The Ride of a Lifetime

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Published: 9/23/2019
A grand vision defined: The CEO of Disney, one of Time's most influential people of 2019, shares the ideas and values he embraced to reinvent one of the most beloved companies in the world and inspire the people who bring the magic to life.

The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger

“If you don’t innovate, you die”. Roone Arledge

Powerful words with an intense message: without innovation, you have nothing. These are the words Robert Iger lives by, and in The Ride of a Lifetime, he chronicles how innovation was the key to his many successes. Through his story from his humble beginnings at ABC’s Small Production Services Department to being offered the job of CEO at Disney and rebuilding the company, he demonstrates how innovation, risk-taking, quality leadership, and a few other things can lead to massive success.

Curiosity is important, but fear can be too

Iger credits the development of his curiosity to his father. His dad, a gifted graduate from Wharton business school who was later diagnosed with manic depression, was a complex figure. Though he was prone to intense self-doubt and dark moods, he also had many interests, which he passed on to his son. The shelves of his childhood home were lined with books by Faulkner and Hemingway, and his father engaged him in many political discussions. His father once told him he didn’t care what he was doing with his spare time, as long as it was productive. Along with a sense of curiosity, he also was afraid of living with the sense of failure which haunted his father. This is where much of his drive came from his fear. He didn’t want to have the feelings his father did, and that drove much of his success.

You never know when you’ll get your lucky break

Iger landed a job working for ABC. His uncle Bob was hospitalized in the 1970’s. He shared his room with an executive from ABC. This low-level executive wanted to impress Bob, and successfully wowed him with grandiose tales of his work. Bob called him up later letting him know his 22-year-old nephew was looking for a job. The executive got him an interview at ABC Small Production Services department. The job was low level, but Iger worked hard. He was eventually hired to work for ABC Sports. This dramatic change meant expensive lunches, expensive clothes, and rubbing shoulders with famous people. Here he got another lesson about innovation from a pioneering sports journalist Roone Arledge, who told him, “The only way to survive in business is to stay one step ahead of the curve.”

Making the right decision at “inflection points” can make or break your career

In 1985, at 34 years old, Iger was made vice president of ABC Sports. That year, Capital Cities Communications bought ABC. They stripped lots of perks, but Iger wasn’t concerned about that, instead his concern was centered around an outsider being hired to head up the network. He was given the decision to leave his current job or to stay and eventually become the senior vice president of programming. He chose to stay. This decision influenced his future heavily, ending with him becoming the president of ABC’s entire entertainment division. The point of inflection was whether or not Iger was willing to continue working for ABC, or if he was going to change his career path entirely. He chose to stick around, and that choice had a substantial influence on his future.

Innovation means creative problem solving

While Iger was still in his position as Vice President of ABC Sports, he was able to save ABC from a major disaster when Olympic events had to be canceled during the Calgary Winter Olympics in Canada. This meant that there was a bunch of screen time originally dedicated to the Olympic events that needed to be filled. Iger came up with using human interest stories to fill the slots instead, and ratings were historically high. He was rewarded for his quick thinking with the presidency over ABC’s entire entertainment division. His creative solution filled the time, reigned in the emergency, and entertained audiences.

Take a chance and have the conviction to follow it through

When Iger began his new position of President over ABC’s entertainment division, his first responsibility was to determine the lineup for the 1989-1990 season. ABC was losing viewers to NBC, their biggest competitor. The creatives who worked under him respected him little. To them, it was hard to imagine how this “suit” from New York with no experience in this domain could be successful. He took a huge risk: he commissioned Twin Peaks, a show developed by the maker of Blue Velvet. ABC’s creative directors didn’t think it would work to put it on prime time, but Iger did it anyway. When the show premiered, 35 million people viewed it. Though ultimately the show wasn’t successful, he caught the attention of people like Spielberg and George Lucas, who were suddenly interested in talking about special projects. Iger went against suggestions of his peers to do something radical, and it paid off in views and in generating the interest of influential people in the film.

Poor corporate culture can kill innovation (and the morale of its employees)

Iger was promoted to COO of ABC when the company was purchased by Disney. Disney wasn’t doing well. After experiencing success with hits like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King and their resorts and theme parts, Disney was in trouble. Their last films had tanked at the box office. Iger was put in charge of Disney’s media division. His first five years in the position were fruitless and unproductive, due to Disney’s corporate culture. Every decision had to be approved by strategic planning, a group of Harvard and Stanford MBAs. The manager he had to work with demonstrated poor leadership skills, such as leaving during meetings to take calls and refusing to hide his boredom. As a result, Iger experienced what he calls the 5 most unproductive years of his life.

Be willing to battle for the position you want

Iger was promoted to work on the board of directors of Disney, which he didn’t expect. As Disney’s number two, he was next in line to take over after Eisner (the CEO) retired. Unfortunately, Eisner created conflict with Steve Jobs, and Disney needed their partnership with Pixar, Job’s company. Then, the Bass Family dumped $2 billion worth of stocks, a significant financial loss for Disney. The stress caused Eisner to fight more with Jobs, leading Jobs to publicly announce he would not work with Disney again. Disney shareholders revolted, and Eisner was to be replaced.

