Book Summary: The Ride of a Lifetime by Bob Iger
CEO autobiographies are often stuffy. They tilt toward self-grandeur, empty platitudes, and stiff writing.
Many of these books are popular only because people want to signal they’ve read them.
So I was surprised how much I liked The Ride of a Lifetime, Iger’s recounting of his life and career, from his beginnings as a studio supervisor at ABC up to his reign as CEO at Disney, which continues today.
The tone and writing are accessible—not pretentious—which in line with Iger’s personal brand and leadership style.
In the book, Iger:
Shares valuable lessons on leading from humility
Offers insight on the difficulty, strategy, and importance of taking big risks
Provides interesting details on the personalities and strategies involved in acquiring and integrating Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars
One lesson that runs through the entire book: all business is personal.
Realizing this truth and addressing it makes taking big risks easier—and reduces the chances of those risks going badly.
What follows are my Kindle highlights from the book: the passages I found to be the most interesting, useful, and surprising.
And I mix in some commentary. (No extra charge.)
Part One: Learning
Chapter 1: Starting at the Bottom
In this chapter, Iger talks about the early days of his career, and what he learned from his mentors, including ABC Sports and News legend Roone Arlidge.
His [Arlidge’s] mantra was simple: “Do what you need to do to make it better.” Of all the things I learned from Roone, this is what shaped me the most.
On the pursuit of perfection—and not being paralyzed by it:
Jiro Ono, whose restaurant has three Michelin stars and is one of the most sought-after reservations in the world.
He is described by some as being the living embodiment of the Japanese word shokunin, which is “the endless pursuit of perfection for some greater good.”
It’s a delicate thing, finding the balance between demanding that your people perform and not instilling a fear of failure in them.
In your work, in your life, you’ll be more respected and trusted by the people around you if you honestly own up to your mistakes.
For all of his immense talent and success, Roone was insecure at heart, and the way he defended against his own insecurity was to foster it in the people around him.
Chapter 2: Betting on Talent
Chapter two covers ABC’s acquisition by Cap Cities and lessons learned from the executives who lead the company.
… it was also a function of the culture that Tom and Dan created. They were two of the most authentic people I’ve ever met, genuinely themselves at all times. No airs, no big egos that needed to be managed, no false sincerity. They comported themselves with the same honesty and forthrightness no matter who they were talking to. They were shrewd businesspeople (Warren Buffett later called them “probably the greatest two-person combination in management that the world has ever seen or maybe ever will see”), but it was more than that. I learned from them that genuine decency and professional competitiveness weren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, true integrity—a sense of knowing who you are and being guided by your own clear sense of right and wrong—is a kind of secret weapon. They trusted in their own instincts, they treated people with respect, and over time the company came to represent the values they lived by.”
Iger on Roone Arlidge’s storytelling instincts:
We were scheduled to air a three-hour Olympics preview the night before the opening ceremonies, and for weeks I’d been trying to get Roone to focus on it. He finally watched it after arriving in Calgary, the night before it was scheduled to air. “It’s all wrong,” he said. “There’s no excitement. No tension.” A team of people worked through the night to execute all of his changes in time to get it on the air. He was right, of course.
When warm weather wreaked havoc on the Calgary Olympics, causing numerous event cancellations, Iger recalls his mindset:
Things were dire, for sure, but I needed to look at the situation not as a catastrophe but as a puzzle we needed to solve, and to communicate to our team that we were talented and nimble enough to solve these problems and make something wonderful on the fly.
Chapter 3: Know What You Don’t Know (and Trust in What You Do)
Chapter three focuses on working with creative people—guiding them to get the best from them without destroying their initiative and creative drive.
True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.
When I am asked to provide insights and offer critiques, I’m exceedingly mindful of how much the creators have poured themselves into the project and how much is at stake for them.
I never start out negatively, and unless we’re in the late stages of a production, I never start small. I’ve found that often people will focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts.
The first time I sat down with Ryan Coogler to give him notes on Black Panther, I could see how visibly anxious he was. He’d never made a film as big as Black Panther, with a massive budget and so much pressure on it to do well. I took pains to say very clearly, “You’ve created a very special film. I have some specific notes, but before I give them to you, I want you to know we have tremendous faith in you.”
Empathy is a prerequisite to the sound management of creativity, and respect is critical.
Of all the lessons I learned in that first year running prime time, the need to be comfortable with failure was the most profound. Not with lack of effort but with the unavoidable truth that if you want innovation—and you should, always—you need to give permission to fail.
Chapter 4: Enter Disney
Chapter four covers Disney’s acquisition of Cap Cities / ABC, and Iger’s move into a larger role, with the challenges of assimilating ABC into a new corporate culture.
Iger discusses the challenge of facing difficult situations head-on, and the fact that Michael Ovitz and Michael Eisner should have known their working relationship would not succeed:
They should both have known that it couldn’t work, but they willfully avoided asking the hard questions because each was somewhat blinded by his own needs.It’s a hard thing to do, especially in the moment, but those instances in which you find yourself hoping that something will work without being able to convincingly explain to yourself how it will work—that’s when a little bell should go off, and you should walk yourself through some clarifying questions. What’s the problem I need to solve? Does this solution make sense? If I’m feeling some doubt, why? Am I doing this for sound reasons or am I motivated by something personal?
