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Episode 164:

164. Love as a Disney Strategy with George Kalogridis

Oh boy are we excited about this one. Frank is back, and he joins the show to talk about his favorite thing in the world: Disney. We are joined by the former President of Walt Disney World Resort, George Kalogridis. George shares his amazing journey from busser to president, and let’s us in on how love plays a role in creating the magic at Disney.



Feel the love! We aren't experts - we're practitioners. With a passion that's a mix of equal parts strategy and love, we explore the human (and fun) side of work and business every week together.


Jeff Ma     

Host, Director at Softway


Frank Danna

Founding Member, Culture+ & Director at Softway

GeorgeKalogridis_standing_noName (1)

George Kalogridis

Former President of Walt Disney World & Disneyland Parks & Resorts



Hide Transcript
George Kalogridis  0:00  
So Walt Disney World has 80,000 cast members like a day like today between guests and cast members. There's a quarter of a million people at Walt Disney World today that Disney does, spends a lot of time to make sure that the casting of a person in a role in a show is in fact, solid.

Jeff Ma  0:27  
Hello, and welcome to love as a business strategy, a podcast that brings humanity to the workplace. We're here to talk about business. We want to tackle the topics that most business leaders tend to shy away from. We believe that humanity and love should be at the center of every successful business. I am your host, Jeff Moll, and as always, I'm here to have conversations and hear stories about real people, real businesses in real life. I have an extra co host with me today and you may remember him from past episodes, and you may recognize him as my co author of our best selling book, Love as a business strategy. Frank Danna is here, Frank. How's it going, man?

Frank Danna  1:04  
It's going exceedingly well today, Jeff?

Jeff Ma  1:07  
Oh, really, you seem to be in a really good mood.

Frank Danna  1:10  
Really, really stoked about today's conversation? Okay,

Jeff Ma  1:13  
well, some of you might be wondering why Frank is here, because he's never here. But the fact the fact is that he is the one who introduced and invited our guests today, and he's possibly the biggest fan amongst anyone that I personally know, of today's topic. And so he pretty much killed me if I did invite him to this episode. And so without further ado, it's an honor to introduce our guest. George A Kalogridis is a distinguished C suite executive whose remarkable 50 year career at a fortune 100 company that some of you may have heard of, has set a new standard in the hospitality and entertainment industry. George's journey with Disney began at the tender age of 17 as a busser at Disney's contemporary resort, and he rose to the ranks to become a pivotal leader in the company. As the president of Walt Disney World Resort George spearheaded some of the most ambitious projects in Disney's history. His leadership was instrumental in the transformation of Disney Springs to the launch of innovative services, like Disney Skyliner and my magic plus, George's team also introduced a myriad of new attractions, rides and shows significantly enhancing the guest experience and driving an impressive 13 billion in revenue. George has impact extended globally as he led Disneyland Paris through its 15th anniversary and later, as he explored new frontiers with the Disney Institute and National Geographic live where he focused on educational outreach, and environmental stewardship is celebrated leader George has received numerous accolades, including the highest otter from Disney, a dedicated window on Main Street at the Magic Kingdom, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from out and equal, his leadership has not only left in an edible, an indelible mark on Disney, but also on the countless lives. He's touched through his commitment to excellence and inclusion. I'm really excited to dive into this incredible story. So please welcome  George Kalogridis to the show. Hello, George.

George Kalogridis  3:20  
Nice to see you both. Well,

Frank Danna  3:23  
yeah, very excited to be here. Frank,

Jeff Ma  3:26  
I'll give you an opportunity to speak right up front about just just briefly about why you're so excited to have George here on the show.

