EP #31 – Career Magic In The Hospitality Industry with Lee Cockerell

Lee Cockerell joins Susan Pannozzo on Hospitality Academy to talk about making your own Career Magic in the industry, what he learned by climbing the ladder from banquet waiter to Executive VP at Disney.If you could gain some hospitality career advice from the former Executive Vice-President of Operations for Walt Disney World Resort, what do you think you’d learn? You’re about to find out on today’s show!

Joining us for episode 31 is Lee Cockerell, a man who worked his way from a banquet waiter at the Hilton in Washington DC to being in charge of everyday operations for Walt Disney World.

Today, having retired from Disney, Lee runs his own business speaking and giving seminars around the world. He also writes best-selling books, including his latest Career Magic. Tune in to hear the wisdom Lee shares on this edition of Hospitality Academy.

Essential Learning Points From This Episode:

  • How having the right attitude can shape your success in life.
  • The benefits of gaining international experience.
  • The #1 thing companies have to do to be great according to Lee.
  • What makes for a great mentor?
  • The two most important characteristics of a great leader.
  • The success habits that contributed to Lee’s career growth.
  • And so much more!

How exactly did Lee Cockerell move up from a banquet waiter to some of the top executive roles in the hospitality world? Simple: he did it the old-fashioned way through hard work and dedication.

Lee grew up on a farm in Oklahoma where money was tight and times were hard.  Lee credits much of his work ethic today from the lessons learned in those early years where hard work was a part of everyday life on the farm.  After his mother married and divorced several times, she eventually married a man with money who sent Lee to college, however, he admits he was a pretty bad student! He also gave Lee a 1963 convertible – which Lee much preferred over his college courses.

Eventually, he flunked out and joined the U.S. Army. During his military service, Lee befriended a guy who said he was going to be a chef at the Washington Hilton. After leaving the military, Lee’s friend asked him to go along, and so he did. They picked up Lee’s convertible from his home in Oklahoma and drove out to DC where Lee was promptly hired as a banquet waiter. He took the job seriously and worked hard, doing whatever was asked of him and doing it with a good attitude.

It worked, and Lee advanced into a management program. He stayed with Hilton for eight great years, even working at the Waldorf Astoria at one point. While at the Waldorf he learned the value of having a great mentor.  His mentor, Gene, taught him about food and wine and that there was more to life than “burgers and Budweiser”!

Moving on to Marriott, Lee started out as a restaurant manager and then became VP of Food and Beverage. He opened several hotels for them before being recruited by Disney in 1990 to open Disneyland Paris.

His wife loved the idea of moving to Paris, so they took off and lived there for three years. When his son finished college, he joined them. His son fell in love and married a French woman. He also joined his dad in the hospitality world, and today, some 25 years later, he is the VP of  Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida.

After their stint in Paris, Lee returned to Orlando where he headed up Disney’s hotel division for two years, before being charged with all of the operations for Disney. Lee held that role for ten years before retiring at the age of 62 and starting his own business as a speaker, author and seminar leader. He’s written four bestselling books, including his latest Career Magic.

When I asked Lee how having international experience impacted his career, he says he became a better person and became much more knowledgeable. He didn’t speak French when he moved to Paris, so he quickly learned what it’s like to be illiterate. He has compassion for people who move somewhere but don’t know the language.  Lee also feels the experience led to a deeper appreciation of cultural diversity and what can happen when one is ignorant of the culture within the environment of which they are doing business.

He admits Disney made some mistakes and didn’t deal with French culture as well as they could have when they opened Disneyland Paris. He learned you have to meet people where they are, something Disney failed to do in the initial opening phase in Paris.

On today’s show we talk about the two mentors who had a significant impact on his career, why being defensive only hurts yourself, what his habits are that contributed to his success and any regrets he’s had along the way. Lee shares his sage insights on those topics and so much more! You’ll want to take notes to remember all of his wisdom on episode 31 of Hospitality Academy.

Important Links & Mentions From This Episode:


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