From a small job in production services to becoming the CEO of Disney, Robert Iger has had quite the ride. Excerpts from his life experiences are valuable gems of vision, strategy, and leadership lessons for everyone.
The Ride Of A Lifetime (2019) describes how Robert Iger saved Disney from the troubled waters it was in, to make it the stupendous success it is today. Iger’s leadership journey shows the importance of taking chances and going with your gut feeling, and that one cannot move ahead without innovation and reinventing oneself.
The Early Years
Iger came from humble beginnings. While Iger’s mother was a home-maker, his father was an ad-man and had served in World War II in the US Navy. Being, cleaver and gifted, he helped nurture curiosity in his son. Iger attributes his successes to the traits he inherited from his father.
Unfortunately, Iger’s father was diagnosed with manic depression triggered by self-doubt. Years later, when Iger became Disney’s CEO, he took his father to lunch thanking him for all that his father had done, and how grateful he and his mother were to him, in hopes that he would help his father come out of the belief that he had never achieved anything worthwhile.
Iger’s foray into the entertainment industry was a matter of luck. His uncle Bob, while recovering from a surgery in 1974, had shared a room with a small-time executive from ABC – the American Broadcasting Company. Bob mentioned to him that his nephew Robert was in search of a job.
“True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.”
― Robert Iger
The executive got Iger an interview at ABC. Iger got hired at $150/week for a job that required him to be whenever he was needed. That included odd working hours and running errands. He soon got assigned on Frank Sinatra’s The Main Event, a TV concert in New York, where the singer tipped him handsomely. The job offered similar perks and one day, impressed by Iger’s can-do attitude, he was hired at ABC Sports – the company’s most successful division – by an operations supervisor.
At ABC Sports, Iger was exposed to a completely different work environment. Tailored suits, executive lunches at New York’s best restaurants, and opportunities to mingle with athletes and celebrities taught him a lot about lifestyle.
It was in ABC Sports that Iger learned a lot from Roone Arledge, who pioneered new techniques in filming such as slow-motion replays and reverse-angle cameras. Iger got one of his life’s most important lessons from Arledge –staying a step ahead of the curve was the only way to survive in business!
With hard work and smart work, Iger became the VP of ABC Sports at the young age of 34. However, his promotion coincided with Capital Cities Communication buying ABC network for $3.5 billion. Promotions surrounding a shaking event became a recurring pattern throughout Iger’s career.
Smart Decisions And Trusting The Gut-Feeling
Every individual comes to a point in life where they have to make decisions that will radically change the future. It is in these times where a person has to, at times, trust their gut feeling and make smart decisions. It is also during such times where one should heed advice that other experienced people give. Iger’s career at ABC after the Cap Cities takeover is proof.
After the takeover, decisions surrounding expenses led to the stripping away of the expensive perks that the employees at ABC enjoyed. The limos and the first-class flights disappeared and spending accounts shrunk. While these new rules didn’t bother him much, Iger was more bothered by the fact that Dennis Swanson – an outsider, executive was hired to head his department. Iger decided to quit. However, Dan Burke (the then president of ABC) convinced him to stay on.
Swanson proved to be an excellent boss. His amicable, optimistic, and energetic nature was perfect for Iger to thrive in. Swanson preferred delegation of work and allowed the senior executives to lead projects as long as the budgets were adhered to.
Iger’s highpoint was the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, where he was in charge of the coverage of the event for ABC Sports. Unfortunately, after the first few days of smooth sailing, the Chinook warm winds raised the temperatures and melted the snow and ice on the ski slopes and bobsleigh runs.
Cancellation of the Olympics could have spelled disaster for the channel without Iger’s improvisation strategy. His team began broadcasting stories of human interest, and America was exposed to different stories of human triumph like that of the eccentric British ski jumper Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards and about the Jamaican bobsleigh team. His smart decision of improvisation earned the network high ratings throughout the event and Iger the presidency of ABC’s entertainment division.
Taking Chances And Learning From Others Errors
As the new President of ABC in Hollywood, Iger had more than just shaking off his reputation (as bothersome New York suit in the eyes of his creative team) on his plate. He needed to find the channel a hit that would give them an edge over their closest rival NBC.
Iger commissioned David Lynch’s Twin Peaks to run on prime time, despite warnings from the creative executives. It was a tough decision, but Iger stood didn’t budge. He took the chance with the left-field murder mystery. The pilot episode saw 35 million viewers! Twin Peaks became one of the channel’s most successful shows after years.
