Improving the Culture in Your Kingdom With Dan Cockerell

It takes more than pixie dust to shape a great culture, engage your team, and create a magical experience for your clients. 

For Dan Cockerell, the magic began when he took on the role of Operations Manager at Disney’s All-Star Resorts. But it didn’t play out as you’d expect: instead of beginning his role as the department’s overseer, he began on the frontlines with a broom and a dustpan. 

Dan worked alongside the other employees, earning their respect, gaining credibility, and getting to know what each facet of the department required. This helped him become the best leader possible since he knew exactly how to improve processes from the bottom up.

And it didn’t end there. Dan was so successful in his leadership strategies that he eventually worked his way up to Vice President of Magic Kingdom, leading a team of 12,000 cast members. But how did he maintain a great culture on a large scale?

It comes down to a few areas: you have to get the right people in the right jobs, spend time getting to know your employees, set clear expectations, and have a system for reward and recognition. When people are more engaged and supported, you get better results for your business.

Listen to this episode of The Judd Shaw Way Podcast with Judd Shaw featuring Dan Cockerell, Owner of Cockerell Consulting Group and former Vice President of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Together, they discuss leadership best practices, why it’s vital to take care of your physical and mental wellbeing, how to improve your culture in a growing organization, and many more industry insights. 

In this episode: 

  • [0:36] Judd Shaw introduces his guest, Dan Cockerell
  • [2:40] Why Dan found his hotel cleaning duties more valuable than spending time with the CEO in their boardroom
  • [9:01] What led Dan to write his book, How’s the Culture in Your Kingdom?
  • [11:48] The four areas of magic: leading self, leading others, leading organization, and leading change
  • [16:23] How does Dan measure culture?
  • [22:22] Dan shares how Test Track’s first failures inspired his personal leadership improvement
  • [28:18] How to keep culture alive when your company is growing exponentially
  • [32:38] The importance of being highly accessible and approachable as a leader
  • [35:02] How Dan helps leaders through his consulting business



Welcome to the show. I’m your host, Judd Shaw. Today’s special guest, Dan Cockerell, who in 1991, worked as a parking attendant at Disney’s Epcot Center. Over the next 26 years with Disney, Dan held 19 different jobs, including living in France. As part of the opening team at Disneyland Paris. He was named VP of Epcot, VP of Disney’s Hollywood studios, and ultimately tapped to run The Magic Kingdom, the number one, most visited theme park in the world, where he led a team of 12,000 and entertained over 20 million guests annually. Today, Dan and his wife, Valerie run their own consulting and speaking business. And Dan is also the author of How is the Culture in your Kingdom? Dan, welcome to the show.

Thanks Judd. That was a smooth intro there, man. You got it going on.

I appreciate that. And Dan, I got to ask, who is your favorite Disney character and why?

Great question. And I’ve gotten this a few times. So obviously everyone knows Disney characters are characters. They’re not played by characters. However, if you talk to someone, they may tell you I’m good friends with a character. That’s how we keep the magic alive. So what I’ll tell you is my dad, my wife and I, we’re all friends with Tigger at one point or another from Winnie the Pooh. And Tigger was a pretty cool guy. Although he’s pretty active, you need to have a really strong heart and be pretty tuned up to be able to keep up with his movements and his stamina, but Tigger was our guy.

Dan, I recently spoke with a guy you probably know, Brad Rex. And in talking with him, he had shared that in his experience as serving as a executive VP at Disney, his favorite activity was doing the Disney Scoop, literally going around the theme park and picking up garbage with the custodial team. And I read your book, which is awesome by the way. And we’ll get to it.

Thank you.

I learned about your days cleaning guest hotel rooms and toilets with the likes of Blanca. Dan, I have to ask, these are like low level jobs, right? You don’t need a college degree to operate a broom and a dust pan or clean a toilet. I mean, these are just tasks. So why is it that when speaking with two executive VPs at Disney, one of the leading companies in the world, why are those job functions more important than spending time with the CEO in the boardroom?