Frank Danna  3:34  
Well, I had the honor of meeting George a few weeks ago, at an event that we were both doing some keynoting at George had a fireside chat the day of the keynote at the leadership summit that was hosted by end, and myself and our other co author, Mohammad. And Lydia had a chance to do the closing keynote. And the night before we had a dinner with George and I was somehow sneakily positioned to sit next to George to have a conversation, shout out to John, and had a great discussion with George about his experiences in rising through the ranks and Disney and what that looked like. And there are so many takeaways, so many elements of alignment when it comes to what it looks like to bring humanity back to the workplace, in creating an environment that is, is really transforming people's experiences from one minute living in the essentially the real world to this entirely new magical experience. And it takes a tremendous impact and effort to be able to pull that off successfully every single day. And so to speak with George about this was an honor and I thought it would be fantastic to bring you into our conversation inside of love as a business strategy because I reckon there's a lot of love when it comes to Disney.

George Kalogridis  4:55  
As I'm sure there is and you know, I think that's why cast as we call them, stay so long, you know the the number of attendees, for example, at Walt Disney World at the service awards, dinners, which happen on your five year service anniversaries, you know, you'll have 15,000 people plus their guests. I mean, it's amazing. So I'd say there's a lot of love. For sure.

Frank Danna  5:29  
Yeah, take it away, Jeff.

Jeff Ma  5:32  
Frank, that's all you get to speak for the rest of the show. Okay, though, I

Frank Danna  5:35  
I want more. 

Jeff Ma  5:36  
Now I want to hear from George and George, obviously, a lot. I couldn't even cover all of your accomplishments or achievements in the introduction. And I wanted to kind of hear from you though. It's been a storied, and incredible career. But what stands out to you is like, what are you most proud of, in your, in your accomplishments in what you achieved? And why?

George Kalogridis  6:00  
You know, this question came up in the session that Frank attended. And I think if I look back, one of the things that I was very fortunate, I was able to work with some of the individuals that Walt handpicked to open Walt Disney World. So when you think about it, we would actually sit in a room and at this point, I'm, you know, a busboy or a server. But the stories were still handed down, no matter what your role. And the explanation of this is what Walt was thinking when he talked about this. And he really, you know, the separation, for example, at Walt Disney World of the parking area, from the main entrance switch at Disneyland. Early in the early days, until Disney's California Adventure open, the parking lot literally went up to the turnstiles at the main entrance. And so he wanted a separation. And so that's how, you know, it was important that the cast understood why Walt Disney World was developed the way it was, why it was important to leave the real world behind and immerse yourself in this story. And then the stories were all about the different lands or the different parts of Walt Disney World. And so what I'm the most proud about is I think, if somebody if we all walked into this onstage today, I think he would be blown away by what happened. I think we, you know, is there room for improvement? Of course, there always is. But that is what he really wanted, which was for people to be able to come together and enjoy themselves and in a place that's clean and safe. And a place that creates memories for millions of people. I think we did it. And so, for me, that's something that I think it was, you know, a 50 year career that I have no regrets. Amazing.

Frank Danna  8:03  
George, Were you part of the 50 year anniversary? And part of the planning and the experiences through the 50 year anniversary? And if you were How did it feel to be one of the few cast members that was actually their opening year? What was it opening day? Okay,

George Kalogridis  8:22  
well, well, there were 26 of us who were there on opening day in the 50 year group. And what was so great is if you we had, you know, many activities with that, that group. And what was fascinating was, they didn't represent any one major group, they actually the dispersion across all the fields. What I mean, I don't know that you could have done it scientifically any better. You know, and, and some people like myself had been able to work in many different areas. And then these two cast members in particular that I remember, the one lady, she worked in the gift shop at the contemporary resort for 50 years, that is the only place she had ever worked. But what was so great and how you take something like that, and then make it you just blow it up. She had her own little area during the 50th anniversary, because all of the families that had stayed there all of these years, and, you know, somebody came when they were a child, and now they're bringing their grandchildren. So all of those people would come in, and she knew them. I mean, it was just amazing to watch. And then fast forward to the central shops, where there was a gentleman and he he hated these breakfasts he was he's very, very shy. We figured out how to get it out of him. So when you'd ask him where he worked, he said, You know, I never really moved more than about 10 feet from this side of my bandsaw to this side of my bandsaw. So he, he was a carpenter in the central shops. But if you said to him, Tell me about some of the things that you've made during your career at Walt Disney World, he would light up, and he would tell you about the case, good that he made in the Italy pavilion, and the design where the design came from in what it was a replica of, I mean, and was such pride. And so, you know, those are the kinds of things where, you know, where else does that happen? You know, truly and so for the 50th anniversary, there were a lot of there was a lot of new content, a lot of new products. But what we decided to do was, it really was about Jeff and about Frank and you coming with your families, and creating memories and telling stories to your families of when you had come before, because so many millions and millions of people had come over a 50 year period.

