s what you can learn from your mother. They’re clear. And if you can be… This is one of the biggest problems in business, people not being clear. Clarity is making sure that there’s no misunderstandings, you know what I need, I told you. Clarity. Once you pick up clarity in all parts of your life, a lot of problems go away because you don’t have these people saying, “Well I didn’t know.” Or, “Nobody showed me.” Or, “Nobody told me.” Or, “Nobody trained me.” It happens. Or, “I didn’t have the authority to do it, therefore I really annoyed the customer because I honestly I said there’s nothing I can do for you sir.” It’s pretty easy to figure out, if you really want to know the truth… This is the problem. Do you really want to know the truth? Because the truth creates work, but it avoids lots of future work.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah that’s really good-


Lee Cockerell:               The truth is a good time management tool.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah that’s great. Coming back to clarity, something that I only learned about just recently, but maybe you’d done this many years ago, but you wrote a story, a fictitious story, about a family going to Disney World and had the perfect vacation. And that become the roadmap for customer service.


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah. I just tried to write down, what would the perfect trip to Disney World look like for a family of four? Two kids, from the first time they think about it, they pick up the phone and call Disney Reservations. How’s that going to come off? Is that going to be really, “Wow! How great they were. How knowledgeable they were. They knew everything. They helped us. I called back three more times before we went and then they sent us our tickets on time. We got our bag. We got all this. We got there. The bus was on time. It picked us up, took us to our hotel. Our luggage arrived fine. Check in was great. When I went to call the restaurant, they answered promptly, they took my reser…”


                                    I mean I just went through, if it was perfect, when you get on the bus, the bus driver was cordial, he sang some Disney songs on the way to the Magic Kingdom. He gave the kids a little bus drivers license when they got off the bus. We ran into security and they were really sweet. They weren’t trying to be mean or hard, because the expectation was that they’re to treat the guest respectfully, even the guests that are difficult. We won’t rough you up when we ask you to leave. We’ll do it magically when you’re trespassing. And so I wrote the whole story, then I published it. And I tried to touch every department so that people would get a vision of, “Here’s what it ought to look like guys. We’re not doing it this well. We can do it a lot better.”


                                    And I want the waiter to be thinking about this. I want the front desk clerk to be thinking, the housekeeper. Had a story in there about her, when we come back to the room, this is what it looks like. It was pretty powerful. I put that on my Cockerell Academy, a course on how to write that story for your own business, because what you see in your mind about your business is not what your people see. You got to really… Storytelling is the name of the game. You remember stories. We know what happened to the three bears.


Aaron Ackerman:         Right. Yeah. That’s great. So I’m curious, and I’m actually excited to check that out on Cockerell Academy. We’ll talk about that a little bit more. But when you did that story, and I’m thinking about any business leader, business owner going through a similar exercise. When you did that story, you probably did not take into account current systems, processes. This is the perfect vacation. Now then we can go into the story and go, “Okay. We can’t do this right now. Or we’re not doing this piece right now. How do we fix that?” And so forth. Is that-


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah I mean when you go back and read it you’ll think, “What’s he talking about? Pagers? And what’s he’s talking about?” Because the technology will change. But the attitude, the empathy, the discipline to be everybody trained, a place where everybody is treated properly. Those are the things that don’t change. I think management techniques change, the way you get information, the way you do things, the way you communicate, but I always say, the empathy should probably never change. And it’s really technical things that change and you can adjust those as you go. I read recently again to remind myself. It’s changed quite a bit since we wrote that story.


                                    But I have several people who’ve written me and have said they’re writing that story for their own business. I will tell you, just like my tax accountant there in Oklahoma City. I call them and they answer the phone. There’s no phone tree. And I mentioned it once to my guy there, and he said, “Yeah we thought about putting that phone tree in. But we thought about, anybody could do your taxes. We want to have a relationship where people are not mad when they call us, when nobody answers, you can’t get ahold of anybody. We don’t call you back.” And I must say, I know nothing about taxes. I just know I pay too much. But I know one thing. I trust them because they have that right attitude, they get back to me, they answer questions. They don’t make me feel like an idiot because I don’t understand what they’re talking about, some term.


