Many millennials in my generation grew up with Disney Channel. The Mickey Mouse Club, many DCOMS, and series like Lizzie McGuire shaped my generation’s childhoods and helped them see the world in a new way.
I also grew up with Disney Channel, but from a different frame of reference.
I grew up with Disney Channel… but at a later age than most. My perspective also came from inside the company instead of as an audience member.
I was 21 years old and had just moved to Los Angeles. I barely knew what I wanted to do with my life, and I felt grateful to land a temp gig on the company’s scheduling team.
Temping turned into a full-time job, which turned into over three years on the team. I became ready for a new challenge and found myself volunteering for an employee engagement initiative. I fell in love with the work, and the project turned into a full-time role.
Last week, after five remarkable years in that role, I said goodbye to hundreds of colleagues and friends as it is time for another challenge.
As I move through this transition period, I’ve been reflecting on what I discovered during this period in my life. Here are nine things I learned from nine years at Disney Channels.
1. Culture change is hard. Really hard.
A few days after I accepted the employee engagement role, I ran into our president at our annual company picnic. He shook my hand and said humbly, “It’s going to be hard work.”
He was not wrong.
Culture is hard to describe. It’s multilayered. Much of it is assumed and held in our collective unconsciousness, comprising of underlying beliefs, espoused values and norms, and more visible components like artifacts and behaviors.
Some organizational development practitioners think you cannot change culture — that you can only change people’s behavior, which in turn changes culture. I’ve seen this happen in small ways through interventions like mindfulness programming. Even so, as any parent or spouse can attest, changing behavior is still hard work. It’s no easier within companies.
It requires patience and persistence.
2. Change your current reality by accepting it first.
This is a paradox.
If you want to change something, you must fully embrace it at the outset.
If you consider yourself a change-agent, it’s natural to fight the status quo. But until you see and understand something deeply— why it is the way it is — you will be unable to change it. It’s like trying to sprint towards something without stopping to realize that you’re on a treadmill. You must accept your current situation and then change it — get off the treadmill — before moving toward your destination.
I used to become frustrated by corporate policy or lack of support for my ideas. It wasn’t until I understood why things were the way they were that I was able to see clearly and start to make small changes. Being grounded cannot be overstated.
This healthy tension — between what is and what can be — is what drives action and change.
3. The little things matter.
A little over a year into the culture job, I was listening to Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti on a podcast. He called himself a “pothole mayor” because, in his view, no one will care about your grand plans if the streets have potholes and running water isn’t available. Only then will people be open to more significant ideas.
I realized I was taking a similar approach to the job — seemingly small things like increasing communication between layers in the organization, slowly added up over time. Addressing basic leadership skills like emotional intelligence made a difference for many — drip by drip, drop by drop.
Sometimes we want quick, sweeping change. But oftentimes, giant change happen in small pieces.
4. We all struggle.
It’s easy to point fingers up the corporate ladder and blame executives for our problems. “If only they understood what it’s like for us little people,” or “If only they could hear my ideas.” Then this would be a better place…
We all struggle in our own ways. Executives are not exempt. These jobs become harder the higher up the ladder you go. The pressure to perform, to serve your organization while answering to upper levels management is enormous.
Here’s a truth: pointing fingers or blaming rarely accomplishes anything. The best way to be heard and make progress is to connect and express empathy. To be compassionate and realize that we all have our struggles.
5. Real relationships are everything.
Every group made of human beings will inevitably contain some form of politics. Understanding these politics is important, but it doesn’t mean you need to play into them.
If you want to influence others and be liked, be genuine. Be kind, but set firm boundaries. Be transparent. When I recently began searching for outside opportunities, I told my bosses. The conversations were difficult, but I was honest and explained why leaving the company was something I needed to do at this point in my life. When recently I informed them I was accepting another role, there were no surprises.
During my first year at the company, I was curious and naïve, so I asked everyone and anyone to coffee. As I grew, I continued to build relationships at different levels. Getting to know assistants is just as valuable as connecting with EVPs. They’re all just people. And being an assistant, by the way, is a thankless job. They deserve to be seen and heard just as much as anyone else.
6. Nothing is black and white.
It’s easy to paint people, departments, or entire companies as “good” or “bad.” In reality, things are more nuanced.
Human beings and, by extension organizations, are complicated. There will always be areas to improve. Just because things can be done better does not negate the positive qualities inherent in our organizations and us.
I’ve caught myself in storms of self-righteous thoughts about particular people or functions, thinking that if things could be done differently (my way), all of our problems would be solved. Then I catch myself.
Black and white thinking does not help us progress. The negative side of the black-and-write spectrum does not allow for compassion, curiosity, or openness. These qualities allow us move forward.
Get comfortable in the gray areas.
7. Curiosity is key.
Curiosity is a secret super-power.
We grow up in school systems that teach for the test, with teachers as authority figures who have all the answers. This model, by and large, translates into the business world, with hierarchical structures and bosses that tell us what to do. And we wonder why innovation and creativity suffer.
Of course, many businesses are beginning to realize these models do not work and are actively changing the way they organize themselves, manage, and lead.
Your organization is on its own culture journey, however, that doesn’t mean you can’t use curiosity to poke holes in existing structures and politely question why things are done a certain way. Of course, it won’t always work. Not everyone is open to this level of thinking. Seek out those who are.
Curiosity led to my engagement role and the work that went into that position over five years. Whenever I found myself in a tense situation with others, I realized it was because I was coming from a place of judgment or blame (see #4) instead of curiosity.
8. Community matters.
One of the most impactful experiences I had at Disney was my time with the company’s Triathlon Team. The team made the company feel smaller and provided a sense of connection and belonging that was sometimes difficult to find in the office.
This type of community is crucial for our well-being. Feeling connected to our colleagues and company means we will do better work and be more committed to our organizations.
These takeaways from the Triathlon Team were used to redesign our mentorship program. We never used the word “community” to describe the experience because it might be too “fluffy” for a work-setting. Still, the experience has resulted in lasting friendships and connections with our mentees.
9. Experience is overrated.
My first boss at Disney Channel took a risk by hiring me as a temp on the programming team out of college. Years later, senior executives believed that a culture-focused role was a priority, and gave it to me despite my inexperience. Though we come from different backgrounds, my most recent boss built a meaningful and vibrant partnership with me from day one.
What I hope this proves is that experience is overrated.
We must take more risks on others. We must look for character and potential over experience. We must partner with those who are different than ourselves.
If you want to think outside the box, don’t try to check all the boxes.
The work I have been fortunate enough to do at Disney Channels over the last nine years was possible because people repeatedly took chances on me.
I will forever be grateful for those chances. I hope you take chances on others.