Frank Danna  11:12  
Right. And it's interesting to thinking about the movement of those two stories, in particular, someone who worked in the contemporary resort, and yet built memories with a countless Oh, yeah, 1000s and millions of people. And then another person who was responsible for building things that millions had experienced, their, their trajectory in the company was, you know, relatively stationary in regards to what they operated in. But yours was, you know, very different. And so between those two kind of spectrums of, hey, being content with staying in one place, and also having the flexibility of movement, your story is very different. Right? You experienced 50 years of the organization, but you did not kind of stay in that one spot. How did how did Disney help you propel your career and your ability to move forward? What did that look like? And what type of opportunities did you end up having? Getting to that presidency level?

George Kalogridis  12:11  
Well, I think one of the things that for me, was fortuitous was because I started when Walt Disney World started, and I started college. Right when Walt Disney World open, so I graduated four years after we hit open, and by then the company was fairly confident, okay, this little, this project is going to work. And I then Space Mountain head open. So in Space Mountain for the company was a really a pivotal experiment, because it was something that was created not using anything that you typically would use in terms of consumer feedback. So like, and I remember Dick Nunez, who was the first president, who was responsible actually, for getting Walt Disney World open. And he said, Do you think in a focus group that anybody would have ever said, we would love to see a roller coaster that's inside a dark enclosed building, he said, You're never going to see that. He said, That's why the Imagineers and coming up with ideas that nobody's ever come up with. That's all that's so important, then you take that idea, and you test it with a guest. But the idea itself did not emanate from a focus group, it came out of a group of creative geniuses who have that ability and a playground to be able to throw out, you know, new ideas. So for me, being able to then sort of the opportunities presented themselves from a timing standpoint, just as my career was, was launching. And so it doesn't work that way, necessarily for everybody. But it can happen oftentimes, in in a startup, like your organization, where somebody may come as the organization is just beginning. And then as the organization grows, that provides opportunities, and if you're in the right spot in your career, then you can sort of ride the wave, so to speak, and I was able to do that.

Jeff Ma  14:19  
I'm curious, I think as we talk about these experiences, these stories, you know, I think it's no secret that like the way Disney treats guests the way that cast members had to present themselves and endear themselves to millions around the world. It's no secret if that's a well known thing that happens at Disney but I want to hear a little bit more from your perspective. George around how I guess cast members treat each other or I guess what the what the culture amongst like kind of Disney is like in order to achieve that, right like in order to get people to a place where they are putting that much into their love for or the guests? How do we How is that? What does that look like behind the scenes? With the cast members?

George Kalogridis  15:08  
Well, you know, you would think with so take Walt Disney World. So Walt Disney World has 80,000 cast members. So that's more than a lot of small cities, just just

Frank Danna  15:21  
that one, the one part of Disney World.