It’s another thing that the show’s popularity meandered, as did its plot. However, it was the risk and gamble that focussed the light on Iger. Soon the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were calling Iger about future projects, cementing Iger’s reputation, making it his career-defining moment.
As a leader, Iger knew that there are moments where he would need to take a chance and risk a little to succeed. He realized that the channel needed a bold move to shake out of its lull. His boldness won him a promotion to COO, Chief Operating Officer of ABC.
“You must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul.” — Gusteau, Ratatouille
Disney, Pixar, And The Makings Of A Visionary
A mere six months after Iger’s promotion, ABC and Disney struck a merger deal in Jan 1996. Despite a successful run in the late ’80s with The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, the Disney theme park and resorts, by the mid-’90s, Disney was in trouble with a bunch of expensive failures and a demotivated creative animation team. They needed a breakthrough.
During the merger, Eisner insisted that Iger get a new five-year contract, putting him in charge of the Disney media division. Though it was a prestigious designation, Iger considers it as the most unproductive years in his career.
Accustomed to ABC’s decentralized culture of freedom within limitations, the absolute top-down hierarchy in Disney was uncomfortable. The other problem was Michael Ovitz, the founder of the Hollywood talent agency CAA. While Ovitz was a gifted agent, he had poor managerial skills. Ovitz’s negative behavior in the boardroom was a very important, instructive, and eye-opening leadership lesson for Iger. He learned what kind of manager he simply would not become.
Robert Iger understood that learning opportunities present themselves in many ways and come from anywhere. Here, while he learned not to make the same leadership errors Ovitz did, he also understood that learning could also come from people one does not approve of.
In 1999, Iger was fed-up with the corporate structure at Disney and was planning to quit. Eisner arranged a meeting with Iger; a meeting Iger was sure he was going to be fired in. However, contrary to his expectation, Eisner was promoting him to COO – the number-two position after Eisner in Disney and a position on the board of directors due to Iger’s consistency in work.
Iger’s move to the number one position, however, happened sooner. Disney was struggling to keep up with the changing face of media and the entertainment world. The only silver lining saving grace was Disney’s partnership with Apple’s Steve Jobs – then the CEO of Pixar Animation Studios.
However, it was a relationship that soon soured due to differences between Jobs and Eisner over a five-movie co-production, marketing, and distribution agreement. The issue arose during the development of Toy Story 2. While Jobs counted Toy Story 2 as part of the five-movie agreement, Eisner did not on the basis of the fact that it was a sequel.
As tensions between the two mounted, the 9/11 attacks caused the markets to crash, forcing Disney’s largest shareholders, the Bass family, to let go of their 135 million Disney shares. Simultaneously, the market crash began to show its effects on tourism affecting the theme park revenue.
That put Disney in a crisis and led to Eisner making panicked decisions. In a bid to make the most of the Pixar contract, Eisner refused to budge and compromise with Steve Jobs. It led to a public announcement from Jobs that he would never work with Disney again. A few weeks later, Eisner lost the support of 43% of the shareholders, making their decisions quite clear.
Iger, being second to Eisner was not in a favorable position to be in just when Eisner was ousted by the shareholders. Iger’s job became tough. He had to convince his harshest critics of his abilities. While the others were discussing bringing in a ‘change agent’, Iger consulted an old contact from ABC, a political consultant, and brand manager Scott Miller.
Miller advised Iger to devise a road map of where the company stands, where Iger would like to take it, and how he wanted to do that as CEO. This led to Iger drafting out a strategy that would eventually help frame the decision-making for the board. He drafted a three-point strategy.
Firstly, he wanted to prioritize creating memorable characters and movies. In a world where people get an array of choices in entertainment, churning out great branded content was the solution to getting viewers to prioritize spending their time and money on what Disney had to offer.
Secondly, Iger planned on investing in cutting-edge technology. He wanted to integrate tech in every aspect from production to distribution, making Disney content available in a user-friendly, digital, and mobile manner.
Finally, he planned to make Disney truly global. That meant, tapping into markets such as India and China, and creating region relevant content. This would help expand the creative horizons. He knew that continuously making content that caters to the same consumer leads to stagnation.
Armoured with the new strategy, Robert Iger managed to persuade the board of directors and took over as the CEO of Disney in March 2005.
