Leadership By Example: A Profile of Disney’s Erin Wallace

January 16, 2011 No Comments

In tough economic times, a big operational challenge can be keeping up employee morale and guest satisfaction.  That’s why effective leadership training plays a key role in moving an organization forward in a positive and productive way.
Nowhere is this strategy embraced more than at the Walt Disney World Resort where company executives promote a variety of strategies to better equip their “leaders” (Disney’s term for executives) for a wide variety of challenges and opportunities.  While the company is filled with great leaders, one of the Disney executives that receives frequent (and, in our mind, well-deserved) attention for her leadership skills is Erin Wallace, the senior vice president of Operations Integration and Line of Business for Disney’s array of parks and resorts.
Recently, The Large Park Report visited with Wallace as part of our closer look into how effective leadership strategies can benefit a company in a myriad of ways.  What we found was someone whose high-level title was matched only by her high-level commitment to leading by example in the operation of Disney’s parks.

Learning to Lead by Example

Ask around the community of former Disney World executives and the name Erin Wallace is quickly met with great respect.  Much of this has to do with her commitment to calm and effective leadership.
“Erin has an incredible knack for asking the right questions – always pushing her teams to drive forward,” explained Ed Baklor, a former Disney executive and current executive vice president with Rocky Mountaineer Vacations. “Whether it was during [an on-property incident] or spending a typical wild Friday night walking Pleasure Island – Erin’s calm leadership always kept us focused on our cast members and the guest experience.”
While a company never hopes to face a crisis, providing proactive leadership training in advance can help reduce the effects of such an event.  A perfect example of this occurred in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  With a resort full of guests, Wallace—who had just recently been named to a senior operations position at the resort—recalled how she and her co-leaders quickly moved to communicate with park visitors and employees.
“[Fellow Disney leader] Karl [Holz] and I were together when we heard that something had happened at one of the towers,” recalled Wallace.  “We watched it and were all in a bit of quiet contemplation thinking about what were some of the implications.  At the time they did not know it was a jet flown into the tower but as soon as that was revealed we headed to the command center and began to problem solve and trouble shoot” with a focus on communication and safety within the expansive resort.
The effectiveness of this response is today lauded by many in the industry as a best case example of how extensive leadership training can provide real world benefits.  For her part, Wallace attributed much of her calm leadership in that difficult time to the training she had received in a variety of different roles at Disney.  Indeed, the strategy of giving your key executives “cross-preparation” in many different roles within your organization is one form of leadership training with proven results.
“By the time I landed in that command center, I had been a GM of a resort, GM of a park, and VP of a park.  [This allowed me] to extract from my experiences to start to get people where they needed to be to be safe and know all the things you need to know about the resort.”  
While challenging times offer a chance to put great leadership into practice, the need for leadership is not limited to these instances.  Indeed, according to former Disney executive Lee Cockerell—to whom Wallace reported for six years—her leadership success resulted from several attributes that should be found in effective leadership on a day-to-day basis.
“Erin is a leader that is trusted by all because she is trustworthy and genuinely cares about people. She is firm, fair and humble and possesses strong analytical skills so she can figure out the real issue,” Cockerell said.  
An exceptional capacity to listen to others, stay organized, and remain disciplined all combine to offer what Cockerell considers “an excellent ability to create solutions to difficult issues.”
This opinion is shared by her current co-leaders.
“Erin has a unique combination of intelligence and perceptive thinking that is mixed with humility and that has really helped me with my own leadership style,” explained Maribeth Bisienere, vice president of Food and Beverage/Merchandise Line of Business. “She is capable of taking very complicated things and breaking them down to very achievable goals. It’s great to have a leader you want to emulate.”
While the importance of these leadership traits may seem obvious, a deliberate effort to cultivate and grow them within your company can yield important results during both critical events and daily operations.

Lessons Learned For Your Facility

Now you might be thinking, “How does this translate beyond Disney?”
The answer to that key question revolves around investing resources into providing intentional leadership training.  Unfortunately, because the direct benefits of such training are often harder to quantify than something like a new attraction, merchandise line or food and beverage outlet, some companies are hesitant to invest too much into equipping their leaders.
Almost anyone who has faced a crisis at their facility, though, probably realizes the error of this type thinking.  Yes, it can be somewhat nebulous identifying the precise economic benefit you realize when investing in leadership training for your executives.  However, during our conversation with Wallace, it became clear that these benefits may really be clearer than one might first imagine.

A Conversation with Erin Wallace on Theme Park Leadership, Disney-style

The Large Park Report:  As part of your leadership training, you worked a shift in a front-line role.  What is the strategy behind taking executives and having them spend time in a front line role like that?
Erin Wallace:  There’s nothing like experiencing the product first hand by being right out there with the guests.  Heading right out there [allows you] to see the look on children’s faces and what the parents are experiencing.  It allows you to synthesize in people’s brains that this truly is a 3-D experience for guests.  You get to feel it and experience it.  It’s hard when you have that experience to forget something like that.
LPR:  In tight budget times, many expenses that are difficult to precisely quantify often are the first to get trimmed.  How do you personally quantify the value of leadership training in order to justify its cost?
Wallace:  Our approach to monitoring costs is very collaborative.  If it’s an item that is difficult to quantify then we take steps to deliberate on it extensively.  We always have a framework to judge an expense and that is the guest experience.  Then you move into other places from a cost management perspective.
When it comes to leadership training and development, our approach is to really focus on the most important parts to prepare our leaders and cast members.  Leadership development comes in many forms.  It is not necessarily taking a course or a seminar in a classroom. A lot of it is one on one.  
LPR:  Your former colleagues Ed Baklor and Lee Cockerell both noted that you were one of the calmest leaders in a crisis situated that they had worked with.  What do you attribute that calmness to?
Wallace:  A strong problem-solving orientation.  I’m convinced that there is nothing we cannot overcome.  My team today can surface some of the thorniest problems and I go into it with a very steady approach and I say “let’s go at it, let’s figure it out.”
Quite frankly, this has a calming effect on other people, which is good because in a crisis situation with calm leaders, you generally get a better result.  In a crisis situation, you want people to give their best not just their best under stress.


Real Leadership is No Accident

Leadership does not occur by accident.  That’s a common theme we heard while researching this story.  Mark Rucker, the vice president of Lodging Line of Business at Disney, explained specific leadership traits that Erin Wallace possesses, and that all leaders should strive for:
Four thoughts came to mind when asked about Erin’s effective approach to leadership.  Erin pays attention to what is important in life and the business world, and speaks often of this to ensure her team understands where she stands, providing great clarity to her team members.  She is committed to great communication with her team and partners to ensure all are informed, which fosters great trust internally and externally.  She commands engagement of her leaders to ensure her team is: 1.) connected to clients and guests; and 2.) developing competencies and growing as individuals both personally and professionally.  Lastly, Erin sets a great example of personal commitment and willingness to take action on complex issues (and the most difficult ones) and empowers her leaders to do the same.

(Reach contributor Chad D. Emerson at cemerson@faulkner.edu.)

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