The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company – Robert Iger
For nearly a century, the Walt Disney Company has experienced seismic shifts and maintained its status as the world’s most successful media company.
Robert Iger, Chairman and CEO of this legendary brand and a 45-year veteran in the entertainment industry, now tells his story and lays out the principles that nurture the good and manage the bad.
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Read The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company to learn how to simultaneously embrace change and operate with integrity, and foster a culture of trust, creativity, and pragmatic risk-taking.
This focus on fairness must carry over even into firing people—one of the hardest things to do as a boss. There’s no good playbook for how to fire someone, but Iger has developed an internal set of rules, based on the notion of integrity.
Always do it in person, not over the phone or by email, and don’t push the task off onto someone else. You must have the honesty to look someone in the eye and tell them the reasons why you are making this decision about them.
Explain clearly and concisely what isn’t working and why you don’t think it will change. There is no way to avoid the conversation being painful, but the best you can do is to make it honest.
Not the craziest idea
In the mid-1990s, Disney had a co-production and distribution deal with Pixar, but the tension between then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Steve Jobs at Pixar led to the two companies acrimoniously parting ways in 2004.
Once it was announced in early 2005 that Iger would be taking over as the next CEO of Disney, he decided that one of his first tasks was to repair the relationship with Pixar, which meant building a new relationship with Steve Jobs.
Iger had the idea that technological change meant that, sooner or later, people would want to watch TV on their computers. He therefore took a risk and pitched the idea to Jobs, who turned out to have been tinkering with the same idea.
Five months later, Iger stood on stage with Jobs at Apple’s launch of its video iPod, announcing that five Disney shows would be available to download on iTunes. The speed with which this happened helped to convince Jobs that Disney was becoming a forward-looking company.
Maintain the value
The Pixar acquisition was the first step in rebuilding Disney. The entertainment business continued to transform rapidly, and it was essential to keep taking risks and keep up with the times. Disney’s next target was Marvel, a much “edgier” company whose fans might be horrified by a link with Disney. Iger recognized that preserving the Marvel culture would be paramount to its success and brand loyalty.
The same awareness came into play when Iger approached George Lucas to buy Lucasfilm. Disney was negotiating to be the keeper of the Star Wars legacy, with the very person who had creative control over the saga. They finally signed the deal in October 2012 after many months of careful negotiation.
Effective leadership also means not giving in to pessimism, which is ruinous to morale. Fearing calamity is not a good way to motivate people. It is much better to embrace optimism—not saying all is well when it is not, but rather making it clear that you believe your team is capable of steering toward the best outcome. Optimism is a kind of pragmatic enthusiasm for what people can achieve.
One manifestation of this is to focus on the future. When Iger was being considered to take over from Eisner, the board repeatedly asked why they should trust him when he’d been Eisner’s number two through several poor business decisions. Iger told the board he couldn’t do anything about the past; “You want to know where I’m going to take this company, not where it’s been. Here’s my plan.”
Curb the ego
As a leader, you cannot let your ego get in the way of making the best possible decisions. Board member Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew, had very publicly and vehemently opposed Iger’s taking over as CEO. Once appointed, Iger had to put his ego aside and figure out what was making Roy so angry and how to appease him, or else the disruptive attacks would continue.
He concluded that Roy needed to feel validated, so he made him an emeritus board member with special event privileges.
Know when to go
The final key to effective leadership is not holding on for too long. When one person has a lot of power, it becomes harder to keep how they wield that power in check. Over-confidence becomes a liability as you start to be dismissive of others’ opinions. When you start to entrust too much in your own power and importance, you lose your way.
Effective management starts by recognizing that the true value of a business, especially one in the creative industry, is its people.
Company culture is made up of a lot of aspects, but it can be shaped most effectively by leadership that conveys priorities clearly and repeatedly. A great manager takes the guesswork out of people’s day-to-day by being clear about priorities: this is where we want to be, and this is how we get there.
Iger’s three strategic priorities once he took over as CEO were:
1) to devote time and capital to the creation of high-quality branded content,
2) to embrace technology to the fullest, seeing it as an opportunity, not a threat, and
3) to become a truly global company.
Innovate or die
By the turn of the century, the entertainment industry was changing at lightning speed, and every traditional media company was operating out of fear rather than courage and trying to build walls to protect the old ways of doing things.
Disney made a series of bold acquisitions, but by 2017, it was clear that the company needed to reinvent itself yet again. It was a case of innovating for survival. Could high-quality, branded products still be valuable in a changing marketplace?
Could Disney adapt to the new habits of entertainment consumption and use new technology as a tool for growth?
Suffer now, win later
Launching a new streaming service like Disney+ was major risk. Iger had to explain to Wall Street this was an expensive project upfront, with more than 25 new series and 10 original films were slated to come out in the first year alone. But it would also inflict short-term damage on the bottom line as Disney effectively competed with itself in its traditional businesses.
Intentionally taking on short-term losses in the hope of attaining long-term growth is a big risk and one that takes a lot of courage.
To create original content for Disney+, Iger decided not to create a whole new studio but rather to task the existing studios—including Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars—with creating new products on top of their current business demands.
Everything gets disrupted, including existing business models and practices, routines and priorities, jobs and responsibilities. Iger even tied executive compensation to whether people were stepping up to make the new initiative successful.
Disney was about to acquire Twitter
Sometimes, courage can also mean turning away from an idea. In summer 2016, Disney expressed an interest in acquiring Twitter, and by October, both boards had approved a deal. The platform could work as a way to deliver content directly to consumers.
Still, Iger was concerned about the management of hate speech, which included making difficult decisions about freedom of speech, fake accounts, and political messaging. Tackling such issues could be corrosive to the Disney brand. As a result, Iger decided to listen to his instincts and called off the deal.
As Tom Murphy had said years earlier, “If something doesn’t feel right to you, then it’s probably not right for you.”