“I kind of take a position, when you’re in charge, that you’ve hired these people to be experts around you; so, let them do their job.” ~Lee Cockerell
Lee Cockerell retired as the Executive Vice President of Operations for the WALT DISNEY WORLD® Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, a position he held for ten years. His responsibilities encompassed a diverse mix of operations, which included 20 resort hotels with over 24,000 guest rooms, 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, 5 golf courses, a shopping village & nighttime entertainment complex, a sports & recreation complex, and the ancillary operations support functions. The Resort serves millions of guests each year and employs 65,000 Cast Members.
Lee and his wife Priscilla reside in Orlando, Florida. Lee enjoys teaching leadership, management and service excellence seminars, traveling, dining out and most of all spending time with his three grandchildren, Jullian, Margot, and Tristan. For more information go to: www.LeeCockerell.com
Recently, the DisneyMusicBlog had the honest pleasure of conducting an interview with Lee via Skype. Below is a transcription of that wonderful conversation.
DisneyMusicBlog: When you retired from the Disney organization you were the Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. Leading up to this, can you give us the “short” version of your corporate journey?
Lee Cockerell: I grew up in Oklahoma, on a little farm. School was kind of a pain in the neck and I graduated from high school because I think they graduated everybody. Went to Oklahoma State for a couple of years – didn’t do very well, so I dropped out and went in to the Army in 1964. When I got out of the Army I went to Washington D.C. and got a job as a banquet waiter at the Washington Hilton. It was a great job. I made a lot of money. Eventually I got into a management training program there. I tell people that the only reason I think I got in is because I was reliable. I’d show up and I had a good attitude. I was very positive. You know, do whatever they needed me to do. My career kind of took off from there. I got a manager’s job at the Washington Hilton and then I got transferred to the Conrad Hilton in Chicago, which is now the Chicago Hilton on South Michigan. Then I got moved to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. That was unbelievable. A little country boy from Oklahoma working for Waldorf – that was like shocking to me.
DMB: How long did you work in New York City?
Lee: About three years. Then I moved up to Tarrytown, NY for Hilton where I was the assistant manager of the hotel in charge of Food & Beverage. Then I got transferred to Los Angeles to the Los Angeles Hilton as the Director of Food & Beverage. And, then I got frustrated there and quit. I took a job in Lancaster, PA and got fired after 90 days. So, I had no job, had a two year old, no money, a Volkswagen, and was out of a job for 4-5 weeks. I finally got hired by Marriot to be a restaurant manager. I stayed with them for 17 years. Had a great career. I became the VP of Food & Beverage there. Became a General Manager at Marriot, then I was recruited by Disney in 1990 and went to France. That’s a quick synopsis.
DMB: Would you describe for us your role at Disney upon retiring?
Lee: While I was working for Disney in France, I was asked to come back to Orlando to be the SVP in charge of all of the hotels, because I had a hotel background. I had never worked at a theme park. I had barely been in one. I had never been to Walt Disney World until I went to work for Disney. I didn’t tell them that in the interview [chuckles]. I kept that to myself. I did that for about 2 years, then I was promoted to SVP of all the parks, resorts, everything. Then, later I was promoted to Executive VP and was operating officer there for the whole property for 10 years.
DMB: Once you got into that roll, then how often did you make it into the parks?
Lee: A lot. I scheduled time in the parks every week for 3-4 hours just to make sure I knew what was going on. I’d walk the park and talk to people. I’d go to the back areas to make sure I knew what was ‘really’ happening. Life is good up in your office; everything looks perfect until you get out there. You’ve got to go in the bathroom and see if it’s clean. Don’t believe what anybody tells you [chuckles]. It’s kind of like the old detective Colombo: you have to go to the scene of the crime if you want to solve it. And I went to the scene of the crime a lot because I learned in life the people don’t always tell you the whole story. They can tend to leave out the parts that get them in trouble. So, I spent a lot of time out in the parks. Not many people do that these days – they tend to make decisions based on research. You need to test your company – you need to see if it’s actually working.
DMB: Musical and other creative entertainment is obviously a big piece of the Disney experience there on property. Even though, I would assume, you weren’t hands on with the musical groups across the property, what was your connection to them through the process?
Lee: The head of entertainment, the VP of Entertainment, reported to me. Of course, I didn’t know anything about entertainment, so I let him do his job. I kind of take a position, when you’re in charge, that you’ve hired these people to be experts around you; so, let them do their job. My management style is to hire great people and let them do their job and then focus on what I’m good at. I’d go out and listen to the musical groups and talk to guests about it. I’d review guest letters to see what they’re saying about the entertainment, the groups. The guests will tell you, if you ask them, what they like and don’t like. We interview 2,000,000 guests each year at Disney and we get responses. If you try to take a musical group out of Disney or off the streets…oh, man, it’s like a war starts. You’re not safe after you do that. You stay low key [chuckles]. The passion for Disney is incredible!
DMB: Okay, this is a music-based interview, so inquiring minds want to know… Do you play an instrument, per chance? What instrument do you wish you could play?
