Since graduating college in 2006, I have spent the majority of my life in Chinese speaking areas: Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. An anthropologist by training, I was instructed on ideas such as cultural relativism (the philosophy that all cultures: their customs and behaviors should be seen without bias), participant observation (“going native” to use the vernacular) and humanism. In fact, I have spent almost a half of my life now in Asia. But even earlier than my training as an anthropologist, I was a Disney fan, and later a proud Disney Cast Member. Starting when I was a junior in high school, I planned to be a company man, a Disney-lifer. So it only seemed natural that when Disney announced their Shanghai Disney Resort I could be a great fit; a hybrid of Disney training, skills and enthusiasm meets the experience of a Sino-anthropologist.
I knew the realities of China. I lived there and experienced firsthand the complexities brought with living in any foreign culture; the idiosyncratic behaviors and the reality of day-to-day life. So when I was asked to join the team at Shanghai Disneyland, I was over the moon. It was, as cliche as it sounds, a dream come true. And yet, I knew there would be challenges. I understood far too well the complexities of trying to bring this project to life and the long term challenges of operating a theme park in China. I wasn’t naive.
Except I was. With firsthand knowledge of the failures and challenges other organizations and companies had in China, I had a strategy as to how Shanghai Disney could avoid such pitfalls. I believed that in order to squash the “good enough” attitude and the lack of integrity or accountability that had rotted or brought ruin to other organizations in China, one had to construct a good, strong company culture. If we, Shanghai Disney management, could entrench ourselves and our organization in that this is who we are, no compromises, we could defeat the less than positive mannerisms and beliefs that plagued other organizations. We would make people accountable, we would hold ourselves to a higher standard, we would encourage those in our organization to be the best they could. By doing so we could attempt to remove, or at least reduce, the possibility of having less than ideal individuals enter our organization and create a negative experience for our guests and cast.
So I joined the team with this optimistic, but pragmatic attitude. I thought that by joining early enough we could establish an unshakable foundation of values for Shanghai Disney Resort. I also believed that the early leaders would also be enthusiastically inquisitive to learn the Disney way, with quality and integrity.
So what happened? Sadly, not all departments had leaders who felt as passionately or strongly about encouraging their cast or holding people accountable as myself or a few others did. To their credit, maybe it was just the pressure of trying to get a new resort open. After countless delays, the priority was to just get the place open, not mold people. I can sympathize with that. But when a Cast Member is talking to you. Put down the cell phone. Give them your undivided attention. When that manager is wearing rainbow socks to work and not shaving, coach them that this is not what you agreed to when you said you would abide by Disney Look. And if they continue to ignore you, you discipline them. Have a very clear record of coaching that you can submit to human resources.
In the end, we had individuals who became supervisors that had no interest in leading people. I was surprised to see just how many leaders were not only disinterested in doing their jobs, but also unmoved, and at times annoyed, at wanting to learn anything about how to do their jobs or operate a theme park. We would hold decisive meetings where department heads and area leaders would not show up, or would sit at the back of the room, head buried in their phones checking their WeChat Moments (WeChat’s version of the Facebook Wall). They were for all intents and purposes, detached and disinterested from doing their jobs or encouraging the people that reported to them. They were more interested in using the majority of paid company time to have a floral arranging club, day trading on the Chinese stock market, or redecorating their desk with their latest tsum-tsum additions.
“Well maybe that’s the Chinese way,” I can hear you say. I would point to a minority of other departments like entertainment, custodial and attractions that did hold people accountable, who had leaders that encouraged and supported their cast, who were not afraid to make decisions. If other local Chinese leaders in other departments could do it, we could too. Granted there were still some Chinese characteristics one had to navigate, but it was being done. The few departments that did have strong, encouraging, decisive leaders were sought after by others. Individuals wanted to transfer to those departments because they were seen as an outstanding department where people were appreciated and did good work. Sadly these departments were the exception, not the norm.
Before I left, one person I respected, and still do, described me as “disillusioned.” Maybe I was. But I would argue I was not disillusioned with Shanghai Disneyland, but with the people I met who did not care. They did not care about helping others (guests or cast). They did not care about producing anything of quality. They did not care about their own self worth and integrity. They did not care about doing their work. As one local manager told me in private, “the losers here outnumber the good people doing work. Us hard workers will all be ran off because we make them look bad. They spend their time undermining and plotting how to remove us as they arrange flowers, while we run the park.”
Do not misunderstand me. I am incredibly grateful I got to work there. I was so proud to tell people I worked at Shanghai Disneyland and still am. I would not trade that experience for anything in the world. Even after everything, I would do it again in a heartbeat. But, if I were asked to summarize my time at Shanghai Disney Resort in one word, it would be disappointed. I am disappointed that such a promising community of people could not be led by more accountable, virtuous and encouraging people. I’m disappointed by the hundreds of messages (yes 102 at my last count) I receive from Shanghai Disney cast members telling me how they want to quit because they feel disrespected by management or worse bullied by them. And it disappoints me that I see amazing, talented people leave an organization that so desperately needs them to stay and be the vanguards of the company’s values and quality. The squandered potential of what could have been disappoints me. But perhaps I’m just an overly attached, emotive, naive, “disillusioned” humanist. Why care about whether the cast are treated well and are inspired when the place prints money? My philosophy, perhaps wrongly, has always been, take care of the cast and they’ll take care of the guests.
Was Shanghai Disney going to be easy? No, it never was. But with the right people at different levels of the organization, encouraging the cast, coaching them, supporting them, it was going to be the jewel of the Disney Parks. I’m afraid Shanghai Disneyland will end up being like so many places in China; beautiful to look at from afar, but when you get close you can see the paint fading and the burnt out lightbulbs, soulless. For the sake of the cast members and guests, I hope to be proven wrong.