                                    So that is the… And I remember them saying, “Anybody can do your taxes so you better be nice to people.” Because, commodity. Everything’s a commodity today. There’s a million restaurants to go to. There’s thousands of places to go on vacation. I mean, for colleges, your kids can go to any college. But they’ll want to go to one which probably there were referrals, they knew people who went there, how they’re treated, the environment, the culture, safety and security. I always tell people, “The only thing parents worry about are two things in life with their children. Safety and education.” That’s all you worry about their whole life. And you’ll never stop. When you’re 100 and they’re 80, you’ll be telling them how to cross the street. Safety and security and we need to think about that in the workplace. Emotional safety also, like “I appreciate you. You’re doing a good job. Thank you.”


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. No, that is so good, and one thing that I heard in a speech a year or two ago and I go back to it a lot, and I think it dovetails with what you’re talking about whether you’re a tax accountant or Disney World or a restaurant or an airline or whatever. But this speaker said, “You need to become the business that would put you out of business the fastest.”


Lee Cockerell:               Exactly.


Aaron Ackerman:         That’s kind of a haunting question but kind of a cool way to think about it. “What are my competitors doing or not doing that I can come in and be different and be more valuable to our customers and client?”


Lee Cockerell:               When I go to a hotel to do a speech for a company, I remind them, I say, “By the way. Your competitor’s in the room next door having this same conference. And that conference is how to take your business and your people.” So don’t ever underestimate that because you got to get better faster these days. I mean you can get knocked out real easy. We see a lot of companies getting knocked out because they don’t keep up with the technology, they hire the wrong people, they don’t train the properly, they don’t treat them right. I told them the formula is, “Hire them right, train them right, treat them right. And life will be good.”


Aaron Ackerman:         There you go. So I want to ask a little bit about some operational stuff. During your tenure at Disney, and you were at Disney more than the 10 years you were the executive vice president of operations.


Lee Cockerell:               I was at Disney 16 years.


Aaron Ackerman:         16 years. Okay. So while you were there you saw a number of big events that would have a real impact on the operations. Just looking at the dates you were there, there were hurricanes, probably business acquisitions, huge construction and expansion projects. And I believe while you were the EVP is when 9/11 hit. So thinking about back over your time, what was the biggest operational challenge that you encountered? And looking back on it, what were the takeaways? I know Disney is one of those organizations that prepares for things that you can’t even predict, so you’re probably ready in some sense for everything. But then having a plan on paper is different than executing it in a scenario where Disney World’s basically the size of San Francisco, and a lot of people, a lot of operational parts. But what was the biggest operational challenge and how did that turn out? How did you work through that?


Lee Cockerell:               I think the advice I’d give, I did a conference for 2000 young people recently from Australia and New Zealand and other countries about how to lead in a crisis. And I told them, “First of all you don’t lead in a crisis. You lead long before the crisis, because you’ve got to make sure you got the right team, they’re well-trained, they’ve been through scenarios. And we’ve taught them what to do and the guest is number one. We take care of the guests. We make sure that we all know what we are to do. Like in a hurricane, we don’t even reach the minimum in our insurance. We got a system. We know all the furniture goes in, tie it down.


                                    In May we clean up the whole property because hurricane season’s going to start. We don’t go to Home Depot the night before. We’ve got all the supplies. Like a lot of people do. We have the sandbags, they’re always ready not just filling them up. So I think that’s the biggest key. And basically when you do that, I would say 9/11 is a good example. That happened that morning. All I could do was open the command center, we had 20 people that always came in there. Public relations, somebody that deals with the radio stations so the cast members know what to do when they go into that station. We have a highway patrol person in there. We have our county sheriff. We have a fire department person that comes. We’re a big city kind of place. And we have HR, labor relations, scheduling. And those 24 people sit around and I just sit there and listen to them and do what they tell me, because let me say, during a crisis you’ve got to let people at the scene make the decisions because you’ve trained them.


                                    So if there’s a problem over in the Magic Kingdom and I’m sitting in the command center, the executive at the scene has the full authority to make the right decisions. They can call back, but a lot of times you can’t get through. You can’t do this. You got to make it instantly. A delay in decision making, people can get hurt and die and all kinds of things. So I think it’s a matter of just make sure you always remember when a crisis hits, it’s like I always tell people. Don’t buy a fire extinguisher after the house burns down. Get it before. And don’t buy a treadmill after your first bypass surgery. Get it before. And prepare yourself and prepare your team, and hopefully your kids today will know what to do in a fire or a tornado. They know.


