Stay On Top Of Your Work With Lee Cockerell! [PODCAST EPISODE #34]

  • September 26, 2018
  • by Kate Borucka
  • No comments

Find Out How to Create Magic at Work and in Life!

In this episode, I talk with Lee Cockerell – the former Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World® Resort. Lee has held various executive positions in the hospitality and entertainment business with Hilton Hotels for 8 years and the Marriott Corporation for 17 years before joining Disney in 1990 to open the Disneyland Paris project.

Find out how to create magic in your life and work with Lee Cockerell in #34 episode!

Keynotes of this episode:

  • Don’t Identify Yourself By The Work You Do from Lee’s podcast “Creating Disney Magic” on how to introduce yourself.
  • Good leaders are like mothers
  • How to manage your time to create magic around you?
  • Take care of your employee and he will take care of your customer.

Books and people mentioned:

Podcast Transcript

Today I’m bringing you lots of magic from Lee Cockerell – the former Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World® Resort and the author of 4 bestselling books.

If you want to find out how to create magic in your work and life, don’t go anywhere!

Kate: Hello Lee, I’m so happy to have you here, thank you for joining me here!

Lee: Good morning, I hope everything’s good on that side of the ocean.

Kate: Yes, everything’s perfect in Poland, thank you.

[00:01:02 – 00:02:25]

Kate: So I’d like to begin with the question who are you and what you do but, I was listening to your podcast Disney Magic with Lee Cockerell so I’m going to ask you a question from this episode, who are you and what are you working on?

Lee: Yeah, well, you know, I was in the hotel and entertainment business for 42 years. I worked for Hilton hotels for 8 years, I started my career there as a bank waiter serving people in the ball room. Later on I joined Marriot hotels, Marriot International, I worked for them for 17 years and became the Vice President of food and beverage operations, in fact, I came to Poland in 1988 to work in on the Marriott hotel in Warsaw, and that was an interesting trip. That was before the Berlin wall came down so it was very interesting for me.

And then in 1990 Disney recruited me to go to France to open Disneyland Paris. So I did that. So after I worked 42 years I decided to retire. So I did, I wrote 4 books. I have a speaking business, I have a seminar business, I  consult with executives, I help people try to figure out who they are and what’s going on and how to fix their problems in their business. So that’s kind of my life.

[00:02:26 – 00:03:34]      

Kate: Yes, you have a lot of experience so I’d like to talk about it a little bit. Could you tell us how did it happen that you started working for Disney Resort?

Lee: Well, actually, it’s funny. I was working at Marriott and my son was in college, Daniel, and he worked at the Marriott in Boston while he was going to college. And he went down to Disney on 1989 and, they what they call a college program, college students could work there for the summer. And he went there and he called me and he said, “Dad, I have bad news for you.” I said, “What?” He said, “Disney’s better than Marriott.” I said, “Why?”,The training is really amazing.” And I was… I never thought I would leave Marriott but a year later I got recruited by Disney to go to Paris.

So my son and I both ended up working in a… for Disney by accident, I mean it just happened. So I had a strong background in the food and beverage and they wanted me to go to France to open all the restaurants and so that’s what I did. Then I got send back to Orlando in 1993 where I worked for another 13 years before I retired.

[00:03:35 – 00:04:39]

Kate: Okay. Lee, so what did you learn from working at Disney for such a long time? Is there maybe one particular event that, you know, went so deep into your memory that you think changed your life or your work?

Lee: Yeah, one thing I really learned at Disney was the attention to detail is amazing. I mean, everything matters. You know, when you think about it, if you wanna be great, everything matters.

I think the best… the worst experience and the best experience I’ve ever had was the 9/11 when we were so organized that we handled it perfectly that day because we practiced many times a year for crisis. And so that day everybody did their job just like they were trained to do and I was very proud of everybody who took care of  everyone in that way and that really reinforced for me that being prepared, having good systems, good policies, good procedures, good rules, everybody’s trained. So when you have great people and you train them, it’s amazing what happens. They can do anything and they did that day.

[00:04:42 – 00:06:49]

Kate: That’s great. So when it comes to people and the workplace, I’d like to ask you how to create magic in the place that we work, in our lives in general?

Lee: Yeah, well, I can tell you first of all at Disney we believe that the most important thing is to have good leadership, good people that really care about the cast members, the employees, that take care of them, that they’re there for them.

And I would say the three things that make us different than most companies, and any company could do this, is that we hire better. We hire better people, we take our time, we’re very careful who we hire, we’re looking for people with passion, and with the good attitude.

The second, we train people better. We train them, then we test them to make sure they learned and then we enforce the training. That’s the manager’s job, to enforce it. Just like your mother enforces policy at home when you’re a teenager. I tell that everybody, manage like a mother because mothers are tough.

And the last thing is creating the culture where people, everybody matters and they know they matter.

