Our first discussion group explored Robert Iger’s upbeat memoir of a long and successful career in leadership. Peering over this shoulder for anecdotes on Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch is entertaining – plus there are great lessons for managers.
Our book for April, The Ride of a Lifetime by Disney CEO Robert Iger, was published in 2019 and has been a major best-seller.
I picked it for a few reasons: it tells the story of a man’s career, so it has a strong protagonist; it’s about a company we all know, Disney; and it’s easy to read. For our Book Club, it’s a good place to start.
Another reason I picked this book is because it comes highly recommended by Bill Gates. I admire Gates: he’s smart, he’s well read and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I was curious: what did Gates like so much about this book?
Below, I’ll review the book – and at the same time, try to show how we’ll review books in our Club.
What sort of book is this?
Robert Iger’s The Ride of a Lifetime is a memoir of a career that began in 1974 and tells the story of his uninterrupted career of 47 years, starting at ABC, which was acquired by Capital Cities to be Cap Cities, and which was then acquired by Disney.
Iger is currently the CEO of Disney and will serve in that role for another year. That’s important, because he’s not writing a tell-all memoir (and I would guess, by temperament, he probably never will), nor is he trying to justify his actions or settle any scores. As the current CEO, he must be mindful of shareholders and other stakeholders. In a few places, I suspect that Iger is bound by confidentiality agreements and cannot tell the full story (such as the departure of Jon Lassiter). So while this is a memoir, let us not confuse it for a candid and full account.
At 236 pages, the book reads briskly. It’s also a fun read: tales about Steve Jobs, George Lucas, Warren Buffett and Rupert Murdoch are entertaining. Not many of us have gone through a CEO selection process, nor have we been in board meetings, or negotiated several billion–dollar deals. It’s fun to look over Iger’s shoulder and hear his recollections, even if we’re getting a simplified account.
Iger also makes an effort at several junctures to distil lessons for managers. He is aware of his role as a manager, and also aware of his audience, most of whom do not work in entertainment or media, and he cares about the applicability of his experiences to others.
Exploring “creative leadership”
The copy I bought is titled: The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons in Creative Leadership from the CEO of the Walt Disney Company. The US version has a slightly different title: The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company.
The difference is subtle but important, as it suggests that Iger’s book is about “creative leadership” or leading a company in a “creative” industry, and that he will offer some insights into creativity.
In fact, most examples of creativity come from other people. Roone Arledge, (pp.15-17) was an innovator in sports broadcasting; David Lynch (pp.39-41) made one of the most original television programs with Twin Peaks; Michael Eisner (pp.80-82) had a sharp eye for detail when it came to creating the guest experience at theme parks; and John Lassiter and Ed Catmull at Pixar (pp.138-140) were brilliant at story–telling and computer animation. Iger mentions each of these, and their special gifts for creativity.
As for Iger? He is a corporate executive, whose contribution has been to recognize, nurture, and protect the creativity of others. He had the sense to give them the resources to succeed and make sure that others did not interfere. That’s important, but is not to be confused with being creative. Lessons about creativity, from inspiration to execution, are largely absent.
The structure and overview
Iger’s book is structured in two parts: Learning and Leading.
Learning follows his career from his early days at the US television network ABC to the acquisition by Capital Cities and the subsequent acquisition of Cap Cities/ABC by Disney, and moves then to Iger’s years under Michael Eisner, Disney’s CEO. The most compelling anecdotes are about the importance of decency, of taking responsibility, and of being patient; when others left or counselled him to depart, he stayed on and was rewarded. Iger took the long view, and it served him well.
Iger is very good at recognizing what I will call dilemmas of management. Whereas problems may lend themselves to a neat solution, dilemmas involve trade-offs and do not offer easy answers. Examples include: How to set high standards for excellence, but not intimidate people or make them feel inadequate; How to focus on details and insist on thoroughness, but not micromanage.
Iger recognizes that navigating these dilemmas is a central aspect of effective leadership.
Leading covers Iger’s years as CEO at Disney, is organized as a series of acquisitions (Chapter 9 on Pixar, Chapter 10 on Marvel, Chapter 11 on Star Wars, Chapter 12 on 20th Century Fox; I was beginning to think the book could have been called The Art of the Deal). In each case, Iger describes himself as having an audacious goal, taking a personal role in courting a reluctant seller, promising that the newly acquired company will be respected and protected, and pulling off a coup that makes everyone better off. Iger also talks about a deal that was not made: for Twitter.
On the plus side, Iger did pull off a series of dramatic acquisitions, and by all accounts has managed them well. But we should also ask some questions. In every moment that Disney faced a make–or–buy decision – whether about content or, later, distribution platforms (with BAMTech) – the choice taken was to buy. Was there either a failure to see the need to develop these capabilities, or an inability to do so? Growth through acquisitions should not be the main lesson for strategic success.
While it worked out for Disney, as a rule, acquisitions don’t turn out well. More on nurturing organic growth would have been welcome. We also are given very little sense of how Disney could afford it all – what balance sheet, what capital structure, what investors allowed? There’s not much here.
One chapter I particularly liked was Chapter 8, “The Power of Respect”, the one describing the period when he took over at Disney. Among Iger’s first actions were to reach out to Roy Disney, nephew of Walt and a disgruntled shareholder, and to Steve Jobs. He also began to dismantle the central Strat Planning department.
The first two are examples of personal touch, empathy, and an understanding of feelings. It took relatively little to smooth the hurt feelings of Roy Disney – but first there was a need for empathy and sensitivity, which Iger had. Jobs, too, was a potentially prickly relationship that Iger handled deftly. As for the dismantling of Strat Planning, by doing this he not only decentralized decision making and gave local experts more of a say, but he also used this action as a way to shift the power center of the company.
Where Iger holds back
I would have liked a deeper discussion in a few places, for example when Iger broaches some important topics in the management of large companies, but offers the briefest of mentions only.
With the advent of Disney+ and streaming, Disney underwent a shift. Iger noted (on p.196) that the existing reward system, which evaluated each executive on his or her own division, was no longer adequate. Now they needed to think of the company as a whole, as an integrated set of content and distribution. Iger wanted to shift to a different approach, with rewards granted by him based on other criteria. This is very interesting and speaks to a challenge facing many companies, and it would have been good to know more. What did he implement? How has it worked? Where did we face resistance?
Later on, Iger described (p.210) a moment in which, having made so many acquisitions, he stands back from a white board and re-envisions the company, with various types of content on one side, distribution technologies on the other, and physical assets – parks and more – in the middle. This, he said, was the modern media company. This crucial discussion touched on how to organize and orchestrate such a complex company; it deserved more than two paragraphs.
What can we learn from Iger?
Robert Iger devoted the book’s final chapter to listing and distilling several lessons. Any time I see such a long list, I ask whether the many items can logically be grouped under a few headings.
Iger’s list could fall into two: personal behavior and strategic action.
Under personal behavior, the lessons cover: respect, integrity, decency, fairness, taking responsibility, and not compromising on values. All well and good, and surely admirable. Yet we can ask: Did these things drive success? Or are they what we say about leaders who are successful?
As for strategic action, these lessons involve a willingness to take big bets, to act boldly, and to stress innovation. Here we can ask whether these are meant to apply to all companies, in all industries, at all times, or whether there is something about media and entertainment, with its reliance on rapidly changing technology, and its blockbuster economics, that requires such an approach.
In sum, this is a readable, brisk, upbeat book by a man reaching the last year of a long and successful career. The personalities and deals make for fun reading, and lessons for managers will be an inspiration to many.