                                    I told my wife, it’s not the time to have a meeting when you hear a siren that says the tornado’s 20 seconds away. You better not have a meeting to figure out which room. You better have done that a long time ago. And I think that’s how we have to start thinking. It’s not a matter if something’s going to happen. You’re going to have some obstacles. They are going to happen, and it could be a shooting, it could be a disgruntled employee coming back to work. And you can think all you want that it’ll never happen here, and that’s about the dumbest way to think in life, that it can’t happen here. I just got a notice to put a device on my water system in my house to detect leaks. And it’s three or $4,000, but I’m thinking, “Hm.”


Aaron Ackerman:         You’d pay that happily if the leak flooded the house.


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah. I’m having my roof inspected. Now I think it’s okay but what if it’s not? It’s doing those things in advance. I always say if you do the right things up front, some things never happen. You’re probably not going to have to bail your kids out of jail or rehab or get them a lawyer or whatever, but you’re doing the right things up front. And that all translates, and I always call about this. There’s two ways to think about life. Reflection, what happened in the past I could’ve done better or should’ve done better. And anticipation. What could happen? Now you have teenagers, right? Or you’re going to have them. So you need to go through this anticipation thinking with your wife, because don’t underestimate what kids can dream up. I mean, it’s amazing.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. I’m not having-


Lee Cockerell:               And you’re going to be talking about that all the time.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. I’m not going to plan to have anymore kids, so if I get it wrong with these the reflection doesn’t help me that much.


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah. They’re about 25% trained so far, so you got a ways to go. But it’s just, that’s the way you have to think about it. You got to have a team around you today with complexity. I mean, let me tell you, your IT team may be your most important team. You better treat them well. In my book I say have a geek on your team. Without them you die. I mean, literally. I can tell you without a tax accountant I don’t know what I would do. I don’t have a clue what they’re doing. I sign those returns. I hope they did it right and they don’t come look into them. So this is the… You got to trust other people, depend on other people, train other people, appreciate other people, and they’ll be there for you. That’s how I think about life.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. No that’s awesome. So I’m curious, if you were still… I’m sure you’ve probably thought, if you were still at Disney making decisions during this global pandemic-


Lee Cockerell:               I’m glad I’m not.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. I’m lucky, like you, we can continue to serve clients remotely. We don’t have to be in person. Just like today, we’re on Zoom. We don’t have to be together to have this conversation. But a lot of businesses, restaurants, retail, places like most of the places you’ve worked in your career, you need people on site to make money. And so juggling trying to keep people employed, keep your business sustainable with the safety and the health concerns. I mean those are really hard, tough decisions. If you were still at Disney, how would you think about that? Or maybe another way to ask it would be, what advice would you give right now to a leader who needs people on site for their business to work?


Lee Cockerell:               Well I think you’ve got to be serious about all these safety precautions, even if you don’t believe them. You better do them anyway. People are looking to the leader for security, for… My grandson right now happens to be working at Epcot in the French Pavilion, in the bakery, and Disney is crazy attention to detail about safety. They’ve had no issues. I mean, there’s been a few people ejected for not wanting to wear a mask, but they’re very… I mean, clarity of expectations there for the customer, for the guest, and for the employees is unbelievable. Brutal. Don’t even think about taking your mask off.


Aaron Ackerman:         Oh I can give you a personal experience. So as I told you before we started recording, we took the kids to Disney just before school started and we had looked at the website and gotten all the information and knew that masks were required at all times, on the rides, walking through the park. The only time you didn’t need a mask is if you were actively eating and stationary, which means you can’t walk through the park eating a Mickey ice cream cone. Anyway, I go in thinking, “Well I’m sure they’re not really going to police that.” And I think I had my mask below my nose. It was on, but it was below my nose. Within about 30 seconds, a very polite, nice Disney worked taps me on the shoulder and said, “Sir, you need to have that above your nose.” And I was like, “Okay. There’s the clarity.” They’re serious about it and so we all had our masks. But you’re right, that attention to detail, clarity of expectations, they do that for sure.