Yeah, I mean, great question. And there are multiple reasons for that. It’s not just to find out how a room is cleaned, although it is important to understand what it takes to be able to do that. However, what I found is, and this is a common practice at Disney. Every time a leader goes into a new area, depending on what level they are, they will engage and be trained in the operation. When I went to that job at the All-Star, I was the operations manager of rooms and housekeeping at All-Star movies. So because I was there every single day, I mean, I literally got trained, not just to shadow and overview, but I got trained on how to check guests in because there were times on the front desk, people said, “Look, we like to be encouraged. The employees like to be right and have you out here. And Dan, sometimes we just need you to get on a computer and start checking people in because we don’t have enough people.”

So that was one of them. The other thing is what I found, there’s a hierarchy. Every company has hierarchy and no one ever tells you everything about the job. They don’t tell you what’s going on. The managers, they’re not hiding anything, but they’re certainly not going to openly share all the problems that exist. And it’s your job as the leader to figure out what’s going on here, I need to know everything so I can help improve and I can help get the right tools in place and the right training and the right support. So it’s funny how when you show up for a couple weeks in a row, dressed as a housekeeper and work with the housekeeping team and go to lunch with a housekeeping team, after a couple days, they forget that you are in charge. They forget you’re the leader. You’re just now a peer. And you get to see everything, they share things with you, and you come out of that experience with first of all, a respect for what they do. You earn their respect because you are willing to spend time with them.

And you kind of get a look at what it’s like to clean a room and how much work goes into that. These housekeepers of these value resorts clean 18 rooms a day between checkouts and stay overs. And the number one reason is in a hotel if you don’t have clean rooms, it doesn’t matter what you have. You can have the best water slide, the best pool, the best restaurant, you could have as many Mickey Mouse balloons and everything, but if you go into a room that’s not clean, you’re done. And so that was… I knew that if when I went in there, I wanted everyone to know this is a symbiotic relationship. You’re looking to me as the leader here to give you the tools and make sure you have great leadership and that you are being able to get your job done in the best way possible. And in return, I need you all to do a great job, because if you don’t clean the rooms properly, I’m in big trouble.

So I think you need to recognize that as a leader is everyone has a different role, but at the end of the day, really no one’s job is more important than anyone else. People just have different roles. And I think the hierarchy, sometimes people get mistaken and they say, “Well, how can my job be just as important or housekeeper be just as important as a general manager? I said because if that housekeeper doesn’t, when they’re cleaning a room they don’t fully vacuum the room, and there’s a prescription pill that’s on the floor that they miss. And the next family checks in and a little two year old picks it up and eats it, true story, then you could have a really serious situation. And it’s because one housekeeper in one room of a 6,000 room hotel didn’t get that one piece. So I wanted them to make sure how much I respected them, trusted them, and that I was willing to show my respect and value of them by spending time out there.

Well, I’ll tell you, I had recently stayed in a hotel and as I checked out, I leave a couple of extra bucks than I normally would leave after listening to you on your book talk about what these housekeepers go through just to get through, to make your room the way it is when you check in. The only thing about that, Dan is I listen to you and I think about my own chief operating officer, right? She is one who has moved up the ranks and literally sat in every job or function. And I think that’s made her a stronger chief operating officer, because one it’s that relationship with her team, but also that it’s hard to say, you don’t understand what I’m going through, or you don’t know the… When you’re addressing a bottleneck or giving me some feedback, you don’t really know what I’m going through. And she can say, “Yes, I do. I’ve done that job before. I understand that job. I know what goes into.” And it gives a lot more value to her feedback.

Absolutely. You get a lot of credibility when you’ve gone out there and done it. And to your point, if I spent six months training in housekeeping, I probably would not be doing my job because I was responsible for the functioning of the whole hotel. But I spent that kind of time at the front desk in food and beverage, in recreation, in custodial to make sure that I… And horticulture because I wanted to make sure I understood all the functions of the hotel. I wanted make sure everyone knew I was interested in it. And to your point, when you get in a senior level meeting and someone starts talking about labor, you can talk intelligently and logically about, hey, if you want to go up to 19 rooms, I trained out in housekeeping. And here’s what that will do. Here are the consequences of that.