On Michael Ovitz’s time management:
Managing your own time and respecting others’ time is one of the most vital things to do as a manager, and he was horrendous at it.”
Chapter 5: Second in Line
Chapter Five covers Iger’s years running ABC under Eisner, as he hoped to ascend to the COO role at Disney.
… good leadership isn’t about being indispensable; it’s about helping others be prepared to possibly step into your shoes—giving them access to your own decision making, identifying the skills they need to develop and helping them improve, and, as I’ve had to do, sometimes being honest with them about why they’re not ready for the next step up.
On motivating Roone Arlidge to create a strong 24-hour ABC News special as the calendar rolled to the year 2000:
It could be impossible to execute, but when has that ever stopped you?
Chapter 6: Good Things Can Happen
This chapter focuses on Disney’s growth while Iger served as chief operating officer under Michael Eisner, as an increasingly hostile board and economic environment robbed Eisner of his power and optimism.
Michael’s biggest stroke of genius, though, might have been his recognition that Disney was sitting on tremendously valuable assets that they hadn’t yet leveraged.
These assets include:
One was the popularity of the parks. If they raised ticket prices even slightly, they would raise revenue significantly … building new hotels at Walt Disney World [and] expansion of theme parks.
Even more promising was the trove of intellectual property—all of those great classic Disney movies—just sitting there waiting to be monetized. They began selling videocassettes of the classic Disney library to parents who’d seen them in the theater when they were young and now could play them at home for their kids. It became a billion-dollar business.
… the Cap Cities/ ABC acquisition in 1995, which gave Disney a big television network, but, most important, brought in ESPN
On Eisner’s leadership style:
What struck me, and what was invaluable in my own education, was his ability to see the big picture as well as the granular details at the same time, and consider how one affected the other.
For his part, he’d say, “Micromanaging is underrated.”
On courage and optimism in leadership:
Of great interest to me was the fact that almost every traditional media company, while trying to figure out its place in this changing world, was operating out of fear rather than courage, stubbornly trying to build a bulwark to protect old models that couldn’t possibly survive the sea change that was under way.
...optimism in a leader, especially in challenging times, is so vital. Pessimism leads to paranoia, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to risk aversion.
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, and 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.
Chapter 7: It’s About The Future
This chapter covers Iger’s battle to become CEO following Eisner’s removal.
THE CHALLENGE FOR me was: How do I convince the Disney board that I was the change they were looking for without criticizing Michael in the process?
Iger spoke to the Disney board, imploring them not to focus on the past issues of the company, but to look to his plan for the future:
“You cannot win on the defensive. It’s only about the future. It’s not about the past.” That may seem obvious, but it came as a revelation to me. I didn’t have to rehash the past. I didn’t have to defend Michael’s decisions. I didn’t have to criticize him for my own benefit. It’s only about the future. Every time a question came up about what had gone wrong at Disney over the past years, what mistakes Michael made, and why they should think I’m any different, my response could simply and honestly be: “I can’t do anything about the past. We can talk about lessons learned, and we can make sure we apply those lessons going forward. But we don’t get any do-overs. You want to know where I’m going to take this company, not where it’s been. Here’s my plan.”
After being named CEO, Iger reflected on shaping culture and setting priorities:
A company’s culture is shaped by a lot of things, but this is one of the most important—you have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly.
You can do a lot for the morale of the people around you (and therefore the people around them) just by taking the guesswork out of their day-to-day life.
… this kind of messaging is fairly simple: This is where we want to be. This is how we’re going to get there. Once those things are laid out simply, so many decisions become easier to make, and the overall anxiety of an entire organization is lowered.
After the meeting with Scott, I quickly landed on three clear strategic priorities. They have guided the company since the moment I was named CEO:
1) We needed to devote most of our time and capital to the creation of high-quality branded content.
2) We needed to embrace technology to the fullest extent, first by using it to enable the creation of higher quality products, and then to reach more consumers in more modern, more relevant ways.
3) We needed to become a truly global company.
Part Two: Leading
Chapter 8: The Power of Respect
Chapter eight discusses Iger’s transition to Disney CEO and the initial challenges he faced: repairing relationships with the board (particularly Roy Disney, who had been campaigning in the press against the company’s direction), repairing the relationship with Pixar and Steve Jobs, and laying the groundwork to transform Disney’s structure and culture.
The truth was, it wasn’t just Michael who was at odds with Roy [Disney]; besides Stanley, not enough people within Disney had given him the respect he felt he deserved, including his long-gone uncle, Walt. I had never had any real connection to Roy, but I detected vulnerability in him now. There was nothing to be gained by making him feel smaller or insulted. He was just someone looking for respect, and getting it had never been especially easy for him. It was so personal, and involved so much pride and ego, and this battle of his had been going on for decades.
