What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineThis fall, the thoughts of school age children everywhere are focused on returning to school. Some approach the new school year with dread and trepidation, a few with excitement and high expectation, and others with inevitable acquiescence and acceptance. Regardless of their personal perspective, many will be faced with the traditional and timeless writing assignment, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.”

What I did, or more precisely, what my family did on our summer vacation is not noteworthy or unique as far as family vacations go. True, the time together as a family was special and the memories will last forever. The time of bonding, through both the high points and the not so high points, fostered a deepened understanding of each other and a renewed respect for our individuality and divergent personalities. My daughter summed it up succinctly, “Ya know, this is kinda like a once-in-a-lifetime thing!”

Family issues aside, it was also a vacation for me. It is one thing to take a vacation from the office; it is another to take one from work. Taking a vacation from the office means you aren’t there physically, but you’re still there mentally. Taking a vacation from work, on the other hand, means leaving work behind completely. That was my goal; one that I accomplished with a considerable degree of success. Nevertheless, our vacation experience did bring to mind some workplace lessons.

Our vacation was a pull-out-all-the-stops, eight-day adventure at Disney World. The Disney experience and their unique vision for achieving high “customer satisfaction” is legendary and has been the focus of many a discourse. While true and correct, that was not the central theme of the three insights I gained.

Change is not only inevitable, it is also necessary and must be ongoing: At each of the parks we visited, we would see signs of change. At Epcot Center one whole attraction was being demolished; at MGM shows present just a few months prior were nowhere to be seen, replaced with newer, fresher alternatives. The Magic Kingdom had one area boarded up with the simple explanation, “New attraction under development.” Some rides were shut down for “maintenance,” other areas were being expanded, and new developments were being squeezed in where space permitted.

Even Disney, with its reputation as the premier family entertainment company in the world, is continually reinventing itself. If this is necessary for them, then it is all the more true for us.

If you’re not making an ongoing effort to keep your business fresh and moving forward, then the rest of the industry is going to pass you by; don’t get left behind. The moment you assume that you have everything in place will signal the beginning of the end for your business.

Nothing lasts forever – no matter how good the idea: Several standard fixtures of the Magic Kingdom had been impacted by the march of time. The ride 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was no more; the lagoon still exists, but the attraction has disappeared. The Tiki-Hut was “Under New Management,” and “It’s a Small World” was, well, smaller – the portion of the ride outside of the building had been eliminated.

Even Disney, which has been thus far successful in re-releasing its animated movies every seven years for a new batch of kids, knows that no attraction will draw visitors and hold their interest perpetually. The same is true for us.

No innovation will last forever, no paradigm is without end, and no idea cannot be bettered. Today’s revolutionary, earth-shattering development is nothing more than tomorrow’s status quo.

Staffing is key: Despite all of the technology, all of the marketing, and all of the organization and structure, the key to Disney World’s ongoing success resides with its people. As I watched Disney employees in action, their performances (remember, all Disney employees are “cast members”) were on a higher level than any other organization I’ve encountered. Certainly they outshone everyone at the airline, which brought us to Orlando, as well as the employees of the shuttle bus company which took us from airport to hotel, but they also outpaced those at other theme parks. How? Quite simply, they acted as though they enjoyed their work. They appeared to be saying, “I have a choice on how I do my job. I can do what’s minimally required to get by or with little more than an attitude change, I can make my job really enjoyable – for both myself and those around me.” I assume their training played a big part in this, but I also saw many of them switch jobs frequently and conclude that variety and variation played a key role as well.

These are lessons we can apply directly to our businesses. Yes, we all advocate training, but do we really practice what we preach? Do we give our employees enough training to get by or enough to excel? Do we do ongoing training, as well as live coaching and silent monitoring? All are required if we are to have employees who outshine the competition.

Then there is variety. True, our rank and file can expect little in the way of significant alternatives in their work as that is the nature of our industry, but even variations on a theme can have refreshing benefits. To whatever degree your staff functions are divided, spread them out for everyone to enjoy. It may be working awhile as “lead” agent, or “dispatcher,” handling text chat, or processing email. Even the opportunity to sort mail, make copies, or stuff billing can serve as nice diversion and refreshing alternative. To whatever degree is feasible, give your staff as much variation as possible.

Conclusion: It is highly unlikely that our businesses will ever achieve the status or prominence of Disney. However, we can all aspire to improve our business and take it to the next level. Rather than be overwhelmed by the formative challenge that the Disney example sets and the enormity of the task before us, we are well advised to start small and put things in proper perspective by recalling the humble words of Walt Disney himself when he stated, “Remember, it all started with a mouse.”

Key Lessons:

Change Is Inevitable And Necessary: Make an ongoing effort to keep your business fresh and moving forward.

Nothing Lasts Forever: The edge your business enjoys today will not sustain it tomorrow.

Your Staff Is The Key: Give your employees the training needed to excel and give your staff as much variation as possible.

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection MagazineSeptember 2003]

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