Bruce Kimbrell describes himself as a Disney lifer – and he offered credit unions numerous best practices on leadership, engagement and employee development.

When he was just 6 years old, Kimbrell’s family visited Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. While sitting in the waiting area for the then brand new Enchanted Tiki Room, he was so entranced he vowed to work at the park someday. Years later, he made good on that self-promise when he became captain of a boat navigating the park’s Jungle Cruise ride. Since that time he has held 17 different positions at Disney, including helping to open parks in Japan and China. He has been a member of the Disney company credit union for 38 years – a CU known today as $1.6 billion Partners Federal Credit Union, Burbank, Calif.

Kimbrell currently is the business programs facilitator for the Disney Institute, which he said allows companies to benchmark themselves. Kimbrell shared some of “the Disney way” with attendees of the recent NACUSO conference at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim – starting with his assertion there is no “secret” to the company’s success.

“Disneyland is an amusement park,” he said. “Since opening day, July 17, 1955, it has become the employer of choice in Southern California. Getting there is not easy, and staying there is even more difficult.”

Bruce Kimbrell, business programs facilitator for the Disney Institute, addressing the 2018 NACUSO conference in Anaheim, Calif.
Bruce Kimbrell, business programs facilitator for the Disney Institute, addressing the 2018 NACUSO conference in Anaheim, Calif.

When he meets people and identifies himself as a Disney employee, Kimbrell says everyone asks him to name the “one thing” that makes Disney successful. In other words: “What is the silver bullet?” He informs them Disney’s consistent business results are driven by strategically focusing on certain business functions and opportunities in which companies often fail to see the value and potential.

“There is no magic in the Magic Kingdom, and there never has been,” he declared. “There is method. It is the method that makes Disney, Disney.”

One example of this method comes from the Enchanted Tiki Room, which opened at Disneyland in 1963. Known as an attraction, not a ride, it is filled with audio-animatronic birds and flowers that sing and tell a story. During development, Walt Disney pushed his “imagineers” (the company name for engineers) to construct the birds to actually appear to breathe because their chests inflate and deflate.

“People told Walt that was too much, that no one would notice,” Kimbrell noted. “But when the Tiki Room opened it was a hit. This goes to show you can never have too much attention to detail.”

Kimbrell produced a postcard from his mother to her parents, written on the day of his first trip to Disneyland. The front of the postcard was a picture of the Enchanted Tiki Room and on the back his mother described the birds with their rising and falling chests.

“You see,” Kimbrell said, “people do notice the details.”

Customer focus, sustained results

Every business wants customer focus and sustained results, Kimbrell continued. He said customer focus involves a common purpose and a brand promise.

“Sustained results need an intent to return and loyalty on the part of customers. Disney promises quality, wholesome entertainment. We want the best form of advertising on the planet – word of mouth. Quality service is a product, which takes employee engagement and leadership excellence. Leaders build a great culture.”

Every company’s culture is different, Kimbrell acknowledged, but he said at the end of the day the big question for any business remains: Has your culture formed by design or by accident?

“Are your employees engaged to provide quality service, which in turn provides that intent to return and loyalty?” he asked. “At Disney we focus on continuous improvement, because we cannot stay the same. We receive continuous feedback, not just externally, but also internally.”

Everyone is a leader

People are very emotionally connected to Disney, and Kimbrell said “you bet” people are emotionally attached to their money.

“Understanding that is of vital importance,” he told the assembled credit union leaders. “There is an inherent interdependency between the leader’s personal values and the organization’s values. It is difficult to be credible otherwise. People ask me all the time to help them get a job at Disney, but if I know that person’s values do not align with Disney values, I decline.”

The essence of the Disney company’s leadership strategy is: Everyone should be considered a leader. Kimbrell said this is accomplished by pushing decision-making authority to all levels of the organization.

“When you shop in a store that does not trust its employees to make a decision, you can feel it. The magic people feel at Disney parks is from teenagers who represent the company in grand fashion,” he said. “Everyone should consider themselves a leader.”

A slide from Bruce Kimbrell's presentation at the 2018 NACUSO conference in Anaheim, Calif.
A slide from Bruce Kimbrell's presentation at the 2018 NACUSO conference in Anaheim, Calif.

The No. 1 reason people come to Disneyland and come back again and again is how clean the employees keep the park, Kimbrell reported. He said a given employee is not there for the purpose of cleaning the street; the purpose is to create happiness – but that person carries the attitude, “I’m just happy to be here with a broom in my hand.”

“An organization’s values often form intentionally by proactive leaders or organically in the presence of all types of leaders,” he said. “We know when people care and when they don’t – it is clear and obvious.”

The average cast member (the Disney term for employees) stays at Disney for nine years, while the average long-term employee stays 45 years. Walt Disney said he wanted people, upon exiting the park, to look back and say, “Gosh, I wish the rest of my life was like that.” Kimbrell said this is accomplished with an attitude of “I want to” rather than “I have to” when it comes to getting a job done.

“A leader’s role stops at employee engagement,” he said. “Cleanliness equates to organizational safety on a subliminal level. We lead out with keeping the place clean.”

“We know Disney is expensive,” Kimbrell continued. “Premium product, premium price. We know that, and we are not shy about it. People come back again and again because our leaders focus on the internal client, the cast member. The cast members feel that from the time they are hired – they know we care about them. They, in turn, understand the importance of providing a level of service to the external clients, the people who come from all over the world.”