And a lot of times I think executives have a hard time flying at 10,000 feet and then being able to come down to the tarmac, but the tarmac is where the value’s created. It’s where the guests rate or the customers rate their experience, and over those hundreds of interactions with employees decide whether they’re coming back again. So there has to be a strategic plan, there has to be an overall plan, but you cannot underestimate how important the daily execution is in an operation, because that’s where the intent to return and the intent to recommend is formed. And that’s the lifeblood of every company.

Dan, let’s talk about How’s the Culture in your Kingdom? What led you to write the book?

Well, the main reason up front was someone told me, if you leave and become a consultant, you go out in the real world, if you have a book, what you say people will believe more. You don’t know more, but somehow they will believe you more and you’ll have more credibility. And someone reminded me that the word author is in the word authority. And so you become an authority on a topic when you write a book. So that was one of them. And so when I talk to people, have done this and that. Okay, good. And I have a book. Oh, well, okay. You’re hired. It’s not always that easy, but there’s a perception there. The other thing was, it really helped me organize my thoughts. After being in a company for 26 years, most of what you do, I call muscle memory.

There’s just standards, there’s ways of working that you’ve learned over time and you don’t recognize the value of it. And so literally I was… And there’s people who have left Disney. They don’t know if they have any value. I didn’t know if I had anything to teach, because I’d been at Disney so long. And so what is there for me to share? We run a theme park. We use common sense. We use basics. And what I’ve discovered is that simplicity and that basic execution of running your life and running a company is very valuable to a lot of organizations. A lot of organizations are really good at creating complexity, but they’re not very good at creating simplicity. And so it helped me just put together and I sat down to start the book and I just wrote down, what do I know?

Well, I know how to handle stress, I know how to multitask, I know how to get organized, I know how to communicate. And so I just thought about all the situations I had been in over the 26 years and wrote down, I know how to do that. And that was the outline of the book. And then a friend of mine took a look at all my notes. And I said, “Look, I don’t know what I have here.” And the next day he came back and said, “Dan, you got four seconds to a book here.” Lead self, lead team, lead organization, lead change. And I put all the topics in the right categories. So Keenan Yoho, he’s a professor at Crummer Graduate School at Rollins College, I owe him a lot because he saw the clarity quickly and that propelled me forward. And basically all the work we do now, all the keynotes, all the workshops is based on the book because that’s really how I think about things.

I found out that sometimes we can complicate simplicity, right? So it can be simple, but we can overcomplicate that. And you really did such a great job in laying out the book, in which you stayed sort of focused on that simplicity of it. Like, I found the magic in it to be the simplicity. And you never overcomplicated it. And you did keep… I saw those four sections, right? Leading self, leading others, leading organization, leading change. Can you talk just briefly on the four areas?

Sure. So I grew up being an athlete and I thought back and I’ve read articles on corporate athletes. And there’s organizations who have really focused in on as an executive, as a manager, how can you be in the best shape to lead and do what you do? And there’s such logic there. When I was playing sports, you never went out late the night before a game, you always hydrate, you practiced, you got ready for it, you took it seriously. And you actually trained much more than you competed. And then ironically, when you get out into the real world, you tend to overstress yourself, you don’t take care of yourself necessarily physically or mentally, and you’re competing 95% of the time. You don’t have time to train. So I think athletes have it easy. Those guys have time to focus on how to perform their craft.

So that really hit me is at the end of the day, if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to do anything else well, whether it’s in your personal, professional life. So I wanted to make a point of that. And the publisher asked, said, “You know what? It sounds like a self-help book. People aren’t expecting that in a management leadership book. And would you consider putting at the end of the book and really starting with the hardcore leadership stuff?” And I said, “No, you have to go there first.” If you’re going to build a foundation, you got to have a strong base for that. And so this idea of take care of yourself, get enough sleep, eat right, be able to deal with mental stress, get organized. Most stress people suffer from is just, they’re just not organized. They’re always trying to keep up. They don’t know what’s coming up next.

So that was a powerful thing. Next, build it out from there. Once you feel good about yourself, now you’re going to lead your team and you’re going to have relationships with your family. And how do you do that? And there are tactics I learned over the years at Disney how to do that. Next, leading your organization. And your organization can be a sandwich shop before people, but it’s still an organization. Or it can be a theme park with 12,000 employees, but the tenants are the same. The ideas of how you lead an organization and think about how to put a strategy together and what your goals are, are consistent. And then last one, lead change. And that came a little late later, but we concluded this is such an important topic because you can do all those first three things well, but they’re always changing.

