How To Create A Purpose-Driven Organization: The Disney Example

How To Create A Purpose-Driven Organization: The Disney Example
Summary: Walt Disney was not your typical CEO. He didn’t attend business school and had no use for highfalutin’ management theories. He certainly didn’t know anything about the now-common practice of developing organizational vision and mission statements. If he had known, he would likely have refused to engage in the practice, given his disdain for bureaucracy. Freed of management theory, Walt aimed not for logic but for emotion. For that, he needed something different… something we will, for clarity, call purpose.

Are You Working For A Purpose-Driven Organization?

The difference between a vision (or mission) and purpose is emotion. Vision or mission statements are logical. They aim for the head. Purpose is emotional. It aims for the heart. Where vision or mission articulate goals and tactics for achieving those goals, purpose defines the essence of an organization—why it exists, who it exists for, and how it makes the world a better place.

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In a new book, Care Like a Mouse, Lenn Millbower explains that companies that aim for the head engender little enthusiasm.

People buy their products if the price is right, the location is convenient, the need is immediate, or their habits are ingrained. There is little love there.

The Key To Passionate Customers

Companies that aim for the heart have passionate customers who follow them on social media, join their fan clubs, buy their products, and rave about those products to others. Product, of course, matters. But it is purpose, not product, that drives success. Highly successful companies know this. They lead with purpose.

Apple is an excellent example of a purpose-focused company. Although it appears to be technology-driven, it has a distinctly human focus. Apple harnesses technology to serve human lifestyle needs in simple, seamless, and integrated ways.

Southwest Airlines is another example. It wears its heart on its sleeve, literally. Its stock market symbol is LUV. Its logo is a heart. The entire organization is people-centered. Flight officers and attendants have fun, pitch in to help each other, and deliver a relaxed atmosphere for passengers. Southwest Airline’s business may be transportation, but they connect people with each other, both internally through people-focused behaviors and externally by making plane travel as hassle-free and engaging as possible.

Hamilton Health Care System, a self-contained healthcare provider in Georgia and one of Lenn’s clients, knew intuitively why they served. As with most healthcare professionals, Hamilton’s people entered the field because they wanted to help others. But it wasn’t until Hamilton specified their purpose that their Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems scores rose. The result of a clearly stated purpose was an increase in patient satisfaction that led to enhanced local reputation and higher reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid.

Lowes Foods, a 100-plus Carolina-based grocery chain I worked with extensively, offers another example. It is local and proud of it. Its billboards champion its locally grown connection. Its stores are reminiscent of a small-town Carolina farmer’s market. Stores showcase local products whenever possible. They host in-store cooking and nutrition classes. They support local events. They treat you like a neighbor. When you shop at Lowes, you are visiting friends who will help you plan the perfect meal.

And Walt Disney is, of course, the ultimate example. Walt was very clear on his purpose—creating happiness. He even called Disneyland “the happiest place on earth.” Everything the Disney organization did was aligned with the goal of creating happiness.

When an organization is clear about its purpose, as Disney is, and articulates that purpose clearly to its people, individual, departmental, and corporate actions become focused. At Disney, the need to deliver happiness was codified into a sentence. “We create happiness by delivering the finest in family entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere.” For ease in comprehension, to tighten focus for frontline service personnel, and to make training more effective, the sentence was shortened into a three-word purpose statement: “We create happiness.”

“We create happiness” is inculcated into every aspect of a Disney cast member’s career. It is taught in orientation and on-the-job training, reinforced in performance reviews and promotional opportunities and stated in meetings. Happiness success stories are shared and celebrated at every Disney event.

“We create happiness” is simple but truly profound. It offers several distinct advantages for aligning and motivating Disney’s entire team.

Purpose is simple, concise, emotional, and profoundly human. It delivers an emotional hook that guides leaders, motivates employees, and turns customers into lifelong fans. It is also the magic ingredient that makes it so easy for Disney to outperform the competition. Your organization can beat its competition, too. Harness purpose and you will create your own kind of happiness.

  • Simplicity
    It explains Disney’s service expectations with absolute clarity and simple language that everyone in the organization, at every level, can understand and articulate.
  • Boundaries
    It puts a stake in the ground. It is Disney’s red line that no one dares cross.
  • Role Expectations
    It places the tasks to be delivered—safe ride operations and a clean park, for example—within the larger purpose of creating happy guests.
  • Training 
  • It unites all training and development activities and aims them toward a specific, easily measured goal. It particularly breathes life into orientation, redirecting it away from a “here’s your keys and locker” mentality and toward an alignment of employee and organizational purpose.
  • Task Prioritization
    It prioritizes the order in which tasks are performed. If a custodian walking the park, for instance, spots a guest whose popcorn has spilled on the ground, the custodian knows that replacing that popcorn, thus making the guest happy, is more important than sweeping up the spill.
  • Coaching And Feedback
    It provides a simple context within which guidance, mentoring, and discipline can be delivered. That context is one question: “Is the guest happy?”
  • Decision Filter
    It offers a guest-focused filter for decision making at all levels of the organization, including senior management.
  • Attracting People
    A clear purpose statement motivates talented people to want to work there, investors to want to invest there, and customers to want to purchase there.

If you want to learn more about creating a purpose-driven organization, download the eBook Trainer’s Guide – Influencing Your Stakeholders today!


Source Chapter 3: Millbower, L. 2018. “What Does Your Organization Create?” ATD Links. Accessed at: