Learning & Development

5 Cross-Training Lessons from Disney

Disney has very strategic reasons for cross-training its employees, but the practice could apply to any organization looking to improve its workplace culture.

Cross-training at the Disney company is more than a discipline—it’s a mandate. Cast members, as Disney’s employees are called, are regularly moved around the company. They shift teams, units, divisions, parks, and even locations. Unlike other organizations that may place employees in different positions to increase skills or support career advancement, at Disney, it’s part of everyday workplace culture. Cross-training also sets Disney apart as a unique employer that is willing to disrupt the status quo and rethink what is possible. By moving employees around, the company instills these valued behaviors in its cast members, as well.

Here are five key advantages of cross-training at Disney:

Prevents Boredom

Boredom and monotony can make employees want to leave a company or position for another. But at Disney, role shifting happens on the macro and micro levels: The company moves employees as much as every hour. Attraction (ride) cast members may migrate through as many as 8 roles during an 8-hour shift, touching the cast member and guest experience from every angle of that attraction.

Cast members are also likely to move to a different show or attraction every few months. All of this movement means that after 5 years with the company, cast members have literally worked dozens of jobs on multiple teams in more than one park or resort. In many cases, they’ve also taken on a manager role by that point. The constant movement to new challenges, new people, and new experiences makes it very hard for a Disney Parks and Resorts cast member to get bored.

Helps Employees Find the Best Fit

At too many workplaces, employees wind up paired with the wrong supervisor or placed in a role that doesn’t match—whether in terms of skills and experience, goals, or even disposition. What happens next is predictable. The mismatched employee either winds up labeled as unproductive and disgruntled or questions whether he or she is in the right organization—or both.

Disney works diligently to avoid this outcome as much as possible by, instead, providing its cast members with many opportunities to find their passion and discover where their talents can be best put to use to fulfill the mission of the company. Moving roles also means changing supervisors—and employees can discover the supervisory style to which they best respond.

Imparts Alignment and Empathy

As you can imagine, these extreme levels of job rotation and role movement change how a cast member sees the company—not only at the task and team levels but also on the unit, division, park and resort, and location levels. Role movement helps cast members develop a more holistic and strategic point of view and build an appreciation for coworker roles and the functions of other teams across the company.

They start to see beyond their own role or team and understand how various decisions and actions affect other units, as well as the company as a whole. Helping employees develop a more strategic orientation is a game-changer that can make them feel like they’re participating in company strategies, are aligned with its purpose and mission, and are valued as part of the overall effort.

Transfers Knowledge and Best Practices

Disney Parks and Resorts cast members have the opportunity to learn from a variety of coworkers, supervisors, and leaders. When moved to a different role or unit, they take these insights with them, enriching the cast members in that unit and, in turn, learning from them.

Leaders in most organizations would frown upon such free role movement, but Disney leaders embrace it for the good of both the company and the individual. And Disney is always playing the long game, making sure that cast members have the chance to learn from each other and be exposed to best practices across the board, not just in one small segment of the company.

Promotes Synergy and Innovation

Many companies and organizations are plagued by siloed division that slows progress and hampers innovation. For instance, in a heavily siloed global company, one unit may struggle far more than its overseas counterpart, as it’s never exposed to the work of its international colleagues. Disney’s approach avoids this. Its seasoned and well-connected cast members aren’t afraid to reach out to other teams, divisions, or even locations to solve problems, seize opportunities, or collaborate.

For more senior cast members who have developed great familiarity and high comfort levels with several parts of the company, the spirit and practice of collaboration come easy. Ideas often flow so openly through the Parks and Resorts division of the company that it had to institute a system to manage the enormous volume of solutions proposed by cast members. Now, teams pitch their projects as “blue sky” requests, essentially competing for a limited allocation of resources. The projects are vetted for common themes and combined for efficiency. If teams collaborate on a joint proposal, they’re rewarded for saving the vetting committee half the review work.

The Disney work culture thrives on this structure of collaboration and role movement, as does the company itself. For example, a Hong Kong Disneyland cast member developed a state-of-the-art RFID (radio-frequency identification) costume inventory system that is now used in every Disney resort across the globe. The regular routine of job rotation, as well as systems that encourage teams to join together to work on common or even similar challenges, helps employees perform at their best and stay engaged in more than just the narrow confines of their own job. While some organizations might find this kind of fluidity disruptive or counterproductive, as Disney shows, it’s quite the opposite.

As it does in other areas, Disney is redefining what’s possible in a workplace and reaping the rewards. Consider if cross-training employees is feasible in your organization. It’s highly possible that exchanging monotony for movement and engagement will bring far more payoffs than problems and is worth the effort.

Rob Mathews is the Director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise at Ball State University. His new book with Michael G. Goldsby is Entrepreneurship the Disney Way. Learn more at www.ELProfile.com.

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