I’ve admired Disney for numerous reasons. They are brilliant storytellers and I’ve always been fascinated how they ended up acquiring big corporations like Pixar, Marvel, LucasFilms and Fox. They now stand at the forefront of changing the media industry landscape.
Bob Iger has been instrumental in bringing in these changes at Disney. Steve Jobs mentions instantly liking Bob for putting all cards on the table during the Pixar acquisition and being candid about how badly Disney needed Pixar to survive. Handling Big CEOs with big egos is not an easy job and requires people skills.
Iger’s book — The Ride of a Lifetime is a fantastic read. It beautifully distils down his 40+ years of wisdom on corporate culture, dealing with people and taking risks.
Here are my Top 7 learnings from the book:
- In his early days as a young executive at ABC Sports, he missed procuring rights for a race during which a British Runner set a world record. Producer Roone Arledge raged in a room full of senior executives about the miss. Nobody knew who was at fault. And Iger raised his hand. From that day onwards, he was treated with higher regard.
It is important to take responsibility when you screw up. You will be more respected and trusted by people around you if you honestly own upto your mistakes.
- Iger was promoted as the President of ABC Entertainment. He had spent all his previous years in sports and knew nothing how the Entertainment industry worked. He had been in New York all these years and now had to move to LA. He barely knew anyone there and had no clue how people in Hollywood worked. Over the next few months, Iger was honest about this with everyone he met and ended up having partnerships in LA that did really well for the company.
True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else. You have to ask questions you need to ask, admit without apology what you don’t understand.
- He spent the next few years being heavily involved in managing the creative process — reading screenplays, scripts and giving feedback to directors. Things were subjective. There was no right or wrong.
Be mindful of how much the creators have poured themselves into the project and how much is at stake for them. Never start negatively. Never start small. Don’t focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty. And if the big picture is a mess, small things don’t matter anyway.
- Disney acquired Capital Cities/ ABC in 1995. Both organisations shared very different cultures. While at ABC, power was decentralised, bosses were accessible. But decisions at Disney were made by a central corporate unit called Strategic Planning — a group of well educated MBAs from Stanford and Harvard. They had significant power over the rest of the company. They were bossy with business heads, specially ones at Capital Cities because Disney has bought them. Most often, there was no sensitivity or care in communicating their decisions.
Disagreements should be handled with diplomacy, rather than a tone of authoritativeness and demand. Pressing ownership on someone to make them bend their ways doesn’t sit well in the long run.
- Iger wasn’t Disney board’s first choice to be the next CEO. Scott Miller indicated Iger needed something no less than a political campaign. He had to convince people inside and outside on why he made a good fit for the change factor Disney needed. Scott asked Iger to list down his priorities for Disney’s future, and he immediately noted down five, six. Scott then told Iger, once the list goes beyond three, they are no longer priorities. Priorities are few things you are going to spend a lot of time and capital on. If you have too many, you’re going to seem unfocused. The vision will lack clarity and inspiration.
People in the organization suffer unnecessary anxiety because they don’t know what they should be focused on. Inefficiency sets in, frustration builds and morale sinks.
- Iger negotiated acquisition deals with Steve Jobs (Pixar) and George Lucas (LucasFilms). Both were not easy people to deal with. They had their vision of how the future could be. They were well respected in the industry and every criticism coming Iger’s way had to be dealt in a calibrated manner. For instance, Jobs told Iger he went to watch Iron Man- 2 with his son and criticized “It sucked”. Iger instead of taking Jobs remarks critically, told him Iron Man 2 wasn’t anyone’s idea of an Oscar. The movie and done $75mn in business and Jobs wasn’t an audience for the movie.
Empathize with people you respect. When they are skeptical of your actions, you should believe in your power and ability to make things happen. At every step, it is necessary to be clear of where you stand. Don’t let them feel they are right all the time.
- Iger spent years eying for a #2 position at Disney. He points at an important lesson about his ambition to succeed.
Don’t let ambition get ahead of the opportunity. By fixating on a future job, don’t become impatient with where you are. Ambition will become counterproductive as you tend less to the responsibilities you have.