Note: The opinions of this case study do not represent the Walt Disney Company and are of the Author.

Photo Source: Disney Shanghai Resort


Fresh out of my organizational leadership doctorate program at Pepperdine, I had the opportunity to move with my family to China to be a project manager for Shanghai Disneyland. As a product of Southern California, this was a dream come true — being able to help build Shanghai Disneyland from the ground up! But with all great opportunities comes significant responsibilities.

Key Case Study Questions:

  • How will my family adapt to a new environment? We moved with our son, who was only five months at the time, and living in a different country where we do not speak the language can be more challenging. (Work-life balance)
  • What will it be like to lead a cross-cultural and cross-generational team? (DE&I: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion)
  • What if I fail as a manager and leader? If we fail, the park will not open on time. (Imposter syndrome is real) (Imposter Syndrome, employee empowerment)
  • What resources can I lean on to ensure that we are successful in achieving our goals? (Leadership)
  • What can organizations do to support their leaders and teams?


Work-Life Balance: As a new parent and transitioning into a new role, having harmony at home was crucial to performing at a high level at work. Some of the areas I was able to achieve this was

  • I ,stopped checking my work email when I woke up: Our team in the U.S. was in a different time zone, so I would wake up to plenty of emails. Once I had a chance to exercise and have my coffee, I started reading and responding to emails on my commute into the office. Doing this helped me peacefully begin my day with a clear head.
  • Start the day with exercising: I was in the gym by 3:45 a.m. every day, so I had enough time to get to the construction site by 5:45 a.m. ,The Mayo Clinic states exercising helps reduce stress, gain confidence, and cope in a healthy way.
  • Equal Parenting/Spousal Support: I pitched in as much as possible to help with our baby and around the house. Even though my wife was not working at the time, being a mom is one of the most challenging jobs in the world, and I did anything I could outside of my time in the office to help release any stress or exhaustion she faced while caring for our son. ,A new study from found that women spend 50% more time providing care than men.
  • ,Vacation: Even though we should have put more money in savings, we took many family vacations. Traveling does not need to be expensive, but spending time as a family together can help set traditions to keep us close as our kids grow up.

DE&I: Having a diverse team was one of the significant components that led to our team’s success. Our team consisted of local hires from China and folks from other parts of the world. We effectively communicated with suppliers and other key stakeholders by seeking advice and listening to our local team. In addition, we people from all generations on the team whose insight was invaluable. Some of the folks worked on Tokyo Disneyland (the first international Disneyland), Paris Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland and brought a library of tribal knowledge. Also, giving everyone an equal voice to speak up and be heard enabled the ROI of having a diverse and inclusive team.

Photo Source: WDT News Today

Leadership 101: I’ve served in leadership roles before, but the scale and complexity of this project were off the charts. In addition, being a new dad in a country where I didn’t speak the language created a perfect storm for a demanding entrance. My approach to this

issue was to utilize the best articles and tools I learned from my doctorate program at Pepperdine and was able to do the following:

  • Re-read my ,Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment to help intentionally use my strengths each day as an employee and a leader.
  • Utilized Daniel Goleman’s six leadership styles ,article on how to use different leadership styles situationally when dealing with different people and situations.
  • I kept my head down to learn everything I could about my new role and seek out mentoring from seasoned executives.
  • Empowered my team and met with them frequently to serve as a resource, not a barrier.
  • Celebrated team successes by taking them out to dinner when we hit a key milestone.
  • I listened and understood that each team member is different, and my leadership style needs to be tailored to them, not the other way around. Outside of generations and cultural differences, I was able to cater to each individual’s strengths.

Photo Source: Financial Times

Actions for First-Time or Aspiring Leaders:

