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Making the best of your staff

I sense that 2016 is going to be a challenging year and, of course, we are keen to be the market leaders in our town by the end of it. What tips would you give us to help achieve that objective?

Julian O'Dell

Julian O'DellIt is great that you have a vision because all your objectives and values stem from that. With such an ambitious goal, it might be worth asking yourself a key question: Are you a Mickey Mouse agent? My contention is that you ought to be…

Disneyworld imageWhen January arrives, we always sit and plan holidays and trips for the coming year. Our favourite place is Florida, and in particular Disneyworld.

There are a number of reasons why our trips there are unforgettable – the weather, the huge range of fun things to do and often the value for money, depending on the exchange rate of course. But the single biggest factor is the magic we experienced thanks to a man and a mouse…

It is hard to imagine a place more magical than Walt Disney World. The very fact that the millions of visitors each year are referred to as ‘guests’ gives an insight into the culture. The company thrives on the fact that so many of those ‘guests’ return time and again (five times and counting in our case).

So what is the secret to the magic?


When it comes to recruiting great staff, many companies fall foul of one or two issues. Either the manager recruits a great person for the job but then fails to let them flourish, resulting in poor performance; or the manager feels threatened by a potential employee’s skills and hires someone else who is less qualified for the job. In both these cases, the company suffers.

Walt Disney recognised that a well trained and motivated workforce is essential to any business.

Walt Disney was not a very good artist, so he hired the brilliant Ub Iwerks to do the animations for him. Rather than feel threatened by another artist, Walt understood and recognised his own weaknesses and sought out the finest talent to help him achieve success.

Some estate agency managers are fearful that a younger valuer will outperform them and expose their own shortcomings, making them feel vulnerable. In reality, it should be a joy for a manager to have a team member to whom he/she can delegate, allowing the manager to get on with managing the operation. Rather than feel threatened by someone who may have a better education or more skills than you, welcome that person onto your team. Set your ego to one side, accept your weaknesses and let a member of your team plug the gap.


An approach that stood Walt Disney in good stead was to make a habit of ‘walking the studio’, chatting to his staff and discovering their passions and interests.

He noticed what personal items they had on their desk, as he believed those things could tell him a lot about their strengths and what they could contribute to the company.

Famously, Walt noticed that one of his team of artists, Blaine Gibson, had small stunning sculptures on his desk, which he had made himself. Blaine was a talented artist and doing well at his job, but Walt identified the passion and talent for sculpting that Blaine had. Walt quickly redeployed Blaine to a department now known as Imagineering. Today, Blaine is best known as the person who sculpted the faces in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride amongst other attractions.

So, do you know the passions hidden within your employees? Do you have a valuer who would make a great trainer? An accompanied viewer who would excel at marketing? An administrator who could be a brilliant manager? Keep your eyes open on what people can do besides their immediate job. Hidden talents and skills can be invaluable on the road to success.


Although many companies like to talk about ‘empowering their employees’, the fact is that many workers feel very un-empowered nowadays. Many estate agency firms I encounter have a central ‘Parent/Child’ management culture – in other words, owners and managers telling staff to do things in a particular way within very narrow prescribed guidelines.

With the corporate focus on bottom line results, maximising income and cutting costs, employees feel restricted on and fearful of what they can and cannot do.

One of Walt’s main objectives (and one of his principles that is still central to the ethos of The Walt Disney Company) was to always “Exceed expectations.” Walt inspired and empowered people to give more than what was asked of them. Even today, Disney employees are empowered to do what is necessary to exceed a guest’s expectations.

For example, my grandson dropped and broke a Disney toy within seconds of me buying it. A Disney employee saw this and replaced it without us even asking. The result? Smiles all round.


Obviously as somebody who runs a training company, I lean towards the fact that training plays a huge part in the delivery of exceptional service and wow moments.

Disney’s internal staff training is exceptional. A lot of the theory is covered in each cast member’s initial traditions training at the Disney University. From there, it is then down to the on the job training officers to help the employees apply their training lessons within practical situations.

Many of the ‘rules’ are common sense – eg smile and make eye contact with people when you are talking to them…but there are plenty more.

Disney has assessed that each of their park ‘guests’ will on a typical day average 60 ‘contact opportunities’ – points at which they come into contact with a cast member.

The company wants each of those opportunities to be a magic moment for every guest, so every member of cast member is encouraged to achieve that objective through their behaviour. They are constantly mystery shopped to ensure the standards are maintained. After all, if 59 of those moments are wow but one is bad, which will be remembered?

A well-trained, enthusiastic and motivated work force is essential to any business. It’s a secret that Walt Disney himself realised years ago. “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality.”

Disney staff on the parks do not get tipped. Something else motivates them. As Walt himself said, “You reach a point where you stop working for money,” – in other words, you are motivated by other factors, such as the appreciation of a guest whom you provide with a wow moment, or the intense, indescribable feeling of extreme job satisfaction achieved by helping others make memories.

This attitude was present in every Disney cast member I’ve encountered, including a member of Magic Kingdom’s cleaning team who proactively approached me while I was studying a map to ask me if there was anything particular I was trying to find, to the chefs who found the time in every single Disney food outlet (whether fast food or sit down restaurant) to come out front and personally discuss my wife’s specific dietary requirements, and who catered successfully for her every single time.

Sales and lettings agency business owners could learn so much from Walt Disney. Though he passed away almost 50 years ago, the vision, principles and techniques that he applied to build one of the most successful corporations in world history are still relevant today.

On a final note, if you’ve never been to Walt Disney World, get yourself over there as soon as you can. And if you do, say hi and thanks to Mickey from me.

Oh, and tell him we’ll be back.

Julian O’Dell is founder of TM Training & Development

February 1, 2016