George Kalogridis  15:24  
Yeah. And on any given day, like a day like today, between guests and cast members, there's a quarter of a million people at Walt Disney World today. Unbelievable. So, but it doesn't make any difference because you as a guest, your interaction with a cast member has to be great. And that cast members interaction with a fellow cast member to your question, Jeff has to also be great, Disney does, spends a lot of time to make sure that the casting of a person in a role in a show is in fact, solid. So it's not as if everybody who walks in, that's healthy, gets hired, you can have a lot of really great people, but a Disney theme park may not be the right place for them to interact. And so and there could be somebody, for example, who's very talented, but very shy. And that's okay, doesn't mean there's not a role for them. But it's probably not in a face to face guest interaction role. So the whole, I guess, Jeff, the formula is more about understanding the role that you're interviewing somebody for, and making sure that person understands it, and then probing questions to help understand, you know, if the interviewer believes that this individual will be successful in that role, so then if if you follow that formula, over time, you have a collection of people who are all hired, and are basically good at what they were hired to do. And so the likelihood of them then getting along, much better together, is greater, as opposed to you're just hiring people to fill a slot. And you end up with people who don't like their job, which then almost by definition, they're not going to necessarily be happy working with anybody much less, you know, and even worse, if it's somebody who actually does like their job. So, and I think in the Disney formula, hiring people to the best of our ability for the right role in the show is one of the key success factors.

Frank Danna  17:35  
I had a, I was gonna say, it sounds very mission oriented, right, like the mission of the organization is very clear. And the outcomes are very clear. But I had a specific instance I want to ask you about in September of 2019, my family and I visited Walt Disney World for the first time. And we were at Hollywood studios, walking in between Toy Story land. And there's an area where there's like a sort of a Pixar area set up. And my son was five at the time. And he was already kind of tired. It was probably two 3pm in the afternoon. And some of the characters came out some of the Incredibles characters, and Frozone came out along with a few other characters. And my son was kind of like standing over in a corner. And he was kind of like, a little bit grumpy, you know, I'll be honest with you, he's a kid trying to regulate emotions. And he's, he doesn't realize he's in Disney World. And so I'm like, It's Disney World, man, what are you doing? And Frozone came over to my son, he grabbed the ball, like the Pixar ball off of one of the there was an area where they were selling the Pixar balls, he came over to my son, he started playing catch with him, like bouncing the ball back and forth, and then tossing it to him. And he was doing dribble moves and then pretending to ollie up into you know, and this was so unexpected. And it's so magical in that moment, and my son completely forgot his exhaustion and for for like, three minutes or so, they were just playing ball together. And I'm wondering from your perspective, like what like, is that is there latitude given to the cast members? And if so, can you share some of those experiences of, of how you help the cast members open up to the situational awareness and the emotional connection of being able to provide those magical experiences that may not be written inside of a manual per se? How do you help train people to recognize those particular instances that had a profound impact on me and was a great memory for him?

George Kalogridis  19:49  
I would tell you the the most important way to do that is to listen. Like I just listened to you. Because I know now The impact that that had. So imagine over 50 years, if all of us, as leaders, were good at listening to our guests, we would make sure that our cast members knew that that latitude, that ability to seek out a child who perhaps is not as engaged as everybody else is critical. And here's how that can turn that entire family's situation around. And so, you know, again, it's not rocket science. In this case, it's just and I would hope that anybody would listen to their guests or their customers. I mean, that's, that's important. But then the next thing is, Do you do anything about it? Are you just listening? And so I think at Disney, one of the things that we have a very good feedback loop that's continuous. And so we, you know, we listen to guests in face to face conversations, there are obviously ways that guests can send feedback to us and in written format. And all of that information is, in fact, shared down to the front line level, so that everybody does understand here's, here's what you can do. Here's, you know, you have the latitude to do things like that.

Jeff Ma  21:18  
That's amazing. Shifting gears a little bit, I, George, I really wanted to make sure we had time to talk about kind of your contributions and your passion around like diversity, equity, inclusion, things like that. Can you speak a little bit about your, your passionate in your role around it? For all of us, please? .

