Excellence in Action

Todd Sargent ’96

Photo of Todd Sargent

Todd Sargent ’96 leads talent and organizational development for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, solving complex organizational challenges and implementing innovative change strategies to drive cast engagement.  He continues to be involved as an alumni leader through the UCLA Alumni Association and other support organizations. He is President of the City of Los Angeles Innovation and Performance Commission. Sargent graduated from UCLA in 1996 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.

Interviewed by Stephen Mendoza ’18 • November 22, 2017

Describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.

My career path has probably taken more twists and turns than the normal person my age. When I graduated from UCLA in 1996, I was one of the fortunate grads to have a job lined up. I went through the Career Center and had a job offer in hand Fall Quarter. It was in the executive training program for Robinsons-May which, at the time, was a major department store headquartered in North Hollywood. It was a rotational program that started in the buying offices then transitioned you into one of the shopping centers to learn the business of merchandising and managing departments and people. So I got a bit of exposure to financial management, the retail life cycle, the very interesting dynamic of a store operation and working with different types of people. I did a 2-year rotation and realized that retail was not a career path for me. So I applied to an entertainment marketing job in Japan and moved to Tokyo in 1998. I worked on the marketing campaigns for a music company for a year. While I was there I was studying for the LSAT and the GMAT. I took the LSAT and the GMAT in Tokyo and also applied to joint JD/MBA programs in addition to full time work. I eventually had to decide between a Japanese law and business focused program in Hawaii or a politically oriented JD/MBA program in Washington DC; I decided on DC at George Washington University. I then decided that I didn’t want to be a lawyer so I dropped out of the JD program and focused on my MBA.

While I was in the MBA program, I learned more about management consulting; so when I graduated from the MBA program in 2001, I started my career at Accenture in September based in Washington DC. I focused on process consulting within the federal government space but it was not a particular passion of mine. The job offer was there and I wanted to be in management consulting so I did it. I mentioned September 2001 because September 11th happened and at the time I was going through training. I was redeployed to help a project that eventually became the Transportation Security Administration. Since I was working with the federal government to create that department and I was the most junior person on the team, it was pretty exciting. We were based out at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. By being focused on the TSA work, I learned about process modeling, business requirements, change management and communications. I was able to gain the trust of some of the leadership on the team and was pretty quickly asked to take on more responsibilities for the federalization of the security checkpoints across the country. I was deployed to Mobile, Alabama to help lead that project, which was the first airport in the country to have a fully federalized security workforce. Eventually I came back to Los Angeles and helped work at LAX in their federalization effort. While I was managing a team of consultants who were doing time measurements in the security checkpoints of the Tom Bradley International Terminal, this project really hit home and management consulting stuck with me from there on out. I wasn’t paying close attention to the passengers my team members were counting but I was asked if they were doing it right and I looked up and noticed that coming through the security checkpoint were my grandparents. Previously unknown to me, my grandparents were going on an international flight that day and they were coming through the same security checkpoint that I was monitoring. It really hit home to me that the work that we were doing was not this intangible theoretical strategy, it was very tangible to the lives and safety of the people that mattered to me. It stuck with me that consulting can be a very impactful business. It’s not just about giving an opinion of how to change or improve a business, which we may do, but it’s more than that. Later, I transferred permanently to Los Angeles and started focusing on consulting within the media and entertainment industry.

I’ve been focused on organizational change strategy and execution, which in my case has typically been large scale operational and organizational change within companies, particularly with new systems and processes. I have changed consulting firms a few times, each with the intent of less travel and/or more responsibility. I’ve worked with companies like Microsoft, Toyota, Sony Pictures, Walt Disney, DIRECTV and AT&T – all of whom have unique challenges and needs. Some of the projects I’ve been a part of were strategic and somewhat abstract and some of the projects were practical and tactical, with all providing solutions for my clients.

After 16 years in the consulting business, I decided that I wanted to move back into industry. The one drawback for consulting is that because you’re not a permanent employee of the company you are supporting, even though you’re helping those companies come up with great solutions, you don’t have a long term stake in the success of those initiatives. When I look around the landscape of companies, there are only a few companies that have a profile that really appeals to me as an individual. Once I started to get more serious about leaving consulting, which was a major decision for me, I was contacted by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts (WDPR). The role I wanted didn’t really exist so it took some time to have that role created, but now I lead organization development for the Pacific Rim of WDPR. I’m currently focused on the Disneyland Resort and how we can create an amazing cast member experience. At WDPR, we call our employees Cast, Crew, or Imagineers, depending on the role they have. We want to engage our cast members in a way that is meaningful, sustainable and fulfilling. I like to say we create the best place to work at the happiest place on earth. No big deal!

What inspired you to choose this career path?

My career path has almost always been focused on driving organizational change and operational improvements. I have a passion around helping people in any way I can. I had a boss that once said to me, “My job is to make sure that people come to work skipping everyday”. I wouldn’t have said that myself but the philosophy has stuck with me. It is really about the idea that you only have one life to live, so how can we help people enjoy the work life that they’re living? There aren’t a lot of professions that focus on how to make the lives of employees better and I’ve been focused on that for a while. I feel like in my own way I’m helping make the lives of people around me a little bit better. It makes me feel like I’ve chosen a path that wasn’t totally selfish, I chose a path that gives back.

How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?

First of all, I love UCLA so much that they had a hard time kicking me out of there. I did whatever I could to stay at UCLA as long as possible as an undergrad.  I was hyper involved in as many activities as you can probably think of. I really enjoyed working with staff, faculty, students and alumni. I think I was a problem solver and organizer from my first days on campus. I had three specific experiences that I think shaped me and guided where I am today. First, I got really involved in student government at UCLA. My first year resident assistant in Hedrick Hall was also the chief of staff to the USAC internal vice president’s office. He introduced me to Kate Anderson, who was running for USAC president. At the time, it didn’t seem like my thing but I helped out with her campaign. She won and appointed me to chair of the finance committee of student government. It was an unelected position that essentially manages the budget of student government. That taught me a ton about relatively complex financial planning, communication, engagement, listening, working with my peers and coming up with creative solutions. It was like a full-time job on top of everything else I was doing at UCLA. I basically learned how to run a business, thanks to many mentors at ASUCLA. Second thing, I was a Resident Assistant in Sproul Hall beginning my second year at UCLA for two years. That position is all about taking responsibility, listening, helping your residents come up with creative solutions and being a resource for them. I was a “consultant” and helped my residents as much as I could. Third, of course, was my academic studies. I was a political science major and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a lawyer like the majority of the students in my major. However, I was able to learn effective time management, how to build a case for change, and how to have a level of emotional intelligence to be able to work well within teams – and that made a big difference for me here at UCLA. I came out with core skills that were applicable to the work that I was most interested in doing.

In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?

I have sought out UCLA alumni at every client, every job, and every potential job I’ve worked with. I’ve almost continuously stayed involved with UCLA as an alumnus. After graduation, I stayed involved as an advisor to my fraternity and I was part of the Alumni Academy, which was managed by the UCLA Alumni Association. After graduating from the Academy, I was appointed to be the alumni representative to USAC which was a really interesting difference from being a student member. I had been both an appointed and elected student member for two years, but had such a healthier perspective as the alumni representative. Next, I was selected to be on the UCLA Alumni Association Board of Directors where I served for a three year term. That was such an honor to serve the university in such a capacity. After that experience, I was selected into another UCLA support organization where I eventually became President for a 3 year term. I was just selected to re-join the UCLA Alumni Association Board of Directors for a second tour of duty. I can’t leave UCLA!

I came back on the Alumni Board and joined Disney at just about the same time. One thing I did shortly after joining Disney, was meet with every UCLA alumni board member who also works at Disney to get to know them better, learn what their UCLA story was, what their Disney story was and how we could build a partnership. I continually try to build new relationships, because you never know how those relationships will evolve. My UCLA network has been tremendously helpful in terms of either helping me attain a new client, acclimate to a new company or just provide me with that support organization that I can always tap into and leverage.

What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?

Advice that I give to people all the time is if you’re unhappy in your job, leave it. There’s always something else out there. Don’t stick with something you’re unhappy with. I think I have had the tendency to not take a lot of risks in my career. It might sound like I have because I switched jobs and moved across the world but truth is, I think my greatest career challenge was that I could have made more proactive decisions in moving my career forward. For example, I love my job, it’s highly possible that I could have qualified for the same job a few years ago. However, I didn’t even go for it, I played it safe and stuck with consulting. I think the biggest challenge has been really fulfilling my own potential and that sounds egoistic but it really means I doubted my own capabilities at times. I really wanted to make the right decision and so I’ve never been much of a risk taker and that’s my continual challenge.

What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in your industry?

Never give up. The entertainment and consulting industries are notoriously challenging to get into. There is not an “easy” entry level path for either industry. You’re going to find that there are a lot more applicants than there are positions within the both industries. You might have to earn your way in over time, which might take a little longer than many want and I don’t know if everyone has that patience. I didn’t take an entry level position then move up within an industry path, I came in as an executive so I took an unusual path. A lot of my colleagues have been with Disney for two, three, even four decades.

I’m an alumni mentor through the Alumni Association and my mentee is very interested in having a career in theme park operations. I thought, “Wow, that’s so specific but yet there are only so many people that can really help him get there”. My advice to him is that we’re going to meet as many people as we can. We are going to take advantage of the UCLA network that he is a part of too and he is going to talk to people about their career path, how they got there and if he can shadow them.