That we treat people respectfully and everybody’s on the same level, men and women, gay, black, white, the religion doesn’t matter. The only thing we worry about is performance. If everybody gets the same chance, everybody has the same opportunity and if you hire great people and train them, it’s amazing what they can do. And then trust them. I mean, give people good responsibility and I think around the world this is a big problem. I think there is a lot of bigotry, a lot of discrimination. Of course there is because we got wars going on all over the world and in America we got a huge problem with people not trusting each other and, you know the problems we have, so, yeah, I think that’s the key. When you have great people and you train them and you treat them right.

I always say, hire right, train them right, treat them right. And they will do anything for you. And so it’s a leadership issue. You gotta have people who really respect everybody in their leadership job – respect.

[00:06:50 – 00:08:58]

Kate: So when you’re a leader, you have to not only respect but, you know, think about those people. When you’re a leader, you have to think about other people.

Lee: Absolutely, I mean, at the end of the day it’s like your mother. She worried about you more than she worried about herself ‘cause she wanted you to be great. So she gave up a lot, she worked hard, she had difficult conversations with you, she made difficult decisions because she loves you so much.

And if you’re a leader, if you respect your people, you do the same. You tell them the truth, you have hard discussions with them because you want them to be successful. So you don’t… a lot of people… most people don’t have those hard discussion, they just, they let it go, you know, “I wish she gets better, I hope she gets better.” No, you’ve got to be… if you care, you’re gonna have… If I care about you, I’m gonna tell you the truth and just like your mother.

And I always tell people, just always remember that, what would your mom do in the situation and then you’ll always make the right decision. And it’s a simple thing. But its’ a… you see a lot of leaders in the world, their mothers probably would be embarrassed to how they behave and how they treat people. You know, we see it every day in the news from every country in the world. Man mistreating other people. Their ego, ambition to a fault, it’s all about them. And it can’t be all about you.

And I would say the other thing is, quit being the boss and be a teacher. Teach your people, they will do a good job but if you boss them around, they’re gonna resist. People don’t like to be controlled, nobody. And look all over the world, look what happens when a country tries to control its people. They go crazy, they go into the streets, they’re not gonna be controlled and that’s what leaders, that’s a bad idea to try to keep people under control.

So like my wife, if I try to control her, I have a big problem that day.

[00:08:59 – 00:09:55]

Kate: Oh yes, I believe that.

Lee so, I’d like also to ask you what are the main roadblocks that you usually come across in your work?

Lee: Well, the main thing is, you know, people ask me, “What was the hardest thing for me to do at Disney?” And I say it’s always dealing with non-performance. People who have bad attitude, who are not performing, who come to work late, who are disrespectful to other people. Having to deal with people, that’s the hardest part. You know, the other stuff’s easy. It’s when I have to terminate somebody, let them go, they lose their job, that’s always the hardest thing, always. It’s always people.

People disappoint you. You think they are this and they become something else. And they don’t do things properly, they may lie to you, they may try to manipulate your. And that’s always difficult when people disappoint you. Because you want to build trust in your organization and if you don’t trust people, it’s hard to get anything done.

[00:09:56 – 00:13:20]

Kate: That’s true, that’s exactly true. But managing people is not only about people but also about time. And I even have that morning Magic Planner by you which I use on a daily basis and it’s wonderful!

So, because, you know, at TimeCamp we create a time tracking software so we teach people how to be productive. So I have to ask you this question. How do you manage your time?

Lee: Well, first of all I got my planner right here, everyday I go use it for 34 years. I also have a smartphone and I like them both but I use both. And every morning I sit down and think about yesterday first, what I’m gonna put in my planner to do today. Trying to think about things I didn’t do well. Maybe I have to, you know, I had a conversation with somebody and I forgot to tell them two things, I need to go back and fix that. Or I have to call a client back and tell them I forgot something there, I need to do that. Always fix yesterday first, I think it’s called reflection. Reflect on yesterday. What could you have done better? And, you know, tell your boyfriend to think about it, how could he have treated you better yesterday? And when we start reflecting, the next time it happens we do better. So that’s first thing.

Then you think about the responsibilities you have in your life. Might be your boyfriend, might be, if you have, your children, might be your aging parents and grandparents, you need to figure out how you’re gonna take care of them someday, it could be your career, you need to go take some seminars, it might be your finances. Do you have a good plan so you get, when you get retired, do you have enough money? Your health – are you scheduling that and taking care of you with exercise and seeing the doctors and so we have so many things but mostly we don’t put the right amount of time against them.

And then next thing you know, it’s Christmas again annnd… you’re 65 years old. Life goes by quick, I say there’s only 4 ages – you’re born, you’re 21, you’re 65, and you’re dead. So time is really not on your side. You’ve gotta really use it carefully. And you gotta really know what’s important to you. And 2 or 3 tings you gotta make sure you do everyday before you’re doing anything else. And you gotta know what those are.