Lee Cockerell:               And I think the other part of that is role modeling. All your employees are watching you every day. I mean, you can’t talk one thing and do something else. And it’s the same at Disney. If you have too many exception, nobody knows what the rule is. So you got to tighten it down, and that’s why the number one thing Disney focuses on, always, is safety. Courtesy comes after safety. And then the way the place looks, and then efficiency. We never give up efficiency for your safety. I mean can you imagine if we had everyday reporting three more kids die? That is not… I mean it’s a responsibility. And I see a lot of people ignoring and a lot of people saying this is a bunch of baloney and fake.


                                    And I don’t know. I don’t think it is. I think a lot of people died and a lot people are getting it and a lot of people my age. I tell people I’m in the O-Zone. The obituary zone. I’m not playing. I’m doing whatever I have to do. Plus my wife won’t let me leave. She’s got the alarms down, if I open the door it goes off. She wants me to be around. But I think it’s serious and I think role modeling is way underestimated, how important that is. Your kids, most of what they learn is watching you and your wife in action. It’s not what you tell them. They forget what you tell them in 20 seconds. But they watch.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah that’s right. It’s like the Ben Horowitz book, which is a good book, but the title is fantastic. What You Do is Who You Are.


Lee Cockerell:               It’s true. And that’s what we want to know. Who are you? Can I trust you? Who are you? Are you honest? Who are you? Do you tell the truth? Who are you? Not what you do. We have a chef that can cook. That’s what he does. But who is he? Can he keep the people together, train them, have trust with them? And I think we… I’m helping people learn how to write resumes. Now, right hand side is who you are and the left hand side is what you’ve done. Because probably in the long run, attitude is going to be the most important thing for somebody you hire. Tax laws, they must change every two minutes and you’ll always keep up with that. Technical will always be the easiest. But attitude, who am I? Trustworthy. I’ll be to work on time. I’m not going to create a problem. I get along with people. Those are the things that matter. Just think about the people in your life, some are your relatives. They’re a pain in the rear end.


Aaron Ackerman:         That’s right.


Lee Cockerell:               So we got to be aware that we are the leaders, we are the trainers, we are the parents, and we’re teaching every second of the day. Every second.


Aaron Ackerman:         So speaking of teaching, I want to ask you about Cockerell Academy. This has been, I guess officially launched here pretty recently. I know it’s been a vision of yours and you’ve been working on it for probably a long time, and one of your buddies, Lee Mayberry, who does your podcast with you, he’s actually been on our podcast. I know he’s been involved. But I’m really excited about Cockerell Academy and being able to get in and learn more about that. The question I want to ask you is who is Cockerell Academy for? Who did you create it for? And why has this been such an important project for you over the years?


Lee Cockerell:               It’s an extension of my books. I always thought I had knew a lot because I had worked for all these three great companies and I’ve lived all over the world. And I never had the confidence that I could write a book, and then I met an international agent. She read some of my work and said “You should write it.” And she got it and Creating Magic’s in 22 languages and it’s around the world. So my confidence got a lot better that I know something. So I always wanted to do this online school, and I always said I don’t have time to do this.


                                    And of course, March 12, I had a lot of time going forward because everything shut down. All my speaking engagements canceled. So we just did it. And we got six courses on there now, three more are coming out shortly. One’s on inclusiveness and diversity. It’s a story about my life growing up in Oklahoma, a story about Disney moving to being more inclusive and diverse, and about what you learn about life ongoing and how to implement into your business. And we have one coming, it’s going to be called Real Leadership. I was going to call it Real Leadership, not PowerPoint. Just good explanations. The one one customer service is on there now, World-Class Customer Service is about seven hours, but it’s in 39 10-minute sections so you don’t have to get… You got to keep things to the point. People today don’t have time to listen to an hour.


                                    I told a lady yesterday, she said, “What’s wrong with my podcast?” I said, “It’s an hour.” It’s hard. You might release 15 minutes of it every week. Or 20 minutes. That’s why we don’t do video, because people spend time mowing the lawn or driving to work, or they got time to do some things. So I just always wanted to do it. I’m getting great feedback on it. People like it, and I think it’s things you don’t learn in school, and since I didn’t graduate from college I figured I’d create me own. And by the way, I gave the commencement address at Oklahoma State two years ago, which was weird since I dropped out because I forgot to go to class.