A strong piece of advice for undergrads in particular is to take advantage of living in Los Angeles and get some experiential learning. Get the internship, get the part time jobs and challenge yourself to take advantage of the UCLA network because so many don’t. There are three things that almost every company looks for in hiring. First, companies will almost always ask you to work in teams because very few jobs are individual. You have to be able to show how you were well with teams. Second, employers expect you to be able to analyze both quantitative and qualitative data and derive insights and recommendations. Third, companies want you to be a creative problem solver. A lot of people don’t have all three of those skills, they might have one or two but to have all three sets you apart. In my perspective, any job is going to require these skills to some degree. In order to be an effective consultant, you need good stories and to have good stories you need experience and that takes time. It’s not an easy thing to jump into right out of undergrad.

For alumni, I think it’s somewhat similar in that you’ve got to get deep in some specialty. In consulting within the entertainment industry, there is almost an inherent bias towards experience specifically in the area you are working with. I can’t tell you how many times a consulting client would ask “But do you have experience with either my company, or within my industry?” and if the answer is no, they generally wanted to go with somebody else. I like to think of myself as a generalist consultant, so I can work across any industry and work with any organization when it comes to change management. Generally speaking to people who are interested in change management within the entertainment industry, leverage your network, be aware of the specific needs of an organization and be ready to tell a solid story about why you’re interested in the role.

How do you support and participate in the UCLA community now?

As I shared, I serve on the UCLA Alumni Association Board of Directors, where I am a member of the finance and career services committees. I’m also an alumni mentor and have a great mentee who is really excited about potentially working at Disney so it’s a perfect match. I volunteer for the Interview with a Bruin program, which is such a great opportunity for alumni to give back. Disney Parks and Resorts just kicked off recruitment for our new Business Leaders Rotation Program, which I will be involved with. I am a regular Dinner for 12 Strangers host, which is another great UCLA tradition. I was fortunate to do it as a student and now as an alumnus. I’ve either been a host or co-host for a long time and I love it. One thing that alumni consistently say they enjoy is connection to the student experience. If I can get a sense of the student experience, I can support it in some way as an alumnus, whether it’s through my time, talent or fundraising. I’ll be supporting the university and students until the day I die, because they supported me at a critical time in my life. I truly believe I could not be where I am today without my UCLA experience.

What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?

I’ve been the chair of the nominations committee for an alumni support group here for many years. Every year we initiate a number of current students into the organization who are campus leaders. When I hear their stories, it is humbling how much these students contribute to society, how engaged they are with their community, heritage and culture, how much they are changing the world. It really hits home how pivotal UCLA is in not just Los Angeles, but the world. When I see that, I have such a pride for the entity we call UCLA, the research that we do, the athletic titles that we win, the academic reputation and the unique place that UCLA plays in the world. So what makes me most proud to be a Bruin? This university continues to challenge itself and be better than it was yesterday. It looks for ways to do more, to do better, and challenge the world that we live in. It’s humbling to me to be a part of that in some small way and I can’t tell you how proud I am when I tell people that I graduated from UCLA.

What’s next?

I really love my job, I’m just so excited to see what comes next! You have the Disneyland Resort which is an iconic cultural touchstone that is known worldwide, which is going through changes to keep up with the ever-evolving world. Walt himself once said, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” I get to be part of creating the framework for cast, crew and Imagineers to do their best to bring magic and happiness to the world. That’s a crazy, awesome job for a guy like me who grew up in the shadow of the park. I pinch myself, I really do, because I get to not only do what I do pretty well which is lead change initiatives and drive employee engagement, but I get to do it for a company like Walt Disney. What’s next for Todd? I never know what’s next. Somebody asked me today “Do you think you’ll retire with Disney?” and that was a bold question. I responded for the first time in my career that I can potentially say yes. Who knows, I could be in the same position or I could continue to try new challenges within the organization, but Disney and Todd are a good match.

Also, I have to say, my UCLA story is not done either. I love this institution and I’m always going to stay involved some way. I have almost 3 years left on the alumni board and I’m going to try to make a positive impact. I hope to continue to be a mentor for Bruins today and tomorrow. On a personal note, my husband and I are really looking forward to being parents. We are foster parents and are waiting for a permanent placement at some point in the future and we can’t wait for that. I sure hope our children love Disney and UCLA!

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Stephen Mendoza earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from UCLA in 2018. Prior to joining the Partnership UCLA / Alumni Career Programs team as a student staff member, Stephen had successfully completed internships with Ernst & Young, J.P. Morgan, and Disney. Through the Excellence in Action alumni spotlight series, Stephen expanded his network, met successful business professionals, and shared their advice and life experiences with the greater UCLA community. Stephen is now building his career as a Financial Analyst with Wells Fargo Corporate Banking.

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