  • Make work-life balance/harmony an essential element of your life. A lot of us are driven to succeed, and sometimes ,we let work consume us, but in the end, it can damage the things we are working so hard to enjoy: our family, friendships, and health. Also, some studies say that productivity comes to a halt after working fifty hours a week and that ,happy employees are more productive. Also, vacation gives your mind time to rest, which in turn can boost your ,creativity. Lastly, ,exercise and ,diet play an essential role in overall health, impacting productivity and happiness.
  • Imposter syndrome can be real for some folks, especially first-time managers. If you just got promoted to a new position and feel uncomfortable, that’s normal. Remember that you were hired for a reason and that there will be some new skills you’ll need to learn, and that’s okay. Make sure to reach out to trusted mentors who have been in your shoes and can advise you when you’re feeling stuck. Also, seeking out counseling is another option. I found that the StrengthsFinder helped me gain confidence because I was already focusing on what I’m good at and was able to “aim” these strengths at my new challenges.
  • Read, train, and read some more. As an architect reads up on a new building code, new managers need to learn how to communicate and lead people. You have now gone from “me” to “we,” and you are currently being evaluated based on OTHER people’s performance. This takes a while to get used to because people who get promoted usually get promoted solely based on their technical expertise, not interpersonal skills, which are equally important (and sometimes more important, depending on the role). Here is a list of books and videos that I recommend you read and watch as you get started. Also, asking your leadership team about attending conferences, training, coaching are all great ways to get started on the path to being a better leader. As stated earlier, as a new leader, ,70% of your team’s employee engagement directly hinges on your leadership abilities. If your company does not fund your education, you may need to seek it out yourself.

Actions for Leaders and Organizations:

  • Train your entry-level leaders before you put them in a role in which they directly supervise people. The Center for Creative Leadership found that “,Almost 60% say they never received any training when they transitioned into their first leadership role.” A new study by the Society for Human Resource Professionals discovered that ,“84 percent of American workers say poorly trained people managers create a lot of unnecessary work and stress,” and “Half (50 percent) feel their own performance would improve if their direct supervisor received additional training in people management.” Lastly, Gallup states that ,70% of employee engagement scores vary based on the manager. As you can see, training your first-time and frontline managers is imperative to creating a healthy culture and bottom line.
  • Create and maintain a formal mentoring program. Baby Boomers are retiring at an alarming rate (10,000 a day), and their knowledge is going with them. Some of my best friends and mentors on that project were Baby Boomers, and they were incredibly generous with their time and mentorship. A mentoring program is a great way to help create more generational harmony within your organization because it helps create empathy and understanding.
  • Empower, don’t block. One of the main jobs of being a manager is to create predictability for the organization. Also, one of the reasons we hire people is based on their expertise as a professional. Empowering your workers is very important, not only for your organization but for the employee. The empowering phase is when they’re allowed to be innovative and surprise you. There must be checks and balances, but many managers need to be flexible in their thinking and act as a parachute for workers to take risks, not a cinder block.
  • Create an inclusive environment. Based on recent reports, organizations are doing better at achieving more diversity in their organizations but miss the mark when it comes to inclusion. One of the reasons I liked working at Imagineering is because, in my experience, everyone had an equal voice and was listened to, from the intern to the head of the organization. When people feel equal and have a seat at the table, you can gain unique insight: from hearing your intern’s opinion on how to market to Gen. Z to flex time for working parents.


Besides making lifetime friendships (corny, but true), we were able to:

  • Support each other like a family as an engaged team
  • Finish ahead of schedule and within budget
  • Team members grew into leaders
  • We built a theme park that millions of families will be able to enjoy for years to come (see video below)


Working on this project helped me see that truly remarkable things can happen by putting people first and empowering them. The relationships our team built enabled us to accomplish our goals, such as finishing on time and within budget, but we established a corporate culture of trust, humor, and experimentation. If something didn’t work, we would put our heads together, regroup, and figure out another way to solve the problem.

Below are some pictures of my journey, as well as the making of Shanghai Disneyland. I hope you enjoyed my leadership case study, and I look forward to hearing from you!


Bio: Dr. Santor Nishizaki has been featured on, Gallup, Boston Globe, and other media outlets and regularly speaks to companies and conducts workshops on leading, retaining, recruiting, and developing Gen Z and Millennials. In addition, he is an award-winning C-Suite executive with Fortune 100 and NASA experience and professor for Pepperdine’s Ph.D. Program of Global Leadership and Change. To hear more about how to retain Generation Z, check out Dr. Santor’s upcoming book, “Working with Gen Z: A Handbook to Recruit, Retain, and Reimagine the Future Workforce after COVID-19,” or feel free to connect with Santor on LinkedIn or send an email to if you would like to contact him about helping you recruit, retain, and lead Gen Z, or to say hello!”