Aaron Ackerman:         Well that’s just one of those little details.


Lee Cockerell:               And yeah, I’m still on the advisory board of the hotel and tourism school there, which is great. And you learn mostly after you leave college. Most of what you know and your success is based probably 99% on everything you’ve learned, experienced, exposure that you’ve had in your life.


Aaron Ackerman:         Oh yeah. Totally. So Lee, we’re winding up here. Thank you so much. People want to find out more about you, get your books, find out about your podcast, Cockerell Academy. I think all of that can be found on leeCockerell.com. Is that the best way for people to connect with you?


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah that’s the website. We don’t have it merged. Cockerell Academy will be on there soon. So you need to go Cockerellacademy.com or leeCockerell.com


Aaron Ackerman:         Okay. Yeah and we’ll have that in the show notes. And Lee’s easy to get in touch with. He loves to help people. So really appreciate you being so gracious with your time today. So Lee we end up every episode with our guest with five questions, so if you’re ready I’m going to hit you with those now.


Lee Cockerell:               All right.


Aaron Ackerman:         So what was the first way you ever remember making money?


Lee Cockerell:               Well, I remember well because I grew up in Oklahoma on a farm up in Copan, Bartlesville area, Dewey. And we had a dairy farm and my job was to milk a cow by hand, even though we had electric milkers. This was part of my development program. So I had little white overalls I put on, went out the barn and milked this cow and I sold it to the Thompson family across the road for 50 cents a day, and that was my earnings.


Aaron Ackerman:         What time do you milk a cow in Bartlesville? Is it an early morning activity?


Lee Cockerell:               In Copan, well cows like to be milked twice a day. So you probably get your milk at the grocery store. But yeah, early in the morning. 6:00, 6:30, because then I had to get the school bus. And in the evening. Yeah. I didn’t even know it was work because when you live on a farm, it’s just the way it is. We didn’t an allowance. We didn’t even know what that was. It was fun.


Aaron Ackerman:         So, just from listening to you, I think I know what your answer here’s going to be, but what would you be doing if you hadn’t followed your career path in hospitality and operations? What would you be doing if you had a different career?


Lee Cockerell:               I’d probably be mowing lawns somewhere. I just fell into this thing. I knew nothing. I mean I don’t know what I’d be doing. But I’ll tell you one thing I know today, I could run any business because I am not going to be the technical expert. I’m going to hire the technical experts and I’m going to trust them and I’m going to get rid of the ones that don’t want to be good and train them. So I think if you stay focused on the basics, you can run any business. And I got a lot of people are Disney who are getting furloughed right now and they got industrial engineering degrees and masters degrees and they worked at Disney. They can go to any company. So I say, “Don’t get so focused on what you’re doing. It’s what you can do.” And you bring that experience. So I don’t know what I’d be doing. I just fell into this.


Aaron Ackerman:         Well I know you’ve talked about, you’ve got a passion around teaching and I can see that with the way you’re helping people. So-


Lee Cockerell:               I think you got to have a degree to be a teacher. Yeah. I might. In fact, if they’d let me.


Aaron Ackerman:         What would you like to go back and tell your 20-year-old self.


Lee Cockerell:               Probably to get a degree because I still have nightmares 60 years later that I can’t find my classroom. I mean, really it’s amazing what insecurity that drives into you as a young person when you go for an interview or you go to fill out an application and they say “college?” And you go… Those dumb things we do when we’re young really affect you mentally and emotionally later on. That still bothers me.


Aaron Ackerman:         So you are a best-selling author, so you’ve already written books. But would the title of your book be, your autobiography? What would you title it?


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah, a term I like to use and think about is, once you learn it, do it and then teach it. So that’s probably it. You got to learn something first. Maybe you go to college. Then you do it. You practice in your business. And then you start teaching other people. And that’s one way you leave a legacy is teaching your children, teaching people. Actually they say there’s three ways to leave a legacy. Plant a tree, have a baby, or write a book.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. No that’s great.


Lee Cockerell:               So it’s a matter of, teaching is great. Matter of fact, people ask me why do I keep speaking and teaching and I say because people clap and I’m insecure. I need to clap. When I play golf nobody claps. So I quit doing that.


