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Orlando Magic's Pat Williams: How Walt Disney Conjured Up His Business Success, Part Two

In the second part of this interview, Pat Williams and I discuss the Walt Disney concept of “plussing” and he gives his take on how the NBA handled the Donald Sterling situation.

May 14, 2014

Photo of Walt Disney courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry's Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives exhibit. © Disney

Pat Williams knows a thing or three about prestidigitation having won the NBA draft lottery three times with the Orlando Magic, including back-to-back years in 1992 and 1993.

So it's not surprising that Williams, the Magic's senior vice president, would gravitate toward Walt Disney.

Disney was known for pulling rabbits out of his hat, and, knowing Disney, there'd be some squirrels, deer and birds that would follow. "Plus it."

“Snow White” is a perfect example, Williams said. His studio was doing well making short films, but he risked bankrupting his company to make “Snow White,” or “Disney’s folly” as some referred to it. At the time, Technicolor cartoons cost about $23,500 for a seven-minute film, so Disney estimated a $250,000 budget for “Snow White,” the first feature-length animated film. His brother, Roy Disney, figured that wasn’t enough, so he budgeted $500,000. The final cost was at least three times that much, but the movie went on to make $8.5 million in its initial run.

While Disney was not one to praise his workers, one thing that impressed Williams was how accessible the avuncular Disney was to his workforce and his customers. He would have a conversation with anyone. In fact, it was very important to Disney to learn the names of all of his employees. Williams relays a telling anecdote in his book “How to Be Like Walt” about how Disney would study personnel files so he could memorize names, which he usually got right. He was all about connecting with people and his workers: When asked if there would have been an @TheRealWaltDisney on Twitter, Williams said “absolutely” and Disney would have responded to tweets and emails, too.

Without question, quality was immensely important to Disney and the devil was in the details. When Disneyland opened, you could often see Disney walking around the park spotting problems — even small things like a piece of trash that missed a garbage can or he'd time the Jungle Cruise ride at the park to ensure it wasn't going too fast. Pat Williams, mug, May 2014

Besides Disney, Williams is also rereleasing a book he wrote on the late Bill Veeck, an innovative baseball owner, who Williams cites as a mentor. We discussed a fantasy luncheon between Veeck, Disney and P.T. Barnum. The one problem: “Veeck and Disney would smoke us to death.” He also told me about his latest project, a book he’s finishing about the Green Bay Packers’ Hall of fame football coach Vince Lombardi, and we discussed his thoughts on the Donald Sterling situation as well.

Below is an edited transcript of part two of our interview. To read part one, click here.

WW: Do you think Walt Disney would have been a social media advocate? Would there have been an @TheRealWaltDisney on Twitter?

Williams: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. He’d be all over this stuff and using it to his advantage. He’d have a great website. You could email him. … ‘Hi Walt. I’m Pat in Orlando. I just wanted to check in with you and duh-do-duh-do-duh-do.’

WW: Do you think some top-level executives are missing out on an opportunity not making themselves accessible to their workforce?

Williams: I think you should. The best leaders are visible. They’re available. They’re there for their people. They’re in touch with the clientele. I think that’s the way to do it. I think at the end of the day, that gets more done. Leaders who hide themselves away and tuck themselves up in the ivory tower, I don’t think that they are representing their company as well as they should. And they certainly are not inspiring their employees like they should.

And I think Walt would be a good example. He was out and about, finding out what his customers were doing and what they liked, what they didn’t like. He was not always easy to work for. He was a demanding boss, and he pushed people. He brought out the very, very best in them. He was able to spot their talent more than they [could].

WW: Can you explain the concept of ‘plussing’?

Williams: That was an interesting little phrase. I tracked down so many of Walt’s former employees. … They all had similar stories that they had put the movie together as best they could, and they had that ride at Disney at the very highest level and Walt would come in and take that final look. Then they imitated him. ‘Plus it, boys. Plus it.’ Translate it that meant ‘It’s not quite good enough. We’re not releasing that movie because it’s not quite good enough, and that ride, ’eh, I see some things that bother me. So better take it back to the shop and plus it, boys. Plus it.’

He was absolutely driven for excellence and the highest level of quality. And to this day, Disney here or wherever, it hasn’t changed. Even though Walt’s not here, people who work for Disney think he’s here. They think he’s going to jump out from behind a tree and catch them if there’s a piece of paper on the ground or if there’s a blade of grass that’s a little too tall.

WW: Disney was persistent. The P.L. Travers tale is a great example of that as he spent years pursuing the rights to ‘Mary Poppins.’ Is there a lesson there for business leaders?

Pat Williams, Be Like Walt, May 2014Williams: Well it comes down to the word Walt made up called ‘sticktoitivity.’ It’s not in the dictionary, although it should be. But Walt invented the word ‘sticktoitivity,’ which simply means Disney-ese for hanging in there, persevering or not yielding, for not quitting. And Walt was incapable of quitting. He went through tough stuff. Life was not easy for him. It was not a joy ride, but he had tremendous ability to persevere and hang in there and not get discouraged and not quit. I’m so glad that’s true because all that he envisioned became reality, and to see it, particularly here in our city, where Disney is such a powerful force, I think often that it’s awfully good of Walt for not quitting along the way, which he could have easily done about 20 times.

WW: He could have coasted.

Williams: Oh, he could have coasted or just said, ‘Yeah, we’ll just pass the buck on this one.’ But he never did.

WW: A lot of what we write about is the power of praise in the workforce, but Disney wasn’t the kind of person who would go up to someone and say ‘Attaboy. I love what you just did.’ How was he able to get people to believe in his vision when he wasn’t saying to employees: ‘You’re doing a great job?’

Williams: He was very, very sparse in his praise. He was not a gusher. He was not hail-fellow-well-met. If he said to you, [Disney voice] ‘That’ll work,’ believe his people were ecstatic. They were ready to march on Georgia. [Disney voice] ‘That’ll work.’ I think Walt felt that if the public bought it, if the public was enthusiastic, if the public loved the movie or loved the ride, that was your praise. That was your acknowledgement that you had succeeded. I think that’s how he viewed it. He was just not a gusher. Nor was John Wooden, for example, the great UCLA coach. John Wooden was not a gusher. He would pick his spots, but he was not going to be gushing over a layup you made in the warm-up drill or something. He picked his spots very, very carefully, so that it didn’t become wasted or useless or trite. Disney was that way.

WW: I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t get your take on the Donald Sterling situation.

Williams: I think it was handled very well by the commissioner. I think the Clippers handled it very well. Doc Rivers [the L.A. Clippers coach] was superb. I thought the players handled it well. So I was very pleased and proud of how they did it. And a real test for the new commissioner, and I think Adam Silver stepped up and did what he had to do, and did it very boldly and quickly. I think it was a very difficult situation, but a good moment as it turned out for the NBA in the way it was handled by the athletes and the commissioner.