Speaker 1  21:39  
Sure, Well, to begin with, I think that I was very fortunate to work for a company that very much was moving with society as people's perceptions of either sexualities. All the kinds of things, the different dimensions of diversity. So for me, as an openly gay executive, you know, it was the kind of thing where I didn't lead with that. But I also didn't hide that. And the company was incredibly supportive of asking me, offering me opportunities. And there was this pivotal moment, though, that really sent that message. And it's what changed me in terms of becoming someone who was doing my job to somebody who was going to make sure that I, I lead by example. And this was in the late 90s. And it was at I was the vice president of Epcot. And there was every year what were called gay days at Walt Disney World. It wasn't a Disney sponsored event. And it was something actually, that was an organic movement from gay annual passholders. That became this huge event. And, and today, it's a huge event, still, but at the time, there was a group of a group people who were very much against any type of support of LGBTQ plus people. And so they were flying airplane banners. And, you know, the whole thing was, you know, don't allow gay days, all of this kind of thing. So anyway, we have this meeting. That during that time, that I'm invited to with all key executive leaders, like I was the lowest level. And I were listening to the chairman talk about future plans and things like that. And all of a sudden, the president of Walt Disney World at the time came over to me and he said, Could you step outside for just a minute? So I go outside, and the the executive responsible for human resources was also standing outside and public relations. So this is never That's right. It's a trifecta. And so they, they said, we just want you to know that security, the Internet was new at this point, but it was there. And they said security has seen online that you have been outed, but more concerning is that they have given people where your offices and with instructions to go and harm you physically harm you. And so what he said at that point was what changed everything he said, first of all, you need to know that you will always have the Support of this company, always, you don't ever need to worry about that. Your lifestyle is not, you know, we hired you for what you do your lifestyle is your choice. And then he said, but what we are going to have to do at this point is we're just going to have to be a sheriff outside of your office for a period of time, because we want to make sure nothing does happen to you. So the fact that, you know, he said it, the first statement that for me was, it was you can't imagine, as a, as a gay man at that time, how freeing that is, but then I'm going back to the office where, okay, there's going to be a policeman standing outside the office, so you're probably going to have to have a few conversations. But the reality is, and this is what was so great. And when I pulled everybody together to try to explain what was going on, they said, you know, George, you don't, don't waste your time. We know, that's not the issue. You know, we just want to make sure you're okay, kind of thing. So from that point on, I realized that there are just like, in any organization, there are people with different dimensions of diversity, that could be a disabled dimension, it could be sexual orientation, could be anything. But in this case, I was an executive that was out. And it was important to make sure that people knew that that was okay in our company, that you could be yourself. And not by riding on parade floats and things like that. But by making sure that you were available to talk to people that if somebody reaches out to you, and needs to talk by hosting roundtables by representing the company without an equal, which was a workplace, advocacy, nonprofit, those kinds of things. And that's, you know, so that's where my passion definitely has began. But what I have learned over time, is the different dimensions of diversity. That's what makes a company rich, you know, truly, it's not just about sexual orientation, there are just so many more dimensions. And if we take the time to learn and listen from our co workers, I think, you know, every company would be better for sure if they do that, but you as an individual are so enriched by just learning that little piece about somebody that you had no idea before, you know,

Frank Danna  27:43  
that's an amazing story. And, you know, again, it goes back to the characteristics of an organization that truly cares for its people and loves its people, and is supportive of who you are. And a lot of folks inside of organizations like to talk about a, creating a sense of belonging, George, I know, I've used that phrase before, I'm guilty of it. And I think a sense of belonging is, is good. But in reality, what you experienced was real belonging, where people took the time to showcase to you the value of your, your worth, as a human being, right. And when you have that belonging, you, you create this relationship, this bond, that's really hard to break. And usually it requires the vulnerability and the learning of someone who's deeper than just the surface level. And so the fact that you are able to be shown that, that belonging has has continued through and to the point now, where you're an advocate of an a supporter of belonging inside of any organization is what it sounds like. And