You’re going to be in moments where you have big projects, where you’re not going to be taking care of yourself as well as you’d like to. And you have those moments where you’re not going to have balance. You’re going to have many moments when you’re getting new team members or you’re going to a new team, the organizational structure’s constantly changing, you may be going to a new company. And so how to navigate change was such a big piece, because it’s so disruptive and the better people can come up with a process and a system to manage through it, I think it’ll put them in the best mindset to be successful.

I love how you added leading self. And I read another book from another Disney exec, Time Management Magic, probably read it. And I hadn’t thought about the fact that yourself, taking care of yourself, right? How do you… Your time management, right? The next day you’re lethargic, you didn’t sleep well, argued overnight, you didn’t eat well. And now you’re dragging, and you’re starting to read about time management skills. Like, I don’t know why I’m not getting stuff done. And you’re thinking it’s because my emails keep coming in. And then it’s because I keep getting disrupted on meetings, so I can’t stay on topic. And all these things, then you realize it has nothing to do with that. You just didn’t sleep well.

Yeah. You just don’t feel good.

You don’t feel good. Yeah. I never thought about how the fact that that really, you just wake up and you feel vibrant and if you’re sleeping well and you’re eating well, that energy really affects your ability to lead.

Yeah, that’s called resilience. When you’re resilient and you feel good, you’re physically strong, you’re mentally strong, you feel like you’re in control of things. You can put up with a lot more chaos. You can respond in a much more balanced way because you feel good about things. And it’s a mindset really.

I love how your book helped focus on building essentially world class culture, right? A lot of these books that I’ve read, leadership books, touch on different areas. And some of them overlap, whether it be time management or managing, multitasking and things, either hard skills or soft skills, but really it’s the culture. And I wanted to talk about that with you. To me, culture can be a big buzzword in a business, right? Culture is a living, breathing organism, and it’s made up of people through a set of strong core values and purpose to help deliver the company’s goals. How do you measure culture?

Yeah. So for me, I’ve talked to many people and I challenge them and say, “Okay, if I’m in an elevator with you and we have 30 seconds and I tell, ‘Hey, I just read a book, saw this word culture, what does that mean?’ Everyone comes up with a different definition. The best one that I’ve heard defining culture is, it’s the way things are done around here. And so it’s as simple as that. So it does start with values, but it has to be translated to behaviors. And that’s where a lot of organizations miss the boat. So, hey, in our organization, when we know that there’s a safety issue or there’s something that’s going to harm our guest or our employees, we take immediate action. When that situation comes up, then people start saying, “Well, let’s wait a few days and make sure we have all the facts.” So how and organization behaves is what its values are. It’s not what it says its values are.

And so it’s observable behaviors, it’s the way things are done around here. So when my wife and I were raising our three kids, she had a hard and fast rule and said, “When we have dinner, we’re not together very much, but when we have dinner, the TV’s not going to be on, there are no electronics at the table, we’re going to have that 30 minutes or however long we have together to be with each other and talk with each other.” And the kids just got used to that. That’s the way it was done. No one said, “Well, I’m expecting a call,” or even me, I’d put it over on the counter. So when friends came over, they’d had their phone and our kids would say, “Oh yeah, we’re not allowed to have this at the table because it’s our time.” And that was just the way it was.

So culture is the accepted behaviors. If you are working at Disney, it is unacceptable to not be wearing a name tag. And it’s a big deal, because we all decided we’re going to be a first name company and we’re going to have that consistency. And Valerie and I work with companies all the time. And when we debrief, we just say, “Look, some simple questions here. Are name tags mandatory in your company?” “Well, yeah. They are. They’re required.” Okay. Well, half the people aren’t wearing them. So we would suggest either get everyone to wear them or tell them no one can wear them. But when you go halfway, you’re transmitting a message that you don’t have your act together.