Your health, that’s number 1. Take care of yourself or you can’t take care of other people. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your parents or your grandparents or your boyfriend or friends. And then take care of your family, and then take care of your business. After that, if you wanna waste time, okay, go ahead. But don’t be wasting time with the wrong people, working on the wrong things, doing things that are gonna bring no value to you, you know. And I’m sure you know people. They just waste a lot of time. They hang out with the wrong people, they get in trouble. I mean it’s amazing. And the time is yours and you gotta make it as… you spend two things, you spend money and you spend your time. And you wanna get value for both.

Kate: That’s why they say that time is money.

Lee: It is money. It’s a lot of money. The smarter you get, the more money you’re gonna make. The more knowledge you have, the more money you’re gonna have. The better you treat people, the better they’re gonna support you, I mean, it’s the common thing. But most people don’t do it.

[00:13:21 – 00:16:28]

Kate: Exactly. So Lee, let’s talk about your books because you’re written 4 books. What inspired you to write them?

Lee: I always thought I had a book in me but I was very unsecure, I was afraid to write it ‘cause I thought nobody would buy it and then I would be disappointed. But one day a lady I met, she was on the international middle age, she told me she liked my writing and she started support me and I started writing and she got it published. My first book Creating Magic is in 18 languages now. Just sold all over to China in simplified Chinese and to Taiwan in complex Chinese and to Russia, all four books. And they just keep going. The books have been out now 10 years and the sales have been more then back then.

And second book Customer Rules is about customer service. Things you could do in your business that don’t cost anything. Just how you treat people and how you do things differently than everybody else.

The third book Time Management Magic is what we’re talking about now, how to get organized. How to have good reputation, be reliable, be credible, keep your promises.

And the last one is called Career Magic, how to stay on track. And it talks a lot about how to overcome obstacles in your life, which we’re all going to have. And a lot of people give up to easy when they have an obstacle. And everybody’s gonna have one. And I’ve had many, I’ve been fired and passed over. People think I was born at Disney. No, I had 30-40 years of hard times.

We just need to make sure people understand that because you don’t wanna give up just because you had a bad day or something happened or you didn’t get that job. You just go back again and keep going. And it’s all about attitude. Don’t let anybody hold you down.

So that’s what those four books are about. I wrote them because I had 42 years experience, I grew up very poor. My mother was married 5 times. I’ve been adopted twice, I got my name Cockerell when I was 16. I went to college. I was bad student so I dropped out. I’ve been in the United States Army and I got a job as a waiter. So I’ve had quite a bit of experience on all of ends. And I think I just want to pass that on to people that, you know, don’t underestimate what you can achieve in your life just because you’re poor, you live in this country or your mother was mean to you… Forget all those. Those are all in the past. They always say, “Forget the past, you’re not going there. You’re going to the future.” So forget all that stuff, don’t blame your mother, don’t sit blaming your poverty, don’t blame anything, the weather, the government. You can just make sure you say, “I’m gonna go do it, I’m not gonna end up like where I came from, I wanna be better. And I’m gonna make better life for my family, my kids, my grandkids.”

And if you keep working after it, you… I didn’t have a good job until I was 35. I mean, I worked hard for 15 years and jobs didn’t pay much but they finally paid off. Because I became an expert.

Become an expert in something and you will be successful.

[00:16:29 – 00:18:28]

 Kate: I’d love to talk more on your experience but we don’t have that much time.

But I’d like to switch a little bit to customer service. What to do to have a perfect customer service? Is that even possible?

Lee: I don’t know if perfect but you can have pretty great. And the main thing to having perfect service is first knowing that you got, you hired people that are gonna have a good attitude and they’re gonna take care of people, they’re not gonna bring their problems to work. And they understand that you’ve been clear with them

Clarity about expectations for performance. Just like your mother was when she was expecting you to do certain things and you knew what they were and you knew the consequences if you didn’t do them. As we say, “you don’t have to be happy to work at Disney, you gotta act happy.” And so happiness is a personal problem. And then I think you just gotta study it, understand what it is, understand that all people wanna feel special, all people, and you do that when they come into your business because they have a credit card and they have money and you want that money. So you take care of them and you treat them well, even the ones that are a problem, the ones that are not happy, you treat them even better. And you never take it personally, you never argue. The customer’s everything ‘cause that’s where you make your money.

Just treat them like gold. And the next thing you know, they’ll give you their gold and you’ll have it. And it’s an attitude. Either you feel like serving people or you don’t. And when you serve, you should always be the giving one. You don’t let your emotions get out of control, you just take care of the customer. That’s all you do. And everybody understands it that works for you. And if they don’t do it, you get somebody else.