George Kalogridis  28:54  
I think also, you know, something happened during COVID, that really changed. I think, Disney's The way, diversity and inclusion was shared. And so we, there was an executive committee of leaders that were part of the diversity inclusion executive committee. And so I think there were 40 of us, all from all over the world. And so each of us were asked to host a diversity coffee chats, twice a month, 20 people in each chat. And so for the first time ever, any employee in the company anywhere in the world could sign up. So our names would go on the list on a certain date, and you could just sign up and then my job was, I would get the topics each month that they the company wanted us to talk about. And there were you know, message points of these are this is the company's perspective or whatever. issue might be, but I'm telling you, that changed everything. Because the only thing you saw on the Zoom was the person's name, you had no idea what their title was. So somebody could be a housekeeper and a hotel, and somebody else could be a senior vice president in India, on Star TV, and you had no idea other than you knew this person may live in another country. And so the ability to have you talk about breaking down barriers, I mean, because because you didn't know. And because you joined that coffee chat, because you wanted to be there. And so people tend to be very engaging, very interactive. But what you watched was people also naturally share time, because we knew that it was for 90 minutes. So people made sure that people everybody had time to talk. And then what for me, I was able to do is usually each session, there would be one or two people that you could tell by watching their face that either they needed a little bit more help, or somebody to reach out. And so I would always just reach out afterwards and just send a note and just say, you know, thanks for joining us today, you know, if there's ever anything, you know, you need to talk about, don't hesitate to reach out. And about 100% of the time, they would reach out kind of thing. And in some cases, it was us a simple kind of thing. And others it was really complicated, complicated, and but at least they knew that there was somebody that would try to then help partner navigate them. Because when you work in a big company, it's not always so easy. And these topics are not you just to pick up the phone and call somebody you don't know is not easy, either. And so it was great to be able to help, you know, match them with a department or an individual who would actually be able to help them. So that was really an amazing opportunity.

Jeff Ma  32:09  
George, I'm gonna have to start considering extending our episode durations, we are suddenly at time, and there's still so much to explore. But I really appreciate you taking the time today to come and chat with us about your story about Disney about the incredible behind the scenes kind of experiences and just your passion. So thank you so much for joining us today.

George Kalogridis  32:31  
Thank you invitation. Thank you so much. And best of luck to both of you.

Frank Danna  32:35  
Thank you, George, before we go, I want to just ask you, what's your favorite classic Disney attraction and your favorite modern Disney attraction. And by modern I mean within the past, let's say four years.

George Kalogridis  32:47  
So I would say Classic is it's a small world. And mostly because during the previews of Walt Disney World, it's the one attraction I went on with my mother. And that's the I think the only attraction we ever went on together. And so I have a special, you know, memory of that. And then I think modern attraction probably has to be flight of passage, at least for right now. Again, there'll be more in the years ahead, but I think flight a passage, Disney's Animal Kingdom is just incredible.

Frank Danna  33:23  
Yeah. And if you can think about what the it's a small world, and that that ride compared to flight, a pathogen, Animal Kingdom, and the difference in technology and all of the amazing advancements, who knows what the next 50 years holds for what the Imagineering and all of the amazing attractions are going to be coming. Both

George Kalogridis  33:42  
of those the themes of both of those are about people get, you know, being together, you know, understanding one another the themes of Pandora, that small world, it's the same message. It's just technology is 50 years apart. Love

Frank Danna  33:57  

Jeff Ma  33:58  
Fun fact, my first trip with my family when my son was young, and my daughter was not yet born, we went to Disney. And it's a small world was one of the few things he was qualified to do. But also all he wanted to do. So I spent an entire day at Disney rewriting smallworld roughly seven times I think we went seven times. And by the end, I was no offense. I love it. But I was about done. That song was stuck in my head.

Frank Danna  34:28  
Now it's in my head.

Jeff Ma  34:31  
But it's great. All right, Frank, thanks for joining us as good having you hope to see you in future episodes more often. You know, I'm saying and George, once again, thank you so much to our audience. Thank you so much for listening and tuning in. We hope you enjoyed this interview in the future. Please do like subscribe and tell a friend then go get the book love as a business strategy still out there. Alright with that. Thank you, everybody, and we hope you have a magical week.

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