Disney wanted to replace Eisner with an outside hire, but Iger wanted his job. Iger presented to Disney his strategic plan to convince them to give him the position. It showed the shareholders where Disney was, where they wanted to be, and how they were going to get there. He created three strategic goals for Disney: memorable characters and branding for their films, cutting edge technologies, and getting in on global markets. The plan won over the board: and Iger was given the promotion to CEO of Disney. He battled it out with the shareholders, even though they wanted an outside hire, and was rewarded with the position he wanted.

“Crazy ideas” can save companies

Resolving the conflict between Disney and Pixar was Iger’s most pressing task once he took over. Iger knew that in order to save Disney, he needed to fix their relationship. Jobs offered 10% of profits if they relinquished the sequel rights to all Disney-Pixar collaborations. This offer wasn’t ideal. Then Iger had an idea: What if Disney purchased Pixar?

He called Jobs to discuss the idea, telling Jobs he wanted to meet to discuss a “Crazy idea”. Jobs loved crazy ideas and wanted to hear it immediately. After Iger told him, Jobs paused before stating: “You know, that’s not such a crazy idea”. In early 2006, a deal was struck. The results include many favorites such as The Incredibles, Toy Story 3 and 4, and many more beloved family films. Again, Iger went with his intuition and presented a solution that worked, even if it was a bit unexpected.

Be inspired - but also do your homework.

After acquiring Pixar, Iger had another company he was interested in purchasing: Marvel. After doing his research, he knew he had a problem: the chief shareholder was ex-miliary, reclusive, and a notoriously tough sell. He had Jobs personally vouch for him, and successfully made the deal. Many people were perplexed by his choice, especially since the deal didn’t include any of Marvel’s most popular characters. However. Iger had done his research again. Marvel had many stories that were engaging enough to create good movies. As a result of this deal, movies like The Black Panther and Avengers Endgame were created. The Black Panther also landed Disney in an important discussion about race and prejudice, with Oprah stating, “it makes me tear up thinking that little black children will grow up with that forever”. Iger was inspired to take over Marvel, he got the chief shareholder on his side, and knew Marvel had storylines that could create incredible films.

Never stop!

Iger continues to innovate and look for opportunities to grow Disney at every turn. One such avenue was the development of streaming services. Iger just needed to figure out how. Disney bought a stake in BAMTech media, a streaming service that had created a platform for HBO to stream Game of Thrones. In 2018, Disney used BAMTech to launch a streaming service ESPN+, to be followed at the end of 2019 by Disney+, which will host all Disney owned content. Though this means loss of licensing fees, it also means their content will be delivered straight to consumers, negating the necessity of other streaming services or even movie theatres. In March of 2019, Iger pulled off another deal landing Disney a $52 billion merger with 21st Century Fox, and rights to content like X-men and the Fantastic Four.

And on the topic of leadership….

Iger believes one of the most important elements of successful leadership is humility. In order to lead successfully, you MUST ask questions and develop a meaningful understanding of who you’re working with. Nothing makes people roll their eyes faster than a leader who pretends to know what they are talking about. Conviction is also essential: you must have the willingness to make the tough calls once you have enough information to make them. At one point, he describes leadership as being attentive, sitting through meetings, and solving people’s problems.

Iger talks about one leader, in particular, his boss Swanson, who he worked with while he held the vice president position at ABC. Swanson was an excellent leader because he demonstrated optimism, energy, and he was happy to delegate, another important asset for anyone to be successful in business.

He also discusses poor leadership: Ovitz, who managed at Disney, was unskilled. He left meetings to talk on the phone and he didn’t even try to hide his boredom during meetings.

Summary

In The Ride of a Lifetime, Robert Iger chronicles how innovation was the key to his many successes. Through his story from his humble beginnings at ABC’s Small Production Services Department to being offered the job of CEO at Disney and rebuilding the company, he demonstrates how innovation, risk-taking, quality leadership, and a few other things can lead to massive success. Learn about how curiosity is important, but fear can also play an important role in success, or how you never know when you’ll get your lucky break. Discover how making the right decision at “inflection points” can make or break your career… or how taking a chance and having the conviction to follow it through can be career-changing. Read about how poor corporate culture can kill innovation (and the morale of its employees)... and many more important lessons from Disney’s current CEO.

About the Author

Robert Iger is an American media executive, film producer, author, and businessman. He is Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company. He previously served as president of ABC television from 1994-1995 and as President/COO of Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. from 1995 to 1996, when Disney acquired the company. Iger has worked to broaden Disney’s roster of intellectual properties and presence in international markets. He oversaw the acquisitions of Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion dollars and Marvel Entertainment in 2009 for $4billion, Lucasfilm in 2012 for 4.06 billion, and 21st Century Fox in 2019 for $71.3 billion. During his tenure, the company has expanded its theme park resorts in East Asia, launching the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort and the Shanghai Disney Resort in 2005 and 2016, respectfully. Iger oversaw increasing market capitalization from 48.4 billion to 257 billion over a period of thirteen years. In April of 2019, he announced plans to step down as CEO in 2021. He attended Ithaca College, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television and Radio.

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