It's Not Easy Making Pixie Dust

We are in the Utilidor--a series of tunnels below Disney World's Magic Kingdom theme park in Orlando. The tunnel complex is generally off-limits to outsiders, but not to 41 visiting managers whose companies have anted up $2,295 a head so they can learn about Walt Disney Co.'s approach to people management.

This underground city is a beehive of activity. Employees rush through the gray concrete tunnels, scrambling to put on costumes and assume their roles upstairs. Golf carts speed by with supplies. Makeup artists prepare an array of Cinderella and Snow White wigs.

Before coming to this 31/2-day seminar, I was skeptical. The program sounded like little more than a dream junket: three nights at the resort's most elegant hotel, plus four-day passes to Disney's theme parks. Besides, I thought, what could any manager possibly learn at Disney World? By the end of the first day's activities, however, my note pad was brimming with ideas and lessons dished out by Disney staff.

My colleagues, most of them human-resource managers, take the program seriously. Most are facing a slew of challenges in need of Disney-style magic. A delivery manager at Anheuser-Busch Cos. is trying to make his drivers more responsive to retailers. Personnel managers at a fast-growing bagel chain in Florida worry about maintaining standards as they beef up the chain's ranks. And an employee trainer at South Africa's state-owned transportation conglomerate is looking for ways to streamline the company's hiring process.

BLUNT FILM. Disney's reputation for cleanliness, attention to detail, and helpful employees is what has drawn them here. "Everyone knows how wonderful Disney is, so you figure they must be doing something right," says Kathleen Scappini, who works for snet Multi-Media in West Hartford, Conn. That "something right" is what Disney refers to as the "pixie-dust" formula, with four key ingredients--employee selection, training, support, and benefits. Our seminar, "Disney's Approach to People Management," promises to reveal how the company motivates employees.

Instructors, called facilitators, tell us that we cannot count on Tinkerbell. "The solutions are not complicated," assures Jeff Soluri, a Disney instructor. "It's attention to detail and hard-nosed business practices that produce the magic."

If there is pixie dust, it starts with the hiring process. One of the first activities is a field trip to Disney's "casting center," a Venetian-style castle where job candidates view a video before being interviewed. The short film informs job seekers about the company's strict appearance guidelines (one ring per hand and no tattoos, please) and the rigors of the work. By being blunt and detailed, Disney says, it's able to weed out incompatible candidates at the first crack.

The critical part of the process, though, is employee training. New hires, who average less than $10 an hour, are treated to a visual company history. They are told that they are not just employees but pivotal "cast members" in a "show." From street sweepers to monorail pilots, each cast member must go out of his way to make the resort seem unreal. No matter how tired workers are or how deeply guests may try their patience, they must never lose composure. To do so, the company tells its cast, is to risk alienating a guest, spoiling the illusion, and damaging Disney's standing in entertainment and American culture.

A BIT OF GROUSING. Between excursions, participants share what they have learned--and what they might use. Disney staffers with wireless microphones dart Oprah-like through a conference room seeking comments. They get plenty. John Lealos, the Anheuser-Busch manager, says he wants to incorporate more of an appreciative, team feel into his unit's corporate culture. "If we can get that kind of atmosphere at our company, the productivity will go up," he says. Hugo Strydom, the training manager at South Africa's Transmit Ltd., intends to use a Disney-style orientation to weed out weak candidates in a major hiring blitz.

Not everyone is happy. Some managers privately say they're disappointed that the Disney magic was, well, not really magical at all. They complain that the program covered only operations in Orlando and not Disney's global activities. Others find the ideas being preached not all that original. "We're already doing many of the same things," grouses one manager.

Maybe. But I brought back enough ideas to give my bureau manager a raft of suggestions to implement in Miami. They aren't earth-shattering proposals--but I'm not Tinkerbell, either.