It's Not Magic: You Too Can Create a Culture of Future Thinkers #SHRM19 Interview with Richard Ramsey and Frank Spencer


A fun fact about myself: I love everything Disney! So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I found the one speaker at 2019 SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition (#SHRM19) that spent his entire adult career working for the Walt Disney Company. But what I didn’t know when I found him was that I would encounter an unexpected surprise, a co-presenter! This interview started out as a regular Q&A with the person I want to be when I grow up and turned into a magical experience that took me to a place where I couldn’t stop thinking about the future. So, without further ado, I introduce you to Richard Ramsey and Frank Spencer who will be speaking about the establishment of the Strategic Foresight practice within Walt Disney International.

 I just have to start by saying I am so excited to be interviewing you because I am a huge fan of everything Disney (which most of my readers already know). You spent so much of your career in a multitude of roles within the Walt Disney Company, including the Vice President of HR. What was that like? After such a tenured career, what made you want to switch career paths?

Richard: I worked my entire adult life for the Disney Company. I started working for Disney at Disneyland when I was an undergraduate. My first job was selling merchandise at the Emporium on Main Street in Disneyland. Post-graduation, I continued to work for the company in the operations division but eventually went into a management training program for Human Resources at Disney and eventually migrated through several different roles within Human Resources at Disneyland Park. I eventually made my way up to the Walt Disney Studios and spent time working in the Animation Studios, Home Entertainment, and Theatrical Film Distribution. And I finished my career working with Walt Disney International; a division of Disney that operates our businesses outside of the U.S., everything except for theme parks and ESPN.

The reason I stayed so long was because I had the opportunity to move through many different roles and across multiple business segments at Disney. The size and breadth of what Disney does allowed me to have a career with the same company but also enabled me to change roles and responsibilities and do some really interesting work that I was excited about. I always told myself that I would continue working for Disney as long as I continued to like what I was doing, enjoyed the people I worked for and with, and I can say that throughout my 38-year career, that was true 99 percent of the time. And I actually intentionally planned to retire early from Disney, with the thought that I could do work that was specific interest to me and one of those things I always wanted to do was teach at the University level.

Tell me a little bit about what you are doing now.

Richard: I am teaching in the Department of Management in the College of Business and Economics at Cal State Fullerton; I teach a cross cultural management course. It’s for undergraduate students, primarily seniors who are trying to round out their elective courses. It’s a great match for my skills and experience since I spent a lot of time working in the international divisions and it’s also a subject that I’m personally interested in. I also helped to establish the Center for Leadership at Cal State Fullerton College of Business and Economics so I’m actively helping to grow the center and its impact on developing leadership skills for their students. I also continue to stay active in the Strategic Foresight space serving as an instructor for Kedge Consulting, so I teach in their futures school which is a three-day workshop focused on developing Strategic Foresight skills for corporate businesses and people working in the educational industry.

You are founder and creative director for Kedge LLC. Can you tell me how you got there and what inspired you to want to help businesses with your unique approach?

Frank: I got into what I’m doing today because being a transformative kind of person is part of my DNA. I love designing strategy, systems, organizations, etc. What led me into the field of Strategic Foresight was seeing that there is a methodology and philosophy that helps people to intentionally and purposefully think about the future, pull that future into today, and take actions today to make sure they are relevant for the next year to the next 20 years.

Prior to forming Kedge, I spent many years helping small to medium enterprises doing leadership development and general business development. But then I started to delve into this deal called Strategic Foresight, also known as, futures thinking. Strategic Foresight has actually been around in Europe for a while and in the US for the last 50ish years, but ever since things with strategic planning and traditional talent development started to drastically change, it has started to become a bit of a buzzword. People are realizing and seeing that Strategic Foresight is a tremendous help. So I began to meet with individuals that were in the field and realized that this is what I’m really trying to do with people. My goal was and is to help people create better visions and paths towards the future to inspire actions today. I want to help them answer questions like: “do we really know if we’re doing the right things”, “how do we avoid potential breakdowns or hazards”, or “what trends are coming at us that we’ll want to make sure we’re flexible around?” I want to help them understand that we can’t just think about risk, but we’ve got to think about transformation because we want to remain relevant and resilient.

Where did your love for Strategic Foresight and future thinking come from?

Frank: I am a people person. I have an educational background in sociology and psychology because I am fascinated with the way people think. But it was a bit of an accident, a serendipity, finding out there was a field like this. I met some of my mentors in the field 20 years ago and was thinking, wow, this is right up my alley and what I want to be doing. I had always thought about, how can I help people get to a better future; how do I create a better world? I’m one of those people that feel like the things we do can actually make a difference. I want to inspire other people towards that too. The Foresight field was a natural fit for me. That’s when I realized we can fuel everything we do through the future. We have a moral responsibility as a human species to think about better futures. So how do we make sure that people wise, business wise, country wise, and technology wise, we get to the future that we want to get to, a future where everyone is prospering. Even though we work with companies that are focused on their bottom line, we’re still helping them think about the future simultaneously (consciously or unconsciously). That’s what excites me about what we’re doing!

What does a culture of future thinkers look like in your opinion?

