Lessons from the Top: Bob Iger

Renowned for turning Disney around and building them into the media giant they are today, Bob Iger was the CEO at the House of Mouse for 15 years from 2005. Recently, he penned a book detailing his career and the lessons he learnt. If anyone is highly qualified to share leadership tips, its Iger. We highlight his best pointers in this article.

It’s an impressive business that’s grown from the gradual declines of the early 2000s filed with box office flops. Now an industry leader, they’ve incorporated Pixar, Lucasfilm and parts of Fox into their corporate empire and are reaping the rewards in the direct-to-consumer era as their recent Q4 figures reported a 25% increase in Disney+ subscribers compared to Q3.

In late 2019, Iger authored The Ride of a Lifetime, a book looking back at his career and highlighting the several key lessons from leading Disney. Iger’s career started in ABC in their sports division, remaining in the wider business up until 1999, moving on as ABC’s President to a similar role leading Disney’s international business, after the company had purchased Capital Cities/ABC in 1995.

With many large corporates, politics can play a large part in career trajectory and Iger found this at its most intense during the CEO succession process to replace Michael Eisner as Disney’s CEO in 2005. Getting shortlisted for the CEO role was difficult enough. The board of directors saw Iger as a loyalist to Eisner’s leadership and with the business struggling in the early 2000s with several movie flops, many board members were against the notion having the same vein of leadership. Iger was fortunate to receive advice from a political strategist Scott Miller, who positioned him as a change agent rather than a continuation. That transformation of opinion led to enough board members opting for Iger as the next CEO. Becoming the leader of Disney from 2005 onwards, the business has grown rapidly, acquired a range of movie brands (Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars) and successfully made the Direct to Consumer switch with Disney+.

What are Iger’s best tips for industry leaders? He has plenty from his 45-year career already:

  • Talent is crucial – Disney is all about telling stories and its built around its highly successful franchises. Without the best talent, they’ll struggle to translate it across all their mediums (content, parks, resorts, cruises etc.)
  • Innovate or die – We’re in a hyper-competitive economy and businesses need to generate new ideas to outcompete (and outlast) their competitors. Don’t fear the new, investigate it and if it looks positive, take a big swing.
  • Pursue perfection – It’s quite a bold statement, but Iger admits that perfection is not worthwhile at any cost. This is much more about refuse to accept mediocre work, instilling this into the business and its staff.
  • Don’t let ambition get ahead of opportunity – This is a big one that Iger is keen to stress. While clear goals are certainly a great thing to have, remaining realistic in the present is crucial. You are far more productive focusing on the responsibilities you have rather than responsibilities you hope to have.
  • Decency and feedback – Understanding people’s problems and treating everyone fairly would be something you would hope everyone follows all the time. Take responsibility for both the successes and mistakes. The latter cannot be avoided, but investing a culture of openness can plant the seed for colleagues supporting each other and providing useful feedback. And on that topic, don’t start negative and with small details for feedback, it’s a sure sign of hiding a larger concern.
  • Leadership behaviour, respect and morale – All employees will look to the CEO to understand where the company is heading. Put in the hard work, support colleagues and maintain an optimistic view are key drivers in keeping morale high. Equally, approach disagreements from an open and turn them into discussions. No one wants to see leadership teams’ infighting and the respect within the wider company suffers.

We’ve chosen to highlight just a few of Bob Iger’s key leadership principles and there’s far more than we can mention in one article. The Ride of a Lifetime is an interesting read and provides a lot of context for his approach to leadership.

In our next article on leadership, we’ll be taking a look at Netflix and their culture. It’s world-renowned and incorporates a few surprising elements. But its in stark contrast to the Disney approach.