Aaron Ackerman:         So when they stop clapping, that’s when you’re done?


Lee Cockerell:               It helps me. I’m trying to overcome my mental illness here.


Aaron Ackerman:         No that’s good. I love that. That’s a positive cycle, right? Learn, do, teach. There’s people, you see generation after generation of families or whatever that get in these bad cycles, and it’s hard to get out of it. That’s a positive cycle, and you keep that going with your kids, your grandkids, people you impact through your work. And that’s really positive.


Lee Cockerell:               What you teach your kids, they teach their kids. And your grand kids. Long after your gone, three or four generations will still be impacted by you.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. You can change the cycle, if it’s a bad cycle, somebody can change it.


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah my mother was married five times, I’ve been married once for 52 years. So we changed the cycle.


Aaron Ackerman:         That’s right. And you’ve changed it for your family going forward forever.


Lee Cockerell:               Yup.


Aaron Ackerman:         So, last question here. What is the best advice you’ve ever received?


Lee Cockerell:               Actually I got it, I was very defensive again because of my security early in my career. And one my bosses said, “Lee, do you realize the world does not revolve around Lee Cockerell?” And that was… Yeah. That’s right. Because I would take everything personally. I would be defensive. It was never my fault. I get upset and I try to blame it on somebody else. And people don’t like to work with people like that, and luckily he took me and he worked me over. Every time I did it, he said, “Lee. This is just a business issue. This is not a personal attack on you. The world does not revolve around you.” So that was probably, if I hadn’t gotten that pretty tough treatment, I might’ve not had the success I had because nobody likes to work with those kind of people. And you don’t learn when you’re in denial.


Aaron Ackerman:         No that’s-


Lee Cockerell:               You already know everything. I’m a genius.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah so good. And I think that goes back to something you said earlier about just impact. I don’t know if that conversation would fall under ARE, but it was certainly a hard conversation that somebody who wanted to help you get better had. It would’ve been easier for that mentor or boss to not have that conversation, right?


Lee Cockerell:               Absolutely. And that’s the biggest thing. You’re really doing a disservice when you don’t have those hard conversations and make hard decisions because if you don’t, life gets harder. If you don’t have hard conversations with your children, you pay for it later. Or with an employee that’s not doing their job, and you don’t deal with that, you pay for it later when you’re losing customers or theft or whatever. And hard things are hard. That’s why they’re called hard.


Aaron Ackerman:         Yeah. Well Lee. Thank you so much, not only for your time today but for sharing all of your experience through your books and your podcasts. I mean I’ve gained a lot from it personally. I know probably millions have as well. And so, I really appreciate that. Sometimes it seems like it would be tempting if I have a great idea, or I’ve really learned a lot, there’s a temptation to keep that to myself and try to benefit myself rather than benefit everyone else. And you’re really selfless with sharing all of your experiences and wanting to help people get better. So thank you so much, and thanks for joining me today.


Lee Cockerell:               Yeah you take care. Thanks for having me on. It was fun.


Aaron Ackerman:         All right. Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.


                                    And that’s all for this episode of How That Happened. Thank you for listening. Be sure to visit howthathappened.com for show notes and additional episodes. You can also subscribe to our show on iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher. This content is for informational purposes only and does constitute professional advice. Copyright 2020, HoganTaylor LLP. All rights reserved. To view the HoganTaylor general terms and conditions visit www.hogantaylor.com.


Lee Cockerell is the former Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World® Resort. Over the span of ten years, Lee and a team of over 40,000 cast members were responsible for the operations of 20 resort hotels, 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, a shopping & entertainment village and the ESPN sports and recreation complex in addition to the ancillary operations tied to Walt Disney World® Resort. Lee also opened Disneyland Paris. Prior to Disney, Lee held leadership positions at Hilton and Marriott, as well as served in the U.S. Army.

Since retiring, Lee has been busy helping organizations and individuals all over the world become better leaders. In addition to his full schedule of speaking and consulting, Lee has also authored three bestselling books and hosts a highly-rated leadership podcast and blog. Recently, Lee launched Cockrell Academy, an online platform that provides training on leadership, customer service, and time management.

In this episode, Lee shares best practices in using customer feedback to improve your business, how to always be steps ahead of your competition, and keys to leading amid crises.

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