Lessons from Disney Leadership Programs at Northern Arizona University (NAU) a Great Learning Experience

Cockerell Leadership Academy and NAU HRM Faculty Partnership

by David Miles and Fred DeMicco 

The next generation of college graduates will face an ever-changing environment in all aspects of the service industries it serves. Equipping students with experiential learning activities is important for them to respond to the demands of the various consumers. Disney Magic, as some refer to the leadership development programs offered at Disney Operations, is built on the concepts to help deliver great customer services in real-world time. The Cockerell Leadership Courses provide such a learning experience. “Our goal is to present real-life leadership and management skills to students so when they graduate, they will be ready to hit the ground running,” states Dan Cockerell (former Vice President, Magic Kingdom Park).

Executive Director and Professor Fred DeMicco of the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management (“HRM”) along with the HRM faculty brought these programs to life over the prior two semesters. The program was focused on leadership challenges and hospitality operations. Two basic responsibilities that transcend all service industry managers.

The Cockerell Academy was conceived by three former Disney Executives with over 75 years of collective leadership experience in various roles throughout the Disney organization including significant international experiences. Lee, Dan, and Valerie Cockerell each contributed to the design and content and videos created expressly for the College level student. NAU HRM Lecturer, Lisa Bliss, stated that for her Hospitality Leadership and Ethics students, “the case studies and real-world examples made this program come to life.” The students will be able to take these valuable lessons with them into their chosen hospitality fields.

Students learned and enjoyed the various approaches that were built into the program design. Each faculty member was able to tailor the presentation style to their particular student class profile. For some classes, the program was taught in-person by the leader while others were over zoom class sessions and self-directed studies. “We feel that using reading materials, videos, and live sessions is the future of education, and we are testing various approaches to give students the best opportunity to learn and prepare for their leadership journey,” comments Valerie Cockerell (former Disney Institute Instructor). The theme of the course was “How’s the Culture in your Kingdom.”

As a Visiting Executive in Residence Professor for Leadership and Ethics, Dr. David Miles, a former Marriott executive and currently a global Executive Coach, Author, and Speaker, was one of the faculty implementing this 8-week program within his assigned Leadership Course. “I was amazed by how the Cockerells’ captured the true key elements of the Disney branded philosophy in all aspects of hospitality. While the branding for Disney is unique to their business, it is in many senses a parallel to Marriott leadership. Two brands sharing the same fundamentals.” It was a fantastic opportunity for students to integrate the message of Leading Self, Hiring for Attitude and Training for Success, Leading Teams, and Leading Change.

Receiving ongoing feedback from Students and Faculty is a key element for the ongoing refinement of this program. There are additional potential applications for this program being explored says Dr. Fred DeMicco. Presently we are only offering this to NAU students as a Certificate Program. The need for this type of program is significant for lifelong learning and many others who are not traditional students. The partnership is strong, and we hope to build on our successes. Lee Cockerell (former Executive Vice President Walt Disney World Operations) remarks that “these are not just professional skills the students are learning but are also life skills. The ability to lead yourself, your team, and your organization is a life-long endeavor. Our goal is to partner with NAU to get the students off to a strong start.” Valerie, Dan, and Lee have a wealth of knowledge to share, and we are enthusiastic about building on our ongoing relationship.

Our HRM students enjoyed positive interactions with the Cockerell team, Lee, Dan, and Valerie. The reading materials presented real management experiences delivered in a story format that was insightful and easy to understand. Our future hospitality leaders comprehend management work responsibilities i.e., planning, organizing, controlling, and evaluating; the value the Cockerell team provided was the importance of workplace communication. In today’s work environment, where retaining a productive and happy workplace environment is the goal, effective communication is paramount to a leader’s success. “Acknowledging there will be positive and negative work situations, our students are better prepared to face any workplace obstacles” states Armando Trujillo, NAU instructor of HRM.



Published by Fred DeMicco: Executive Director and Professor in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Northern Arizona University and David Miles: Former
Chairman of The Miles LeHane Companies & author of The Four Pillars of Employable Talent and Building Block Essentials.

Search & Recruitment Career Transition Executive Coaching