So whatever those behaviors look like, whether we are going to be in contact with our… Executives are going to know what it’s like to work on the frontline like Brad and I did, or in our organization, we always use first names, or our organization, we answer the phone, we always say our name, or in our organization, when a guest asks us where something is, we take them to the destination, in our organization, when someone asks the question, we never say we don’t know, we say, “Let me find out.” And you build these behaviors over time. And those behaviors just become the way things are done. And then it gets easy to maintain culture because you don’t have to read a book anymore. Everyone around you are role models all the time and it’s osmosis and you pick up on that. And then there’s a lot more to it. Reward and recognition, feedback, reinforcement, training. I mean, you can do this. There’s a lot goes into it, but it’s the way things are done around here.

I love that. I heard one time somebody said every organization, every company has a culture, even if you’re not working at one.


You’re always going to have a culture. It’s what’s left, right? If you’re not working at it, you still have a culture. It’s there.

Yeah. Well, yeah. Some cultures, the way things are done around here is you’re never going to see a leader, so you can do what you want. The way things are done around here, you can add some extra cost to your expense report, because they never audit you. The way things are done around here, you can tell someone they don’t know because no one ever cares whether you know or not because the leader’s never going to coach you on it. And so to your point, every organization has culture. Culture’s not a good or bad word. It is just a word. And then it either grows organically, which sometimes is good, or it grows in a very specific way and you can engineer it and be very careful and consistent with how you create that. And it’s up to leadership to decide whether they want to do that with intent or not.

I want to oversimplify for a moment to analyze it, analogize it. So if it’s important to be clean, right? It was important for to Disney, right? As he sat on the park bench with his kids at a Ferris wheel and decided to do a theme park and it had to be clean, right? So cleanliness was really important to him. Let’s take that and say it’s important to me in my company. And I want everybody to be orderly and I want clean, so when clients come in the office. Culture then, a good way to measure that is if you had some garbage on the floor, how many people stopped to pick it up? How many of your team just walk over it?

Yeah, that’s a great example. Role modeling as a leader, if I walk past it, then it’s not something that’s valued in our organization. If I don’t have my desk clean as the leader, but I insist everyone else does, there’s a disconnect and credibility. Michael Pitu was a chef at Disney I’ve known for 25 years. He said every time he went to inspect the kitchen, he’d go meet with the chef in their office. And he said, “That meeting in the office, I knew exactly what the kitchen inspection was going to be like just by seeing how they kept their office.” It was an indicator. So yeah, culture, it has to be observable behaviors and observable things. It can’t be… We tell people, “You have a bad attitude.” Well, you can’t tell someone, they have a bad attitude. You can tell them they made a sarcastic remark, they leaned back on their chair and crossed their arms, they rolled their eyes. These are all behaviors that can be corrected. You can’t comment on someone how someone feels, but you can comment on their observable behaviors.

So that point, it’s observable. That piece of paper is on the ground, three people walk past it. Let’s talk as a team about we’re all here to keep this place clean. And how are we going to reinforce that in the future? And you focus on that behavior. And that becomes the way things are.

At my firm, one of our core values, core value four is to be passionate about continued improvement. And continued improvement, I know was really built into the DNA of Disney. And in your book, you relate your experience about improvement to the rolling out of Test Track, right? Which is this highly awaited high speed thrill ride at Epcot. Can you tell us a little about that example with Test Track and the need for improvement?

Yeah. So it was interesting that attraction opened back in gosh, 2000 and it was a great attraction and was sponsored by General Motors. So they had a big interest in it doing well. The only problem was it didn’t work. It doesn’t work. It’s pretty stressful. So we had a lot of continuous improvement to take care of. And this is where Disney pushes the envelope. And it was a brand new ride system. This had never been used before. Sometimes you buy a ride system that’s proven and then you build the, we call, put the gingerbread around it, the theme, the storyline, but this one was a brand new ride system where it was electric track, and these vehicles ran independently of each other at different speeds. And it was pretty complicated at the time for when we built it.

And as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. And so, because we had so many problems with it, we really had to think about how do we keep improving this thing? So one of the things we came up with, we were really good at evacuating that attraction. That was a continuous to improve. When it “went down” and we went to get guests out who’d been waiting a long time to ride, we showed it with bottles of water and I happened to be in charge of outdoor food. So I had unlimited access to Mickey Bars. So when we went to take people out of the vehicle, there’s a bottle of water in a Mickey Bar waiting for them to sort of dampen the issue. Now, one thing I’d been hearing from the cast was or our employees, the way the video is done, when you go to Disney, you always see a video beforehand about how you’re going to ride, how you’re going to put the restraint on, what it’s going to be like. It’s part of the show.