Lee: I have a terrible story about playing an instrument. My mother decided I needed to play an instrument when I was in 5th grade. So, she bought me a trombone. I wasn’t very tall. I couldn’t even reach the 7th slide [on the trombone]. I hated it. I couldn’t read music. I was negative about it and didn’t want to do it. I had to go every Saturday to a teacher and sit in this room. I still have that trombone and my grandkids loved to play with it when they were little. I should probably do something with it. I’d say it was bought in 1956. It’s still in the case. I wanted to play the drums – every kid wants to play the drums. But, they wouldn’t do it. So, I think if you’re going to make your kids play something, let them pick what they want to play. I couldn’t read music – it was like Japanese. It made absolutely no sense to me. I do wish now…I have these illusions and dreams of being able to walk into a room and sit down at a piano at a cocktail party and I’m playing and singing, but it’s only a dream. But, I wish I could. There’s a talent that’s inside some people that just “get it.”
DMB: Who were your early influences?
Lee: Certainly my mother was the influence on discipline. I tell people she was a terrorist before they identified them. You better walked the line and do what you said you were going to do, and be home on time, clean your room, make your bed – discipline. Doing what you’re supposed to do – keeping your promises. My grandmother was the empathy person. She lived next door. Every time I got in trouble I went to here house, which was almost everyday. I thank my mother for that piece of being disciplined. Because, at the end of the day, my career success is because I’m highly organized and I’m very reliable. This is why I just wrote my new book Time Management Magic. One quote from it says, “If you don’t spend a lot of time planning the life you want, you’re going to spend a lot of time living the life you don’t want.” Most people aren’t overworked, they’re way under-organized.
DMB: Generally in our world of working with creative personalities, time management is really the issue with many of them. They have all of these brilliant ideas, but have no idea how to follow through or keep up with it all.
Lee: And that’s why they’re going to have regrets one day if they didn’t follow through. Too bad if they had a great idea. They could have made more money, they could have recorded, or done something. People don’t want to do hard things because they’re hard.
DMB: Any humorous or interesting stories from a musical angle you can recall and retell from your days at Disney?
Lee: I don’t remember too many things that went wrong. As you know, Disney works very hard on the production and the cues. There aren’t too many errors at Disney. If there are any it’s usually a technical breakdown with the sound system or something like that. To be a performer at Disney, you don’t get to do that easily. You’ve got to get pretty good before they turn you loose. Disney doesn’t practice on their guests.
DMB: Do you miss your days at Disney?
Lee: I’m still tied in enough that I get a good dose of it. I have a contract with the Disney Institute and do work for them. My son is the VP of Hollywood Studios, so I get a little bit of info knowing he’s there. I love what I’m doing now, which is really teaching. I’ve come to the conclusion that if everyone would be a teacher instead of a boss they’ll get a lot more done. Parents need to think about that too. I like being a teacher because people applaud and they appreciate it.
DMB: What all is keeping Lee Cockerell busy these days?
Lee: I am a lot less busy these days. I go out and do speeches and my wife, Priscilla, goes out with me when she likes a city I’m going to. If she wants to go, she goes. Tomorrow I’m going down to Memphis for the day to do a program with FedEx who I work with four times a year. Then, I get a lot of time off too. So, it’s kind of great! I get time off, and I get to work. If I don’t have a speech or a work trip, I am bored to death.
DMB: If I were to be a fly on the wall in your car, what type of music would I most likely hear you listening to going down the road?
Lee: Well, I’d have to be alone because I love country-western or country music and Priscilla doesn’t. So, in my car there’s a different channel on than in her car. So, yeah, I love country music. Know why I love country music? There’s a great story in almost every song. I even like the music from the 60s. I was there when Elvis came. I was in a garage in ’56-’57 dancing in an inappropriate way our parents did not like [chuckles]. We would close the garage door and, with our little turn table, we’d dance. If they found out, they’d have a fit. We were there when rock-n-roll started. I remember the first time I heard the Beatles.
DMB: People might be surprised that you freely give out your personal email address and phone number.
Lee: If people can’t get ahold of you, you can’t book any business. People say, “Lee, why do you answer your phone?” And I say, “Because I want you to book me. If I never answer the phone you might call someone else.” Everybody has a phone, but people don’t answer it. That’s a time management problem.
DMB: Well, we appreciate your time, Lee. We’ll be sure to let everyone know about your books, podcast, app, and websites! Enjoy your weather there today!
Lee: Thank you! And, yeah, you too. Take care!
Lee’s book, Creating Magic…10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies From a Life at Disney is now available in 14 languages. His iPhone and Android Creating Magic Leadership and Coaching On The Go App gives a dose of daily advice on how to be a great leader and manager and how to provide world class customer service. Lee’s Lessons in Leadership blog teaches readers how to move from good to great and great to greater. Lee’s second book, The Customer Rules…The 39 Essential Rules for Delivering Sensational Service was published March in 2013 and is currently available in 10 languages. His third book, Time Management Magic…How To Get More Done Every Day is also now available. Lee’s new weekly Podcast Creating Disney Magic can be found on iTunes, or on his website. Also his learning site: www.Thrive15.com is live now and free for a month with the promotion code: MAGIC. If you would like to email Lee directly, you can reach him at Lee@LeeCockerell.com.