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Home  /  Podcast   /  Create an Experience with John Formica – Episode #41

Cordell interviews guest John Formica – “The Ex-Disney Guy” about ways individuals can differentiate their business from everyone else. John has spent over 30 years managing and supervising people in the service industries, and spent most of his career at Disney. Listeners can connect with John on LinkedIn here, or visit his website.





Announcer: Welcome to Training Unleashed, the show that will help you design and deliver training that’s off the chain and will make a difference. Now, here’s your host, Cordell Riley.

Cordell: Hello. Welcome to Training Unleashed. This is Cordell Riley, your host for the morning, and it is my pleasure to welcome our audience back but also to welcome John Formica to the session. John describes himself as the ex-Disney guy. John, how are you doing this morning?

John: I am doing fantastic Cordell. I hope you and all those that are listening are doing great as well.

Cordell: I am doing awesome, John, doing awesome. And just a little bit of setup here because I think this is important. So, for the audience, I don’t know how many of you’ve listened to Dr. Danny’s podcast, but we had a great talk a week or so ago. And after that, we just kind of talked a little bit more. We got to talk about me being in Charlotte.

And he said, “Well, Cordell, do you know John Formica?” I said, “I don’t know John Formica.” He said, “Well, you really need to know John Formica.” So, he made an introduction. John and I had a coffee last week and a great conversation. And I was just so intrigued by you, John, and your message. I said, “John, you have to be on the show,” and he said, “Yes,” and here we are today.

John: Well, it was a great morning having some coffee and sharing some insight and ideas. And I certainly learned a lot about what you do and how to do things. I’m honored to be here and to share with your audience, anything I could do to help. It’s all about growing. It’s all about being the best that we all can be, whether it’s individuals or businesses or organizations. And I’m just honored that you’ve asked me to be a part of this and I’m looking forward to it.

Cordell: Well, thank you again, John, delighted to have you. So, John Formica, the ex-Disney guy. So, John, I set that up. I said that’s kind of who you are and what you do. Why don’t you maybe share with the group a little bit more about who you are, what you do, this whole ex-Disney guy, so people kind of get a better perspective for John here?

John: Sure, absolutely. Well, Cordell, my background is, I spent over 30 years managing and supervising people in the service industries. I managed hotels, resort properties and assisted living communities around the country, working for some pretty big companies like Hyatt, and Hilton, the Adam’s Mark Hotel chain, and Sunrise Assisted Living. But most of my career, believe it or not, was with that wonderful company down in Orlando, Florida, a company that many of your audience very familiar with. I used to manage the hotels and resort properties for Walt Disney World.

I always joke sometimes and say, some people get frustrated that they have a rat for a boss. Can you imagine having a mouse as your boss? And Mickey Mouse is my boss, but I got to tell you, he was one of the toughest bosses I ever had. And I got a great opportunity to work for Disney during the booming eras of the 80s and 90s. When I got to Disney, there were four hotels and a campground, and with the expansion of the resort division to go to 16 brand new hotels.

And so my role was to be part of the management team to open new hotels, hire the staff, train the staff, but more importantly, create an experience at each one of those Disney resorts that would differentiate Disney resorts from everybody else. And I had the honor of opening up the Grand Floridian Beach Resort. When we redid the contemporary and repositioned it as a convention hotel, even managed the Fort Wilderness, one of the number one campgrounds in the world, The Disney Inn, The Yacht & Beach Hotel.

And so, at each one of those hotels, my role was to develop and create an experience at each one of those hotels. And it had some great success. I was very fortunate. I became a sponge to the Disney model of just exactly how they do things, why they do things. I was just as curious as heck to just try to figure out how this model works. And I really became a great sponge, a great enthusiast of the model.

I had great success within the Disney organization because, I think, giving credit to their structure and the model that they used, but I made the unique challenging sort of decision to leave Disney after almost 11 years with the company to see if I could turn around with the largest convention hotel in the State in North Carolina. It was a very challenging property, but I thought, “Can this model work outside of Disney?” And believe it or not…I always say it was a difficult hotel, it was nicknamed the Sock Hotel. What I mean by that is, when you stay in the guest rooms, you were told not to take your socks off. That’s how bad this hotel was. So, I knew I was up for the challenge.

Cordell: Wow.

John: But created a great team environment, spent a lot of time focusing on the experience, refocusing on retraining. And after two years we won the Pinnacle Award for the top convention hotel in the state. And that’s when I realized, the light bulb went off and said, “You know, this model does truly work outside of Disney. And I’d like to be the driver to help so many other businesses and organizations use pieces of Disney’s model so that they could be as successful as they possibly can.”

So, my niche is mostly small businesses who don’t have a lot of resources. They’re small, but yet they are eager to learn. They are eager to move. They know they have to do something. If not, they’ll be out of business. And so I work with a lot of small businesses around the world in countries and tours and destinations that if Disney ran your business, what would that look like? And so I usually do my best to show them exactly that if Disney would run it, what Disney would do, based on that model to make them be successful.

And I got this nickname ‘the ex-Disney guy’ and I was named America’s and Australia’s best customer experience speaker. And I’m honored to do that. And I’m just having a blast sharing everything I possibly can to help other people become successful.

