Friday, May 14, 2010

CityWatchLA - If Walt Disney were the Mayor of LA, What Would He Do?

CityWatch, May 14, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 38

As the Mayor, the City Council, and the City’s Department heads grapple with the budget crisis, I find myself wondering how different things would be today if Villaraigosa had ended his first inaugural address with the battle cry of champions “I’m going to Disneyland!” I imagine LA would be a different place today if Walt Disney’s ideals and principles were the foundation of the Mayor’s vision and implementation and accountability.

For example:

Clarity of purpose: Walt didn’t spend much time debating “Core Services.” He simply stated “We create happiness.” From that point forward he focused his energy on the people around him. “Of all the things I've done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.” He was able to create an anything-that-works approach to communicating that message to the Disney family. In fact, during the simple process of interviewing for employment, an applicant will hear the message five times and during the hiring process, they will get several opportunities to opt out if they are unable to commit to the simple mandate of "creating happiness."

In Los Angeles, we’re still debating our purpose. What makes a Great City? What services can we cut? Who can we fire? How can we keep the most people employed doing the least amount of work possible, all as we struggle to find our way?

Clarity of priorities: Walt put first things first, saying "A man should never neglect his family for business." This simple principle is the test of greatness. It challenges the very core of a leader’s character and it resonates in our personal lives, in our community, in the City Family, and in our city as a whole. It’s the sign of a great leader.

Complementing that simple priority is Walt’s belief on who the real VIP’s are. "I have no use for people who throw their weight around as celebrities, or for those who fawn over you just because you are famous."

LA would do well to implement the Disneyland standard for VIP, a place where everyone, from child to senior citizen, from enthusiastic Disnoid to jaded local to weary traveler, are all treated as if they are part of a 4 million person family that comes first, before all else.

Clarity of responsibility: If Villaraigosa had started his term with a visit to Disneyland for inspiration, we wouldn't be listening to an ongoing dialogue about the economy, the recession, the housing market, the woes of the State. These are all distractions from the simple fact that the difference between mediocrity and greatness lies in taking responsibility and acting decisively.

Walt said "The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing." He had highs and lows but he prevailed because he embraced the challenge. "All the adversity I've had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me... You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you."

LA is faced with a budget challenge that also offers a rare opportunity to embrace crisis, position the dream, reach for the impossible, focus the entire LA family and revel in the adventure. As Walt said "It's kind of fun to do the impossible." Let’s find out!

Clarity of roles: If Walt were in charge, a street sweeper would know that their primary responsibility is not to sweep streets but to give directions, answer questions, serve as a human signpost. A street sweeper's purpose is to help people on their journey, one that will take place on a street that has been swept meticulously by the street sweeper, all as part of a commitment to the real purpose, the guest's experience. Imagine what this does to the morale of the cast members, to know that their job is to support the magic, not to sweep streets, but to create an experience.

If Walt were the Mayor of LA, even the LAPD would find themselves developing a new relationship with the people of LA. Disneyland has police but Walt said “They are never to consider themselves cops. They are there to help people. The visitors are our guests.”

This positioning came with complete budgetary support, sometimes with two and three times the industry standard for safety and protection but it was always based on the fundamental commitment to treating people as guests. Imagine how that would change life on the streets of LA!

Clarity of authority: We wouldn't be listening to city leadership complaining of their impotence when dealing with the unions. The Disney empire has grown over the years into an institution that has a dozen bargaining agreements with almost three dozen unions, somehow managing to wrangle all of that human resources complexity into the Disney "culture" that relies on cast members who believe in magic. Walt said "You can dream, create, design and build the best, the most wonderful place on earth, but it requires people to make that dream a reality."

LA, on the other hand, is engaged in a political Family Feud, with the people of LA suffering while the leadership pokes sticks at the budgetary logjam.

LA will become a Great City when a leader steps up and demands that the many involved parties stop blaming limitations on each other while rumors of bankruptcy waft through City Hall.

These are challenging times but Walt would have embraced them, saying again "I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn't know how to get along without it."

Clarity of accountability: We would not be debating private-public partnerships if Walt Disney were at the helm. His account should serve as a warning to LA’s leadership.

“The first year of Disneyland I leased out the parking concession, brought in the usual security guards, things like that, but soon realized my mistake. I couldn’t have outside help and still get over my idea of hospitality.”

The people of Los Angeles aren’t here simply to serve as revenue opportunities, we are the reason the City Government exists. We are the reason the City Family is employed. The assets of the city belong to the people of Los Angeles and they exist for the use of the people of Los Angeles, not simply as opportunity to enhance revenue in a scheme that only perpetuates the postponement of budgetary reality.

Clarity of performance: LA wallows in a budgetary quagmire that is largely the result of a performance evaluation-free environment. Once a year, Departments are asked “What do you do?” and “How much do you need?” but rarely if ever do you see individuals or departments or leaders held accountable for their performance.

Walt believed in evaluating everybody on a consistent and objective basis. Cast members experience daily their performance on eight measures, including, "Truly enjoyed making you happy," "Followed through on problems and questions," "Were exceptionally friendly and courteous," "Were always available when needed" and "Treated children with respect."

Walt even evaluated himself daily saying "When I go on a ride, I'm always thinking of what's wrong with the thing and how it can be improved."

Clarity of standards: Walt's commitment to excellence is unparalleled. Disneyland never sleeps because crews work through the night painting and scraping gum and repairing and polishing and scrubbing and ensuring that every guest enjoy a squeaky clean experience on their journey to happiness. Last year attendance was up 8% while the rest of the world experienced an economic downturn.

Disneyland has experimented dips but they usually occurred in response to cuts in staffing, maintenance, repairs and performance standards. Walt faced financial ruin on more than a few occasions but he always prevailed because his commitment was to the dream, the guest, and to a standard of excellence.

Walt acknowledged the difficulties saying "It's been my biggest problem all my life... it's money. It takes a lot of money to make these dreams come true." But he never wavered from those dreams. If Walt were in charge, we'd have a leader who refused to waver. Instead, we're a city adrift, surrounded by traffic congestion, potholes, broken sidewalks, nasty air, excuses and a declining standard of service.

Clarity of commitment: There was a day when I uttered the real battle cry of champions “I’m going to Los Angeles!” I’ve never looked back.

Like many other Angelenos, I’m here because I believe in LA and because I have a dream. Walt said “When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable.”

I believe that LA is the center of the universe and that if we are to change the world, it will start here in Los Angeles. I’m surrounded by others who share that opinion and who also think Walt had it right when he said “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at


Severin said...

Nice closing paragraphs, all politicians should be that enthusiastic.

Cindy Marie Jenkins said...

I never thought about it like this, but I go to Disneyland when I need to regain some faith in the multitudes of people who surround me.

Los Angeles has this ability. There are so many generous people that if we were encouraged to spread our happiness around, I do believe we would live a happier existence.

Noisivision said...

It was once suggested to Walt that he should run for President of the United States. His response: "Why would I want to be President? I'm already King of Disneyland."

If you really want how Walt Disney would run Los Angeles, take a look at his original vision for EPCOT -- not the current Walt Disney World theme park, but his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

Anonymous said...