exploring possibilities for an engaging and productive workplace

My family spent Thanksgiving at Disneyland this year. I had a blast, and came home wondering what motivates Disney employees, a.k.a. "cast members" to give their all and create such a magical experience for guests. Whether roller coasters, parades, or chocolate covered bananas I was consistently impressed by the cast.

Front and center on Disney's career page is a proclamation: "Every guest at Disneyland Resort feels the magic. That's because every cast member is focused on making it happen." What's special is that any company could make this claim, but Disney is good at making it happen.

Thinking about the jobs at Disneyland, much of what I saw seemed boring, from pushing bottons on rides, manning a turn style, or checking fast passes. The LA Times takes this observation even further by highlighting the hundreds of employees that work night shift and maintain Disney's immaculate appearance. The article describes the work as "tedious and occasionally bizarre." Jobs that seem mundane on the surface required surprising ingenuity, the kind of creativity and problem solving that keeps things interesting.

A quick Google search will reveal Disney as a coveted employer. People post to forums trying to better understand how to get ahead in the application process. They seem really excited to work at the park, even if the pay is low and the work seems monotonous. Any negatie comments seem quickly swept under the rug.

To better understand what's behind this magic I reconnected with a friend who worked at Walt Disney World in Florida. I can remember her telling me stories about working there, it was obvious that Disney wasn't just a job. Something about that job touched her heart. Perhaps it's the "magic" of Disney? Here's what she had to say:

"All ages work there and most of the time they get along great, old timers and newbies. I truly enjoyed working with the public and was trained in creating a magical day for the guests... I worked at the Haunted Mansion and had a blast. Really, I loved being there and even stayed after I as supposed to leave. They offer stocks, a lot of overtime, holiday pay, and vacation days. Free passes for friends and family... It was really an amazing time in my life, I still dream about going back."

It's A Small World ride at Disneyland

A Relationship with Work

Monday, November 21, 2011

I am a lifetime entrepreneur. Even when working for large organizations I find my approach to be entrepreneurial (what my mentor Gifford Pinchot would call Intrapreneurial).

It took me a while to accept that being an entrepreneur is part of my fundamental nature. It wasn't until my father retold me some stories about my childhood that the appellation truly clicked for me as being true. He would point out the treehouse in the woods that I organized, the sci-fi fanzine that I published, the software I wrote for a psychologist at age 16, and many other stories.

My father he would tell me that he sometimes feared that I would be beat up by my peers in childhood because of this tendency. I was always the one who would discover the game that we should play together, the one that would suggest new ideas—but I didn't have the typical talents that children expect of their leaders. I was average looking, not charismatic, not strong nor quick and I not part of the "in crowd". However, I muddled through my form of childhood leadership with the minimum of peer trouble.

I have discovered that I am different then many other lifetime entrepreneurs.Unlike them, I never sold lemonade on the curbside—I am not a natural salesman. I never led a sports team. I never bought candy cheaply at the market and sold it for a higher price at school. Instead, for me entrepreneuring was about discovering and sharing a passion with friends and doing something with it — a less self-serving variant of Tom Sawyer's inspirational "Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” pitch.

Yahoo Employee VolunteersThis means that what I do best is bring people together with a common passion to create things. All of the successes of my career have had that as a fundamental element of what I do.

This gives me a somewhat different view of the nature of work — I have to have a relationship with those that work with me, I have to hold a space for the passions of everyone involved, and I have to marshal the creative best of everyone. This has made me an unusual leader and manager.

In recent years I have been teaching part-time in the sustainable MBA program at Bainbridge Graduate Institute. Even there I take an entrepreneurial approach, and teach my students in my own unique entrepreneurial style.

In last year's class one of my students, Bria Schlottman, sent me a Twitter DM: "Could you do me a quick favor: in a brainstorm type of dump, what words come to mind when you think about 'work'? Please list as many single words as possible."

I replied: "flow, shared energy, companionship, natural light, fresh air, a bit noisy, good connectivity, shared lunches"

With this and many other responses from her social network she created a video, and her first post for this blog asking the question What is Work?

Even though the blog and video were assignments for my class, when the course was complete Bria and I continued to have a dialogue about the nature of work.

We each come from different perspective, but we both agree that our society's relationship to work can and should improve. We both have some insights as to what that would require, but neither of us have the answers. Now that Bria has graduated and found gainful employment with her newly-minted MBA, she has the time and energy to take this topic forward, as do I. We believe that by collaborating together in this blog that we can inspire each other to dive deeper into this interesting topic.

Thus Bria and I invite you to show your insights with us and participate in whitewashing this fence, aka "Refreshing Work".

-- Christopher Allen

(photo credit: AlexPears in "Yahoo Employee Volunteers" using CC-SA)

Refreshing Work is back, with a twist...

This blog originated as an assignment for ChristopherAllen's class, "Using the Social Web for Social Change" at BGI. While the inspiration for Refreshing Work has evolved from observations I began as a child (see earlier post), Christopher was a driving force and mentor while getting this blog started.

Unfortunately, the blog has collected dust as I finished my MBA program, moved, and started a new job. I'm now a Project Manager for a large healthcare organization in California. The company is great; I feel respected as an employee, believe in the mission, and genuinely enjoy going to work. I also wonder what makes them tick: the people, culture, and structure are fascinating, but these musings won't be discussed here. Focusing outside my organization is a choice intended to honor confidentiality and my desire to write without filters as it's difficult to judge appropriate sharing. 

I will share my own reflections as I learn and grow from work. For example, I'm often referred to as a "department of one". I work with amazing people and belong to several teams, yet I've found myself missing the small things: a group to learn with, brainstorm with, celebrate with, and go to happy hour with. I feel the absence of not having teammates nearby for chit-chat, reality checks, catching typos, or enjoying a cup of tea. Many of these things are also what contribute to healthy and positive working environments.

With that in mind, I'm excited to be collaborating with Christopher on Refreshing Work. We've had fun chatting and sharing our unique perspectives- much of my experience lies within established large or medium sized companies, which is exactly where I like to work. Christopher is a teacher, entrepreneur, consultant, and blogger. He's written extensively on Dunbar's Number and other technology related topics, like social software. You can read more on his blog, Life With Alacrity.

We look forward to researching and learning by sharing our conversation online, where we hope you will join in.