Richard: What we’re primarily trying to do is change the way people think about today. Thinking about the future and spending time thinking about what possible futures might exist guides the actions that we take today. The idea is to help people think beyond the short-term horizons that most corporations and organizations tend to operate within. Then we want to get them to extend their horizon out to 20 years and bring that information and exploration back so they can make different strategic decisions. Hopefully they’ll make better strategic decisions than what they’re doing today and the choices they should be making about their business. We talk about it being an organizational culture change and how we approached it that way with Disney International because most organizations are set up to establish quarterly financial targets and that tends to limit the amount of time people spend thinking out beyond the quarter or annual operating plan. Obviously the strategy groups spend some time doing that but the rest of the population of the company doesn’t and so our goal was to get the whole organization thinking actively thinking about possible futures, so they can think and actively think very differently today.

Frank: Good question. When I first met my business partner Yvette [Montero Salvatico], she had been tasked several years before to create the first futures division within the Walt Disney Company in Orlando. She was looking for someone in the Foresights field to help in terms of building a culture, an organizational competency culture. So that’s why we connected so well. This concept of future thinking is really about creating an environment or a culture of future empowered individuals. It’s not enough to play around with the future or look at the trends and then have people say that’s great, now we have real work to do. You have to create a culture of future empowered people or future thinkers. Like I said earlier, in today’s environment, organizations not only have a responsibility, but they absolutely need to remain relevant. Future culture is important because it sets us towards a path with new ideas and it doesn’t leave us in the past. Therefore we’re no longer fighting an uphill battle, instead we’re pulling the future towards ourselves and that’s what a future empowered culture is.

What take-aways do you expect to provide attendees during your session at #SHRM19?

Richard: They’re going to get a primer into Strategic Foresight, so they’ll understand what that is. And what the benefits are of Strategic Foresight to their organization. I’ll also be talking about specific steps and actions that are necessary in order to build or change an organizational culture from short-term thinkers to future thinkers.

Frank: We’ll be talking about the individual level of empowered thinking, the technical tools, and the larger idea of building a future empowered HR division followed by the entire company. We want the attendees to see the power of future empowering individuals with their careers inside their companies, so they can bring this type of thinking back to their company. They will be able to carry this type of thinking back to what they do every day. I want people to come out of the session thinking I can be an individual future thinker and I can spread the message across my company. We also have a toolkit that we’ll talk about. We won’t be getting into the toolkit entirely, but at least people will know there is a toolkit that will help inspire their HR team at their organization. We want them to know that Strategic Foresight is possible and that it can be done. 

You are co-presenting with Frank Spencer from Kedge LLC. Can you tell me a little bit about Frank and your time working together?

Richard: When we [Disney] realized that we needed to think differently about the future and a plan for a very different set of talent and skills because our business was changing so rapidly, I realized that traditional labor forecasting wasn’t going to be sufficient. So I didn’t feel like I have the right tools to think more actively or more dynamically about the future. Somewhat serendipitously, Frank and a former Disney employee, Yvette Montero Salvatico, had joined forces and had begun doing Strategic Foresight consulting together. Shortly after that (2011), I was tasked from the Disney International organization to think about what type of talent we needed from the future. Frank and Yvette came to us and shared the work they were doing in Strategic Foresight. My boss and I realized these were the skillsets and tools that we needed to think more actively about the future. I worked with Frank and Yvette and Kedge to implement a global training program. They assisted me with building futures teams around the world. With their help we trained over 500 employees and established 11 futures teams around the world that we’re actively thinking about the future and the impact on the organization.

You are co-presenting with Richard Ramsey, recently retired from the Walt Disney Company. Can you tell me a little bit about Richard and your time working together?

The majority of my work with Richard was when Richard was the Vice President of Walt Disney International. We were his vendor over a 6-year period and we traveled to every country with him. When we started working on this project a few years ago, it was the first time Richard had heard of this concept, but if you ask him now, it was his most favorite thing that he did in his career; this was always what was inside of him. Richard has been such an amazing champion. He really changed Walt Disney International, around the world, including in countries like Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, Moscow, Shanghai. He changed the leadership over the past six years and he changed the way they think. They do their business, their HR development, their strategy, and all of their financial planning pretty differently now because of Richard and Strategic Foresight. You won’t see it broadcast on a billboard or promoted externally, but internally, he helped change that organization in ways that they probably had never been changed before. Before this started, they had operations in 45 different countries reporting back to Burbank but doing things in 45 different ways. Foresight helped maintain the individuality, but created a global language, view, vision. It changed the way the Walt Disney company international operated. Richard recently retired from Walt Disney and has been helping Kedge off and on since then. He keeps in touch with what we’re doing and throws stuff [ideas] at us.

Finally, how can readers best connect with you on social media?

Richard: You can connect with Richard via LinkedIn.

Frank: You can connect with Frank on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram (@futuristfrankspencer). You can also find Kedge and The Futures School on LinkedIn. They are also respectively found on Twitter @learnforesight, and Instagram (kedgetothefuture / thefuturesschool).


Richard and Frank will present It's Not Magic: You Too Can Create a Culture of Futures Thinkers at the 2019 SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition on Monday, June 24 from 3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Please make sure to check out this mega session!



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