(Forbes) “I believe Bob Iger is one of the greatest business leaders of our time,” Oprah Winfrey said on her Super Soul Conversations podcast, as she segued into her interview with the Chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company for the past 15 years. It’s hard to ask for a more laudatory introduction, especially from Oprah Winfrey, but she was just getting started. She began the interview stating if Bob Iger ran for president, she would be canvasing in Iowa. She said she could picture herself standing on someone’s doorstep in Brooklyn, and when they opened the door and asked why she was here, Winfrey says, “Let me tell you about my friend, Bob!” Winfrey’s affection for Iger stems in large part from his values, “His decency prevails in all decision making,” the mogul tweeted. Iger was sitting down with Winfrey to promote his new book, The Ride of A Lifetime: Lessons Learned From 15 Years As CEO Of The Walt Disney Company, where he writes about his journey to CEO, and what he has learned along the way.
The book chronicles Iger’s 46-year career at ABC and Disney, where he started as a studio manager at ABC, “The position paid $150 per week and was about as low as you could go on the ABC ladder,” he writes, and ascended to CEO of Disney. He is widely credited with revitalizing the company and securing its place as an entertainment leader in the 21st century. The book is a textbook in bold and moral leadership, where Iger discusses everything from his negotiations of major acquisitions to managing the egos and the politics of executives in a major company. Iger wrote the book because he is asked, like many leaders, the secrets to his success, and he wanted to, “write them down before I forget them,” he told Winfrey. The proceeds from the book will be donated to a foundation Iger is founding with his wife, Dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication Journalism, Willow Bay, dedicated to expanding diversity in journalism.
Here are five of the career lessons Iger imparts in his book:
Have A Relentless Pursuit Of Perfection
Iger saw a job posting at ABC Sports, applied and got it. He worked his way up the ABC ladder working for ABC Wide World Of Sports. His boss, the head of ABC Sports Roone Arledge, was a legend and a major influence on Iger. Iger writes how nothing was beneath Roone, and his attention to detail produced spectacular television events, even if it meant people worked through the night to complete his critiques. “His mantra was simple: ‘Do what you need to do to make it better.’” Iger refers to it as, “the relentless pursuit of perfection.” He elaborates,
“In practice that means a lot of things, it’s hard to define. It’s a mindset, really, more than a specific set of rules. It’s not, at least as I have internalized it, about perfectionism at all costs (something Roone wasn’t especially concerned about). Instead, it’s about creating an environment in which you refuse to accept mediocrity. You instinctively push back against the urge to say There’s not enough time, or I don’t have the energy, or that requires a conversation I don’t want to have, or any of the many other ways we can convince ourselves that ‘good enough’ is good enough.”
Iger knew several industries that affected Disney were being disrupted. One board retreat, Iger asked each of his business leaders to present the disruption in their respective businesses to the board and the impact they predicted it would have on their industries. Iger also asked they present solutions. “I knew the board would demand solutions, and, as a general rule, I don’t like to lay out problems without offering a plan for addressing them. (This is something I exhort my team to do, too—it’s okay to come to me with problems, but also offer me possible solutions.)”
No One Wants To Follow a Pessimist
One of the many effects of the September 11th attacks was a global decline in tourism, and Iger says the impact on Disney’s business was devastating. It also was the beginning of a period of controversy and conflict for his predecessor, Michael Eisner, and Disney, and Eisner struggled to handle the downturn well. Iger describes how when Eisner would succumb to the stress, he would spiral into paranoia and project a sense of doom that permeated throughout the company. He would call Iger and say, “The sky is falling,” and Iger writes that it was ruinous to morale. “No one could have handles the stress that Michael was under perfectly, but optimism in a leaders, especially in challenging times, is so vital,” writes Iger. “Pessimism leads to paranoia, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to risk aversion.” Iger’s argument for optimism is as follows,
“Optimism sets a different machine in motion. Especially in difficult moments, the people you lead need to feel confident in your ability to focus on what matters, ad not to operate from a place of defensiveness and self-preservation. This isn’t about saying things are good when they’re not, and it’s not about conveying some innate faith that, “things will work out.” It’s about believing you and the people around you can steer toward the best outcome, and not communicating the feeling that all is lost if things don’t break your way. The tone you set as a leader has an enormous effect on the people around you. No one wants to follow a pessimist.”
Don’t Let Your Ego Get In The Way
Iger dedicates a solid portion of his book to ego: how he manages his own and how he manages others. Iger dealt with his fair share of slights and wounds as he climbed the ladder at ABC and Disney, ranging from harassment to Eisner bringing in Michael Ovitz to be his number two over Iger (Ovitz famously failed and sailed away with a $140 million severance package).
When Iger was a candidate for CEO, his reputation was tarnished by his association with Eisner (he was then his number two), yet was often kept at arm’s length and boxed out of decisions (a symptom of Eisner’s paranoia). But he was held accountable for in his interviews with the board, when he was never given the respect to be a part of them. Many argued it was time for an outsider, and said that Iger would be more of the same. Iger endured a very hostile, grueling interview process, and a great deal of publicly expressed doubt. He writes,
“It’s easy to get caught up in rumor mills, to worry about this person’s perception of you or that person’s, what someone might say or write about you. It’s easy to become defensive and petty and to want to lash out when you feel you’re being unfairly misrepresented…As much as this process was a test of my ideas, it was also a test of my temperament, and I couldn’t let the negativity being expressed by people who knew little about me affect the way I felt about myself.”
The doubt didn’t vanish once Iger got the job, and one of his first priorities was salvaging the company’s relationship with Roy Disney. Roy Disney spearheaded the campaign to fire Eisner as CEO, and was unhappy with Iger’s subsequent appointment. Before Iger could reach out, Disney and former board member Stanley Gold sued the company board for what they called a “fraudulent succession process.” Iger was frustrated after suffering such a grueling, and at times humiliating interview process, that he yet again was forced to prove his legitimacy as CEO. Iger called Gold himself and asked to talk, and it was determined that Roy Disney needed to be brought back into the fold; but in a very specific and limited capacity that honored his family relationship without insulting him. Iger says,
“The drama with Roy reinforced something that tends not to get enough attention when people talk about success in business, which is: Don’t let your ego get in the way of making the best possible decision. I was stung when Roy and Stanley sued the board for choosing me as CEO, and I certainly could have gone to battle with them and prevailed, but it all would have come at a huge cost to the company and been a giant distraction from what really mattered.”
Iger’s wife, Willow Bay, reminded him shortly after he was awarded CEO that, “The average tenure for a Fortune 500 CEO is less than four years,” as a light-hearted way to say, “temper your expectations.” She said it again when he told her he thought Disney should buy Pixar, in spite of a great deal of doubt Steve Jobs would sell it to him. “’Be Bold’ was the essence of her advice,” Iger writes. Iger not only went on to buy Pixar, but he made a series of mega-acquisitions: Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and 21st Century Fox that positioned Disney to compete with tech titans like Netflix and Amazon. Iger writes,
“People sometimes shy away from taking big swings because they assess the odds and build a case against trying something before they even take the first step. One of the things I’ve always instinctively felt—and something that was greatly reinforced working for people like Roone and Michael—is that long shots aren’t usually as long as they seem. Roone and Michael both believed in their own power and in the ability of their organizations to make things happen—that with enough energy and thoughtfulness and commitment, even the boldest ideas could be executed.”