Value Cinderella, Avoid Pinocchio

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Tuesday, March 15, 2022
By Ed Grier
Photo by iStock/malerapaso
Lessons learned from a Disney executive turned business school dean.
  • During nearly 30 years with the Walt Disney Company, Ed Grier learned key tenets of leadership that he now applies as a dean.
  • Like business executives, academic leaders should focus on respect, integrity, access, and a commitment to community.
  • Both business and academic leaders can benefit from collaborations with organizations inside and outside the institution.

Born and raised in Atlanta during the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., I grew up believing that education was the central “battleground in the freedom struggle.” A prize so powerful, parents risked their lives and resources to ensure their children had access.

During much of my childhood, it was inconceivable that someone like me, a first-generation college student, would become a senior executive of a Fortune 500 multinational entertainment giant. Yet I did. I joined the Walt Disney Company in 1981 as a senior auditor at Walt Disney World in Florida. Over the next 29 years, I held positions with the company in Florida, France, and Japan, before eventually becoming president of Disneyland Resort in California. My career success demonstrates the power of education to set in motion future possibilities that are unimaginable in the present.

As my business career evolved, particularly when I became president of the Disneyland Resort, I returned to the classroom to share my professional experiences with students. During those encounters, I interacted with many exceptional university presidents and business school deans who provided insights into their institutional experiences. Their work and my time in classrooms reminded me of how far I had traveled. It also highlighted the significance of education to my journey.

As I approached my 30th anniversary at Disney, I paused to reflect on how I could continue to make a difference to the next generation of business leaders. These reflections led me back to higher education—first to act as dean of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business in Richmond, and now to serve as dean of the Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business in California. The lessons I learned at the Walt Disney Company serve me today.

Core Leadership Values

The three pillars of Disney magic continue to shape my leadership style. I take great care to:

  • Set clear expectations.
  • Build high-performance teams.
  • Foster a creative and inclusive culture.

In addition, my thoughts and actions are influenced every day by the basic tenets of leadership that I learned at Disney. Many of them were cited by Lee Cockerell, former executive vice president of the company, who identified 10 great-leader strategies that have been used to develop more than 7,000 executives at the organization. These strategies form a leadership model built on the core values of respect, integrity, access, training, and a commitment to community. If you’re an academic leader, there are ways you can put these same values into practice:

Embrace true inclusion. This means treating everyone as important and valuable. Think of the Cinderellas around you—those unrecognized contributors, the many hidden gems ready to shine if given the opportunity. Treating everyone with respect creates a culture of trust that enables each individual’s talents to stand out, benefiting your school and community.

Be honest and seek out the truth. Avoid the Pinocchios who tell you what you want to hear versus what you need to hear. The higher you rise in an organization, the more people filter the information they give you. They believe they are protecting you, but effective leaders need accurate, honest information.

Avoid the Pinocchios who tell you what you want to hear versus what you need to hear. Effective leaders need accurate, honest information.

Be accessible and listen closely. Routinely huddle with employees where they are, whether in the hallway or the break room. Show genuine interest in your team members. By remaining humble and showing that you value others, you create opportunities for real conversation around important issues.

Assemble a diverse group of capable and competent colleagues. Likewise, hire people who are smarter than you are because you are going to need them. The shared governance model of academia can be difficult to navigate, whether you come from the internal ranks of a university or from the corporate world. With a team in place that you can trust, you will be well-prepared to assess what’s on the horizon. Your job as a leader is to establish what’s important to the institution and equip your team to meet high expectations.

Share responsibility for the institution’s success. Academic leaders collaborate with the professors and scholars who conduct research and impart knowledge in the classroom. Together, administrators and faculty share the responsibility of ensuring students are well-prepared to join organizations or start their own businesses.

Look beyond your campus. Encourage your community members to volunteer their time and knowledge to make a difference that helps others. Corporate social responsibility is simply a paramount commitment we all must make for the advancement of society.

Better Together

As a corporate executive, I learned that collaborations will strengthen the organization and the community. Deep and lasting partnerships have proven invaluable in my career. They remind me that one individual cannot see every angle or know every possibility. A sounding board, another opinion, can make all the difference.

Business schools often look outward to find external collaborators. We reach out to executives, particularly those on our advisory boards, for their guidance and opinions on learning outcomes. We also rely on corporate partners to provide honest feedback on how well we are preparing our students to meet the needs of their organizations.

For instance, at the Leavey School of Business, we are designing our Master of Business Analytics program with input from our corporate neighbors in Silicon Valley. In the class, which we deliver both online and on campus, students gain an understanding of machine learning techniques, data visualization, Python, and R. Because we have worked with executives to create these programs, we know that students will be able to apply their new skills right away in their workplaces.

As a corporate executive, I learned that collaborations will strengthen the organization and the community. One individual cannot see every angle or know every possibility.

For decades, business schools also have partnered with industry by having corporations provide students with hands-on experience through internships or immersive experiences—something else I saw firsthand in my years at Disney. In 1981, Disney established a college program that brings thousands of students to the theme parks, where Disney University provides training and mentorship. All of the students receive housing, transportation to work, and wages. The students gain insights into the workings of a complex organization and a world-renowned brand. At the same time, they learn the importance and benefits of interacting with people from diverse backgrounds.

But internal partnerships can be just as valuable for business schools as external ones. At the Leavey School of Business, we work with the university’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which focuses on impacting people around the world in positive and fulfilling ways. Our executive MBA students collaborate with the Miller Center to provide marketing expertise to social enterprises in emerging global markets. Students who participate not only serve others, but also gain real-world environmental, social, and governance experience.

In addition, since 2014, the Leavey School has housed My Own Business Institute (MOBI). This startup resource provides free training and support to entrepreneurs around the world to help them launch ventures and create jobs.

Meeting the Needs of Today—and Tomorrow

As an executive with Disney, I learned the importance of being creative, resilient, and adaptable in order to deal with the ever-changing realities of business. As a dean, I have found those lessons invaluable, particularly since March 2020. All of us in the education field have used design thinking to develop creative solutions to the challenges presented by COVID-19.

For instance, the pandemic eroded resistance to nontraditional delivery systems and teaching methods and propelled us to an inflection point in terms of adopting online education. Academic leaders continue to be flexible in our delivery methods so we can meet students where they feel comfortable. We are also learning to modify delivery methods based on student needs.

Like corporate executives, business school administrators will be best equipped to face future challenges if we show creativity and resilience and are willing to partner with organizations inside and outside the institution. If we remain true to our commitment as servant leaders—showing that we value mutual respect, personal integrity, equal access to learning, and community outreach—we will continue to create educational magic.

Ed Grier
Dean, Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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