And the video said, here’s how kids need to put their seatbelt on. And there was a little hook, because if they’re shorter, you don’t want the seatbelt coming across their face. The problem is in the video, the kid was pretty big. And so it wasn’t clear that small kids needed to wear it that way. And some adults thought they had to put it on that way. So it just was not a good communication. It slowed down the load process, it slowed down the checking process, and it was frustrating because people didn’t understand. So I kept hearing this over time and I heard this buzz for about a month. Finally, one day I said, “Okay, I’m going to go work in the operation and see this for myself.” And I went in, I worked there a day and I said, “Wow, this is frustrating.” When you see it firsthand, it’s different. It’s one thing to hear about it. It’s another one thing to deal with it.

So the next day I went to engineering and said, “We got to get on this.” And within a week it was fixed. We fixed the video, we fixed the spiel and it fixed it. And I was kind of like really happy with myself. I said, “Well, yep. I saved the day. I was the hero. I came in, saw the problem, fixed it.” And boy, the leaders and the employees were not happy. And this was a great learning experience for me, because they said, “Look, we’ve been talking about this for a month. You come in on one day and get it fixed. Like, why couldn’t you listened to us a month ago when we were talking about this?” And so I realized as a leader, you’re not supposed to be the hero. You’re supposed to be the guide and make the team heroes.

So what I should have done is as soon as I heard about this, go look at it and see it, talk with some of the employees, see it for myself, have them show me what was happening, maybe do a couple meetings, so everyone felt like they were a part of the solution and then go and get some support, keep them in the loop. And when that new process was put in place, we would all celebrate together that we as a team fixed it. So I kind of stole their moment of glory. They had spoken up, they, they made the attraction better and it really taught me about your ego. And as a leader, although you have the authority to get things changed and done, you should use that, but get your employees involved. There’s a term we use often, authorship inspires ownership. And when you can let your employees be the authors of the solutions, they’re going to take a much higher ownership in your operation, they’re going to be to bring new ideas to you, and they’re going to fix things that maybe you made a bad decision on because they are included.

It’s funny how it’s just the psychology of it. And so as a leader, sometimes the process of improvement is just as important as the solution.

What I’m also hearing is that that connection between client service, customer service, world class customer service and leadership and improvement, right? Because at Epcot, I don’t know, over 10 million guests a year, right? And you want to get as many people to experience that Test Track, not only for the money and the experience that Disney put into it to give its guests that experience, people are excited about the ride. And if you can load people on faster because the video’s cleaner and people know, and the instructions are better and you can get more people on that ride, and at the end of the day, X amount of percentage more people we’re able to experience Test Track, because of that improvement that trickles down directly to customer service. You’re waiting in line less, you got to experience this great ride. It really trickles all the way down to the experience that the guest has.

Yeah. I think your comment is right on. When I talk about this stuff everyone says, “Well, that’s good, Dan. That’s that Disney magic. And it’s nice to care about people, but we got real problems.” When I tell people this, this is not just the right thing to do, it’s not a nice thing to do as a leader, this is a business strategy. You actually get better results and you get rewarded financially, you get rewarded in being able to be rated higher as a leader when you can get the team on this. So this is not just a Pollyanna, let’s be nice to everybody. It is a business strategy. When people are more engaged, you get better results. And as executive you are accountable for results.

I have found that the client experience is really directly related to a company’s culture. And if a company is really serious about culture, it can’t be a department or a person running it. It has to really be the company, the organization itself. At Magic Kingdom, Dan we’re talking about tens of thousands of people, employees, cast members, and ever growing company. How do you keep culture alive dealing with that?

