Unpacking the Disney Story: Examining its Operational Principles

operational excellenceCan Jewish institutions, such as federations and national agencies, carry forward a consistency of message that allows its brand to be understood and embraced?

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

When the film “The Force Awakens” opened this past month, we were reminded that Disney had once again reasserted its position as a premier film maker, accompanied as well by its supporting theme parks, merchandise, publishing, and television holdings. There is much that Disney does “right” that can provide to the nonprofit sector, and more directly to the Jewish community, some particularly valuable leadership tools and operational insights:

Principle #1: Interlocking Parts: Each piece of Disney’s individual business assets intersect and support its other core operational areas. Its theme parks and merchandising carry forward the messages and characters promoted through the company’s films. For Jewish organizations this principle of integration is bound up with the idea that all of the essential elements of an institution’s mandate must be reflect a shared vision.

Principle #2: Branding as Core: Disney‘s brand reflects its role as the leader of its industry; its financial value today tops $187 billion. The consistency of theme is borne out in all areas of the Disney label. Can Jewish institutions, such as federations and national agencies, carry forward a consistency of message that allows its brand to be understood and embraced?

Principle #3: Picking off the Best: Disney has been able to successfully acquire the essential businesses, purchasing Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm among other acquisitions in order to grow and strengthen its product line. When building its theme parks, Walt Disney was able to convince television studios to help finance these ventures in exchange for new program materials. Are nonprofits able to secure business partners to advance their core mission and programs?

Principle #4: Anticipating Trends: Disney has understood the marketplace by studying consumer preferences and business patterns; so instead of merely responding to cultural preferences, this organization has helped to frame choices that consumers make. Which of America’s Jewish organizations is setting the tone by “creating” trends that define the Jewish marketplace?

Principle #5: Leading from the Top: Since 2005 Bob Iger has provided the vision and framework for returning Disney to its original formula. The current leadership has been successful in marshaling the resources of the firm to achieve a defined set of objectives. As with entrepreneurial leadership, the focus is to provide the strategic and operational direction for institutional growth and success. For Jewish institutions, can they identify lay and professional leaders who can give direction and focus in managing and guiding synagogues and community organizations to achieve a level of coherence essential for achieving market impact?

Principle #6: Telling a Story: Disney’s orientation is about storytelling. Every component of this corporation is about advancing and promoting a story, expressed simultaneously through its films, theme parks, and products. American Jewish organizations have their respective stories; but how well are they articulating their messages and programs in a consistent and seamless manner?

Principle #7: Remaining True to One’s Founder(s): Iger has made it his mantra to frame the corporate business plan to mirror the ideas and intentions of Walt Disney. The Disney objective is to preserve the “creative essence.” Are Jewish agencies and denominations able to preserve their core mission, giving coherence and definition to their institutional identity?

Principle #8: Being a Risk Taker: The resilience of Walt Disney to test his creative ideas and to explore new business models would produce the “Disney way.” Are Jewish organizations prepared to demonstrate creative risk in framing their case and growing their brand?

Principle #9: Embracing Failure:

“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” – Walt Disney

Walt Disney’s first initiative involving “Oswald, the rabbit” would fail, leading him to invent Mickey Mouse and the rest is magic!

Can nonprofit institutions sustain losses and rebound in order to capture what can effectively work for them? In copying the Disney journey, can community-based organizations create magic?

Principle #10: Being Present in the Community

Among the core attributes of this firm is that it is also seen as a leader in supporting charitable causes both through its foundation and its corporate efforts. In 2013 Disney would donate $370 million to various community-based and children-oriented projects. Creating its image as a community player adds to its credibility. The Disney Corporation has partnered with an array of nonprofit organizations as a way to promote various humanitarian causes. In reverse, can Jewish organizations find business partners to further their core philanthropic and social service objectives?

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. You can find his collection of writings at www.thewindreport.com.