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Cordell: So, John, well obviously our audience is a group of trainee professionals that are always looking to understand how to get their training to the next level, how to make it better, obviously, for their audience. And as I heard you talk about what you’re doing today, what you did with Disney, I heard you talk about training the staff.

I heard you talk about an end-goal, forgive me if I got this wrong but you talked about…you were trying to create an experience. So, if the experience is your end-goal and you’re working on training the staff, what made or what makes your training effective that you think would benefit our audience to hear about it that relates to training and education?

John: Yeah, absolutely. And all of your audience obviously in the training world are the experts and I love learning from them as well. So, I don’t consider myself sort of an expert trainer, but more of a, I guess, an experienced leader that…leaders, in my opinion, are developers and they’re really the trainers.

I know bigger companies have a training staff and people will do training, but really the responsibility falls on leadership as far as how they carry out that training. And we all know, I’m sure your audience knows, listeners know that they’re people that, they wing training. They just sort of hope through osmosis that somebody is gonna teach someone else or just by shadowing somebody, then all of a sudden that person’s gonna be up to snuff and do a great job.

And I think where it really, really begins is that Walt Disney said you have to create the dream. And he was, Walt was an incredible dreamer. I was a big advocate of Walt Disney way before I ever worked for the Disney organization. In fact, you’ll kind of get a kick out of this, when I was in middle school, I did a book report on Walt Disney.

Walt Disney died in 1966 when I was 10-years-old. So, it made the headlines and I knew of Walt Disney. I still watch him on Sunday nights, The Wonderful World of Disney. And so, I just thought, “Hey, why not do a book report on somebody that is famous?” And I wish I kept it because it’d have been pretty cool having it, but I was intrigued by Walt all my entire career.

So, Walt was a big dreamer. One of the things that his concept and how Disney does training is that you have to begin with the dream. In other words, you have to understand the “why” that’s behind the training. What’s behind the objectives? What’s behind whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish as a business, as an organization?

You got to know the “why.” And the “why” is what Walt Disney called a purpose. And Walt Disney created an incredible purpose that…it’s not locked in some vault. It’s not unbelievably unheard of it. It’s pretty simple. And his purpose was to make people happy.

And so when you think of training, it starts with the people that you hire to make sure that they are on board. And we all know that hiring is very difficult and challenging, particularly in today’s world. So, even in my programs, I spend a lot of time helping…I have lots of training programs on how to find, interview, and hire magical people, actually eight steps to never have a bad one because we know what bad people, bad hires can do. But Disney focuses on, if you want training to go well, you’ve got to make sure you have the right people.

So, Disney has a lot emphasis on that hiring process. And I’ll give you an example of what this “making people happy” means to getting and creating the dream. Even before you fill out an application to work at Disney, they show you a video. And in the video, it talks about your purpose and the reason why you’re getting hired, if you get hired, is you all are gonna get hired for different jobs, different positions, whether you’re in leadership, manager, a ride operator, a bus driver, you’re gonna work in food & beverage, you’re gonna work in hotels, you’re gonna be in maintenance, doesn’t make a difference.

We know you’re gonna be, you’re applying for a job, but your purpose is to make people happy, and so that you’re gonna work when other people play. And they tell you right off the bat. If you don’t want to work when other people play, then maybe this is not the right job for you. They will show you a video of all the things Disney is doing, but they’ll also tell you that you probably won’t get weekends off. Many of you in the room will probably be working the holidays, especially Christmas Day. They talk about the grooming guidelines, how strict they are, some of the strictest of any grooming appearance guidelines of any company in the world.

They talk about the volume of people. They really almost talk you out of wanting to fill out an application. And believe it or not, Cordell, 15% of the people walk out the door and don’t even fill out an application. And so it doesn’t mean they’re bad people. It doesn’t mean they’re not gonna be successful in life. It doesn’t mean they’re not gonna make it. What it means is that they don’t believe in making people happy, they really want a job. And Disney doesn’t hire people that want jobs, they hire people that believe in what you believe in and what, obviously, Disney believes in.

And that’s one way of getting training off to a good start. Where most companies I think, Cordell, particularly in small businesses, they hire people and then they hope that they can convert them or mold them into their culture that they want. And that, as you know, and I’m sure your listeners know, is a very difficult task because you’re gonna try to take a square peg and put it in a round hole. And you know how frustrating that could be.

So, Disney tries to get that training piece right off the bat as part of the hiring piece to get you out of the babysitting business once you hire them because these are people that already want to do it. They are eager. They want to learn to do that.

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Cordell: This is my belief when you get me to talk about training you kind of start with the end in mind, what is your goal or objective? And you talked about the dream, the purpose to make people happy. And there are a couple of things I heard on that. Certainly, you hire people that understand and agree with that mindset that that’s why they’re coming onboard for, but you tie training back to that overall business goal. Did I say that back right?