The Way Ahead
One of the first things that Bob Iger did as soon as he became the CEO was to call Steve Jobs and repair the relations with Pixar. However, Jobs’s demeanor was as frosty as the deal he offered – to give Disney only a 10% stake in Pixar in exchange for sequel rights of all Disney-Pixar movies.
While the deal was absolutely unacceptable, Iger had other plans in mind. He wanted to buy out Pixar. Valued at $6 billion the board members were not in line with the idea. Nevertheless, Iger opined that this was the only way forward.
At the same time, during the launch of Disneyland in Hong Kong, Iger saw that while there were older Disney characters like The Little Mermaid and Lion King, and Disney-Pixar ones like Toy Story and Finding Nemo represented on floats, Disney characters from the nineties were missing from the picture.
This disparity was visible in the numbers as well. While Disney lost $400 million during that decade, Pixar was raking in successes due to Ed Catmull and John Lasseter’s pioneering technology and creative content. Iger knew that for Disney’s animation studio to be revived, he needed their expertise.
Iger approached Jobs about his views on buying out Pixar and expected to be laughed at. Instead, Jobs thought the idea held credibility and by 2006, Disney brought Pixar with the guarantee of Lasseter and Catmull’s creative independence, in return for the technological know-how Pixar had. It was the way ahead for the reinvention of the Disney animation studios and the foundation for some of Disney-Pixar’s highest-grossing family movies including The Incredibles, and Ratatouille.
Iger’s vision for Disney was of growth and expansion. While Pixar was his first step in acquiring advanced technology and creative know-how, he knew Disney needed the next big adventure.
Iger turned his sights on Marvel. He knew that Marvel was sitting on a treasure trove that would fit the TV, movies, theme park, and merchandize divisions like a glove. However, the controlling shareholder in Marvel, Ike Perlmutter was a tough nut to crack. Iger approached Steve Jobs for help and Disney bought Marvel in 2009 for $4billion, when Steve Jobs convinced Perlmutter of Iger’s integrity.
The deal itself was surprising, as it didn’t cover some of Marvel’s well-known superheroes like Spiderman (owned by Columbia Pictures) or Incredible Hulk and X-Men (owned by Fox). Yet it was Iger’s belief that Marvel had enough comics to explore. The over $2 billion box office receipt success of Disney’s Avengers: Endgame is proof enough. It was Iger’s far-sighted decision-making that turned (what many thought to be) a not-so-lucrative deal, into a massive success!
Today, Disney is changing the cultural face of entertainment. The release of Black Panther in 2018, gave the world an African Superhero and grossed more than a billion at the box office. It resonated culturally with the world. Oprah Winfrey said, “It makes me tear up to think that little black children will grow up with that forever.”
It is the mind of a visionary and bold leader that can help break cultural barriers, and create a landmark moment in the entertainment world.
It’s kind of fun to do the impossible. – Walt Disney
Iger’s Love For Innovation
Iger learned the importance of innovation from ABC’s Roone Arledge – a lesson that guided him when he became the CEO of Disney in 2006. With media content changing rapidly and the introduction of platforms and streaming services, Iger knew that to innovate and stay in business, Disney would have to either make a platform or buy one.
Iger knew that creating a platform would take years and massive investment. Therefore buying was the only alternative left, and albeit an expensive one, it would enable Disney to venture into the platform markets immediately.
Therefore in 2016 August, Disney bought BAMTech Media, a baseball streaming company that had custom-designed the platform for HBO to stream 5 seasons of The Game Of Thrones. What began as a 33% stake has expanded to today’s 75% stake in the company. Iger’s thirst for innovation saw Disney’s own global sports streaming service ESPN+ in 2018 and Disney+ in 2019, Disney’s own on-demand, all Disney-owned, streaming service.
While it seems like a big risk to pull-out Disney’s TV shows and movies and thereby risking hundreds of millions of dollars in annual licensing fees from streaming services such as Netflix, it is a long-term plan for innovation and reinvention of Disney, by doing away with intermediaries such as distributors and movie theatres.
Iger’s vision for Disney’s future profitability and cultural reassurance was sealed with the 21st Century Fox merger deal in March 2019. Disney now owns the rights to all the content of Pixar and Marvel, Fox’s most lucrative X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises, as well as the distribution rights to the famed Star Wars series!
For Iger and Disney, the future of entertainment is waiting with arms wide-open!