[00:18:29 – 00:18:58]

Kate: I’ve even heard that phrase that if you take care of your customer, the customer will take care of you.

Lee: But I would say if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customer. Because they want to, not because they have to. And then, you really do well because if employees come in and they’re not happy, it’s hard to do your job.

So we really believe leadership comes first. You gotta have great people and treat employees right, they take care of the customer, you make more money.

[00:18:59 – 00:21:18]

Kate: Exactly! Lee, two more questions. The first one, what inspires you in your work and what books do you read?

Lee: What inspires me is years ago I decided to quit big the big bad boss and become a teacher. I like to teach I like to tell people not only what they need to do but how to do it to be successful. So I want my legacy to be, “Lee was a good teacher. He taught us. My life got better after I worked with him or he spoke to me or I read his books,” you know. That’s what we all want.

Your mother wants that for you. Her legacy is gonna be you and just think about all the things she taught you through the years, you didn’t ever realize it. Just …. how she behaves and how committed she is and how she’s there for you. That’s it, that’s basically how I think about it in my life now. That’s what I’m talking to you. I’m trying to…

Kate: Teach me something and the audience!

Lee: You could pass that on and it’s better. If you believe in what I say and if you tell other people, we all make a difference. And everything in your brain is not true, so we gotta get good stuff in our brains.

A lot of stuff you believe like, probably people in Poland say, “Oh, Americans are a problem.” Or people here say, “Polish people are problem” or “Russians are problem.” No, they’re not. Nobody is a problem, the governments, yeah sure. Government but not people. People are great. I’ve been in 44 countries. Everywhere is fine, it’s the government.

We have children, you have boyfriend, they go to dinner, they love their life. Just get over all this crap. Now it’s just amazing, people are so big at it, mainly you know, because they haven’t had exposure, experience, and education. Those are the three things that make you successful. Education, experience, exposure.

I can tell you, when I went to Poland, I had no idea how Poland was and it was, it gave me a new perspective. I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Russia, been to India. When you get those experiences, you think differently. And you appreciate people. Too many people stay in their little village, they don’t know anything. If you stay in the village, you think everybody’s like you, and they’re not. And you get better food as you travel around the world.

[00:21:19 – 00:22:46]

Kate: So what about the books? Do you have your favorite books or not really?

Lee: Yeah, right now I’m reading, there’s one called Zero to One about being more creative, coming up with the new idea vs just improving an old idea. That’s the one I’m reading now. I can’t remember the title now but the other one is how to deal with social media and how to promote yourself, actually, if you stay one second I’ll tell you what it is.

Okay, it’s called Crushing It! it’s very interesting and it’s worth reading if you can get your hands on. It’s about how entrepreneurs build their business using social media and most of my work is on social media because it’s free. And it’ll make you think differently.

There’s another one there you might wanna have, it’s called How to Say Anything to Anyone. How to deiver bad news to people. How to say anything to anyone.


Kate: Okay, so one last question, related to the name of the podcast, Stay on Top of Your Work. How do you stay on top of your work?

Lee: Well, my podcast is called Creating Disney Magic. It’s on every Tuesday. It’s on iTunes and all those things. I just organize myself, what I wanna get done every day. Like today at 1 o’clock I will book, we will record two sessions with my partner. He calls on Skype and we do over Zoom or one of those. He’ll call from Seattle, Washington and we’ll do two of them. And then Friday we will do two more. We always try to stay 5 or 6 aheads so we’re in emergency or we’re travelling, we have prerecorded and we’re ready to go and I just think about everyday.

First, I think about myself, how am I gonna take care of myself? I have a workout at 9.40 this morning ad wife’s going with me. Strength training ‘cause I’m getting older, I don’t wanna fall and break a hip. I have balance training to keep my balance.

Those things are important. I think when people are young they don’t realize that if you exercise it pays off later. If you take balance training, it pays off later, when you don’t fall and break a hip.

Just thinking about what should I do now that won’t pay off to later. Tell your boyfriend you love him, it’ll pay off later

The things that are important you gotta be doing now. You may not get return in years, and years, and years. Most people don’t like to do that. They want immediate payoff. Anything good takes time.

My wife and I have just celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary.

Kate: Wow! Congratulations. That’s a lot!

Lee: 50 years with one woman. It’s amazing. So you can do it, it’s ups and downs and it’s hard but you gotta do hard things, if you wanna have a good life.

Kate: Of course, and they take time.

Lee: Easy things don’t take time.

Kate: That’s true! Okay Lee, thank you!

Lee: It’s great to see you, meet you. Take care, bye!

Kate: Bye!

Thanks for listening!

Connect with Lee!

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Kate Borucka

Kate is a freelance translator, copywriter, and a content writer specializing in time tracking software, time management, and productivity. When not researching new software, she's reading books, or spending time outdoors.

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