Yeah. Well, I’m not sure totally how you do it consistently all the time. That’s the holy grail of this thing, but there’s a lot of pieces to it. And I think there’s four big ones that I focused on as the vice president at Magic Kingdom that really led the way. I think the first thing you need to recognize is, if you’re in charge of anything, you need to know you’re not in control of it. You’re never in control of everything. You influence everything, but everyone is out there every day, doing what they do and they are going to decide how great they want to be. They’re going to decide how much they’ve taken this job seriously. And it’s up to you to influence that to happen. So what I found is there’s four things that I focused on all the time.

First of all, do we have the right people in the right jobs? Have we hired the right people? This is the most important thing in leadership, getting the right employees, the right leaders, the right executives on the team. Because if you do that, now you’ve taken care of probably 70% or 80% of everything. Because when you get the right people on the team and we hire for attitude, that’s my big passion, hire for attitude. You can train skills, you can understand passion, but you hire for attitude because people have a great attitude, overcome barriers, they go through roadblocks, they find a way whether they have the training or the tools, they just make it happen. Because they have this burning desire. And I don’t know if you can teach that. So we are always looking, do we have the right people in the right jobs? That’s a main one.

The next one is relationships. If people know they matter, they know you know who they are and you care about them, you spend time getting to know them, that’s another driver of performance. The next one is clear expectations. You constantly have to reinforce expectations and make sure everyone knows exactly how they’re supposed to do their job. At some of these restaurants, we make thousands of cheeseburgers for lunch every day. There’s only one way to feed that machine you put the burgers in. And there’s not the way I do it and the way you do it, there’s the best way. And we teach that and we train that. And we let people know what those expectations are on how they should solve problems. And it’s behavioral in nature. And the last one is reward and recognition. And once again, this is not just make people feel better or build morale, it is to reinforce behaviors. When you reward and recognize performance, people are more likely to do it again. And they’re more likely to share that with others.

So once again, there’s nothing to chance when it’s building culture. It is a method. Get the right people in the right jobs. Make sure you’re building relationships with them. Setting clear expectations and rewarding and recognizing them for their performance. Now, I couldn’t know all 12,000 employees. I would love to, but I just couldn’t meet everybody. So I had to have a great communication plan. First of all, I had to treat my general managers that way, role modeling. Because if I did that, they’re more likely to treat their teams that way and it trickled down. I needed to be visible, accessible, approachable. Just because we had a hierarchy, I was available to talk to anyone who wanted to talk to me.

And sometimes I’d say, “You know what? This is probably appropriate for your leader or your manager to deal with, but thanks for bringing it to my attention.” And sometimes I’d say, “You know what? Thanks for telling me, I don’t know why it’s taken the long and this bureaucracy to get this done.” So you need to be accessible and approachable and back up what you’re talking about. So a big piece of this is just having a good, consistent message and behaving consistently and then getting the right people below you and it’ll work out. It is very hard, lots of mistakes along the way, poor judgment sometimes, but that’s the price of learning how to be a better leader.

Sounds like where that servant leadership really comes in, right? I mean, I’m not, at Judd Shaw Injury Law, we’re not a hundred people. You’re dealing with 12,000, but I imagine that if I have really strong the next set of leaders. So if I focus on making those frontline team members to supervisors and managers, developing those managers and supervisors to general management positions. And boy, my job at growing the company and making sure those core values, just as if I was dealing with the client myself on the computer and handling that call myself, it’ll be handled just the very same way because it’s trickling down. And so at 12,000 people, I haven’t met everybody, but hopefully all those 12,000 people are doing the job the way I would do it because of that servant leadership over all those years.

Yeah, absolutely. A quick example of that. One of my goals was to be highly accessible and approachable because I knew that if we didn’t take care of something, Twitter was going to hear about it or Facebook or Channel Nine News or a local Congressman. So I wanted to be on the front line to be able to fix stuff. And I know in a big organization, everyone is really, really busy. So my need or my accessibility wasn’t to find out what the gyms weren’t doing right and go punish them for it. Look, I’m another set of ears and eyes to help you all run your business better, because if your business gets better, I get better results. So we’re in this together.