John: Yeah, absolutely. See, the way you’re training is, if they don’t know why they’re being trained or why these procedures or why this structure’s in place of the things that you want them to do and learn as part of the training process, if they don’t understand the why, in other words, if their heart’s not in it, it becomes a chore. It becomes something that my company wants me to do, but it’s not something that I have to do, not something that I want to do or realize the importance of it.

Cordell: That’s awesome.

John: Does that make sense?

Cordell: It makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense. Hey, John, I’m gonna do a couple of more quick things that I want in respect for your time and our audiences’ time. So, I got two things. I was looking at your materials that you sent over and you talked about action learning. Can you just talk a little bit about that, what that means when you talk about using those words action learning?

John: Yeah. Action learning in my opinion is…and you know action learning the term is probably used in a lot of different ways. My way is, you have to get the buy-in of the people that you’re training. A lot of times I work with businesses or organizations and they want to incorporate these, the ten commandments of the customer experience, as far as meeting people, greeting people, engaging people, make sure you do this, make sure you do that. And I always say that that is just basically telling people what they have to do, but if you, in action, engage your staff to ask them what they think good work is supposed to look like, what they think, as Disney calls, the show on stage, what is it that you want this business to look like when people come into our stores or restaurants?

If you don’t get their input if you don’t get their buy-in, it becomes just another one of those, this is what you’ve got to do and if you don’t do it then there’s reprimands and there’s all this kind of stuff. What I always like to do is, put it in the hands of the people to come up with this. To me, that’s the action because they’re the ones that are in the action. They’re the ones that are doing this or not doing it every day. And they know what good work is supposed to look like. We just got to get them to help you incorporate that into the culture.

And so I’m a big advocate of sitting down, whether it’s one-on-one or with teams or whatever it is, as a leader, to make sure that people understand the why but more importantly, get them to do that. I’ll give you a real quick example.

When I was at the Grand Floridian Beach Resort, which was their five-star hotel, we were having a very difficult time trying to obtain that five star. And it is a grueling process what you have to do to obtain that five star. Not only make sure you have all of the amenities in place and the services in place but they, like, particularly in the housekeeping department, they inspect 100 rooms and 95% have to be perfect. If not, you just don’t get it.

So, they asked me to help them sort of get to the next level. The housekeepers were doing a great job. We had some of the housekeepers of all of Disney, but we couldn’t get over their hump. We couldn’t be perfect. We were good but we weren’t perfect. So, I got a group of housekeepers. I got some average housekeepers, I got some all-star housekeepers, and I got some housekeepers that I think weren’t gonna make it, I don’t think they were what I was looking for.

And I put them all in a room and I asked them to help develop what we called the ten commandments of cleanliness. And so, a quick example, we used the bathroom. And I asked them, “What is one of the biggest things that a pet-peeve or our guests or even AAA or mobile when they determine whether we get a five star, what is their biggest concern? And believe it or not, without making people feel disgusted or [inaudible 00:17:56], hairs in the bathroom. That’s one of the biggest ones.

So, I told my staff, I said, “All right, let’s come up with a standard. And the standard’s gonna be, we’re gonna allow 10 hairs in the bathroom, okay. Will that be okay?” And, of course, the average housekeepers or the below average housekeepers were like, “Yeah, wow. That’s great.” The average housekeepers were looking at me like funny, and the really all-star housekeepers thought I had lost my mind because they were like, “You can’t just have 10 odd hairs.”

And I knew we couldn’t have 10 and I wanted to get to zero. So, I went from 10 to 5 to 3 and then I said, and I got resistance every single time. I said, “So what you’re telling me is we have to get zero hairs in the bathroom?” And they said, “Absolutely.” And then the non-performing housekeepers said, “Well that’s impossible.” But guess what, the all-star housekeepers showed them ways that they could get that done. And I just sat back and watch this work. You see how that’s action? That’s not me telling them and training them and telling them what they need to do. Does that make sense?

Cordell: No, it makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense. So, John, we’re at the time to wrap up here. You and I could keep going all day and I’m sure our audience would love to kind of keep hearing this, but I want to be respectful of your time and I want to get people back to their work environment here. But I think that is so critical. And getting the people that are actually performing the function to give you feedback that’s gonna make things effective, I think is awesome.

So, John, let me ask you to do this. We’re shortly gonna put your contact information up if people want to reach out to you. If you are looking for a great speaker to come in and motivate your group, be it a keynote, be it a breakout session, you really want to look at John. He is an awesome speaker. I’m sure he would do a great job. And we’ll get your contact information up on the screen, John, but leave our audience with one quick tip that will help them make their training more effective.

John: I think make sure everybody believes in that goal because when everybody’s heart is in the right direction moving, I think you can accomplish anything and you can achieve anything you want. I’m a true believer of it. But everybody has to understand the why behind it. And when your heart’s in it, we all know we’ll do a better job.

Cordell: Awesome, awesome. So, make sure you got the why covered. John, this has been awesome. I look forward to our next coffee or lunch and talking more. So, thank you again for joining us. It’s been a pleasure. Again, we’re gonna get your contact information up here. Let me also thank our audience for joining us for this episode of Training Unleashed. Please continue to come back for additional sessions. Thank you and have a great day all. Take care. Bye-bye.

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