And so I published my confidential voicemail number and I told all the employees at Magic Kingdom, you have a great leadership team, they can handle almost everything you need, but if you ever feel like you’re in a situation, you don’t know who to call, you’re running into bureaucracy, you’re running into red tape, you just call me. And I promise, I’ll call you back. And if you want it to be anonymous, that’s fine too. And here’s the number. And so when you start doing that, all of a sudden, the gyms are like, “Well, gosh, we better get in touch with our teams, because I’d rather them call me than call Dan.? And then the leaders are like, “Well, I’d rather my employees talk to me and not the general manager.” And so there’s an accountability here. And actually one of my superstar general managers, Deb, she came up with a campaign in merchandise. It was called Call Deb, Not Dan.

So she said, if you got a problem, forget Dan, you call me and I’m going to help take care of it for you. And over time you build up a role model and those stories start to go out. And you get the frequent flyers. You get the person who calls you every week. And I’m like, all right, this wasn’t the goal of this. Let me explain to you how you can handle things, but that comes along with the territory. But you get ahead of some things that… And every organization has that. Something comes out, a sexual harassment suit or some really unsafe activity that’s been happening. And when it happens, everyone looks around and goes, “How could no one know about that?” Well, a lot of people knew. They just didn’t tell anyone at the right level to address it. And I wanted to be in the loop on that and get ahead of it.

So it is servant leadership and you got to communicate that constantly. What I’ve learned about communication in a big organization, just when you are tired of communicating whatever you’re communicating, people are just starting to hear you. So you just can’t get tired of it.

Dan, you’re doing presentations, insightful workshops, 101 training, customized training, either organizations, individuals. You’re doing that with your wife, Valerie. Tell me a little about that.

Yeah. So we’ve been in this four years now. It’s been quite a ride. When I first left Disney, people were calling and we were traveling and I said, “Why was I so nervous about this?” And then COVID hit. And I learned what it was like to be an entrepreneur when your check doesn’t come on Thursday anymore. And everyone’s canceled because they’re locked down. So we went into that hibernation mode and we worked on bunch of other stuff during that. And now that we’re coming back out of it, we’re really starting to get busy. So yeah, I do keynote speeches on the topics we’ve been talking about today, about how to create great culture and get your team engaged to deliver a world class service that translates into intent to return intent to recommend. That’s the model.

Valerie and I have a full day workshop called The Method to The Magic and we work with organizations to explain the approach. We just got back from Barbados two weeks ago, we were working with the minister of tourism down there in the Barbados Tourism Board on this topic. And we’re treating Barbados like a company and they want to attract people, they want them to have a great experience. So they’ll come back again and they want people from Barbados to understand their role. And it’s fun. Having a woman from France and an American guy, a married couple to come in, who have 41 years of Disney experience is kind of unique. And it’s fun because women can connect, men can connect, they can see how we kind of do this together. And so we have a great time doing that and we do things virtually and we’ve been internationally. And I think this coming year, we’re going to be home, I think for like four weeks for the whole year, because there’s just a lot of opportunity out there to talk to organizations about this.

Super cool. How’s the Culture in your Kingdom, I think that’s available on Kindle, Audible, maybe online at Amazon, right?

Yep. Everywhere you buy books, it’s there. We have the e-book, we have the Audible version, to your point, and then the paperback.

Okay. And how does someone get in touch with you if they’re interested in some more training or workshops or learning more about culture?

Yeah. So three ways. You can go to All the information, what we do is on there. My cell phone number’s on the site. You can call me at (321) 354-5862. That’s my cell phone. I answer my cell phone. And so my dad taught me that. When people call, you answer. That’s how you get business. And then lastly,

Dan, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. I can’t appreciate your time anymore. It was great. The book was really awesome, a big help for me and hopefully everybody else learned something from today. So, thanks so much for being on today.

Thanks Judd. Great preparation. Great preparation leads a great interview. So thanks for the opportunity.

Appreciate it. Thanks Dan.

🎙️ Featured Guest 🎙️

Name: Dan Cockerell

Short Bio: Dan has over two decades of experience working for Walt Disney World. He made his way up the ranks from Operations Manager at Epcot to Vice President of Magic Kingdom. Dan currently runs a consulting and speaking business with his wife, Valerie, where he draws on experience from his extensive career in Disney to help business executives provide exceptional leadership and build a strong culture for their team. 

Company: Cockerell Consulting Group

Connect: LinkedIn | Email | Phone number: (321) 354-5862

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