All business is personal:
The drama with Roy reinforced something that tends not to get enough attention when people talk about succeeding in business, which is: Don’t let your ego get in the way of making the best possible decision.
If you approach and engage people with respect and empathy, the seemingly impossible can become real.
Chapter 9: Disney-Pixar and a New Path to the Future
In Chapter nine, Iger discusses his growing relationship with Steve Jobs, and the difficult path to acquiring Pixar to transform Disney’s animation group.
THOSE MONTHS SPENT talking with Steve about putting our TV shows on his new iPod began—slowly, tentatively—to open up into discussions of a possible new Disney/ Pixar deal.
“The average tenure for a Fortune 500 CEO is less than four years.” At the time, it was a joke between us [Iger and his wife Willow Bay], to make sure the expectations I set for myself were realistic. Now, though, she said it with a tone that implied I had little to lose by acting fast. “Be bold,” was the essence of her advice.
This was about a week and a half before our announcement about the video iPod, so we spent a couple of minutes talking about that before I said, “Hey, I have another crazy idea. Can I come see you in a day or two to discuss it?” I didn’t yet fully appreciate just how much Steve liked radical ideas. “Tell me now,” he said.
Sometimes opportunity strikes before you are prepared. And you just have to go for it:
While still on the phone, I pulled into my driveway. It was a warm October evening, and I turned the engine off, and the combination of heat and nerves caused me to break out in a sweat. I reminded myself of Willow’s advice—be bold. Steve would likely say no immediately.
“What do you think about the idea of Disney buying Pixar?” I waited for him to hang up or to erupt in laughter.
Instead, he said, “You know, that’s not the craziest idea in the world.”
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.
A couple of weeks after that call in my driveway, he [Steve Jobs] and I met in Apple’s boardroom in Cupertino, California.
He stood with marker in hand and scrawled PROS on one side and CONS on the other. “You start,” he said. “Got any pros?” I was too nervous to launch in, so I ceded the first serve to him. “Okay,” he said. “Well, I’ve got some cons.” He wrote the first with gusto: “Disney’s culture will destroy Pixar!”
“Fixing Disney Animation will take too long and will burn John and Ed out in the process.” “There’s too much ill will and the healing will take years.” “Wall Street will hate it.” “Your board will never let you do it.”
“Pixar will reject Disney as an owner, as a body rejects a donated organ.” There were many more, but one in all cap letters, “DISTRACTION WILL KILL PIXAR’S CREATIVITY.”
… we moved to the pros. I went first and said, “Disney will be saved by Pixar and we’ll all live happily ever after.” Steve smiled but didn’t write it down. “What do you mean?” I said, “Turning Animation around will totally change the perception of Disney and shift our fortunes. Plus, John and Ed will have a much larger canvas to paint on.”
“A few solid pros are more powerful than dozens of cons,” Steve said.
Steve was great at weighing all sides of an issue and not allowing negatives to drown out positives, particularly for things he wanted to accomplish. It was a powerful quality of his.
I was told over and over that it was too risky and ill-advised. Many people thought Steve would be impossible to deal with and would try to run the company. I was also told that a brand-new CEO shouldn’t be trying to make huge acquisitions. I was “crazy,” as one of our investment bankers put it, because the numbers would never work out and this was an impossible “sale” to the street.
On taking risks:
Nothing is a sure thing, but you need at the very least to be willing to take big risks. You can’t have big wins without them.
On what’s really important in an acquisition:
A lot of companies acquire others without much sensitivity regarding what they’re really buying. They think they’re getting physical assets or manufacturing assets or intellectual property (in some industries, that’s more true than in others). In most cases, what they’re really acquiring is people. In a creative business, that’s where the value truly lies.
Iger recalls his mindset when addressing the Pixar acquisition with his board:
I entered the boardroom on a mission. I even took a moment before I walked into the room to look again at Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech, which has long been an inspiration: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Jobs reveals his health issues just before the Pixar public announcement, jeopardizing the acquisition. Last-minute surprises can jeopardize a business deal, even after you think it’s sealed:
Just after noon, Steve found me and pulled me aside. “Let’s take a walk,”
He asked me for complete confidentiality, and then he told me that his cancer had returned.
“Steve, why are you telling me this?” I asked. “And why are you telling me now?” “I am about to become your biggest shareholder and a member of your board,” he said. “And I think I owe you the right, given this knowledge, to back out of the deal.” I checked my watch again. It was 12: 30, only thirty minutes before we were to announce the deal.
Chapter 10: Marvel and Massive Risks that Make Perfect Sense
In Chapter ten, Iger discusses the challenges of acquiring Marvel: the CEO’s personality, the character licensing complexities, the skeptics of the deal, and overcoming stale cultural assumptions to create massive movie hits.
On the complexities of acquiring Marvel given its IP licensing deals:
Marvel was already contractually bound to other studios. They had a distribution agreement with Paramount for multiple upcoming films. They’d sold the Spider-Man rights to Columbia Pictures (which eventually became Sony). The Incredible Hulk was controlled by Universal. X-Men and The Fantastic Four belonged to Fox. So even if we could acquire everything that wasn’t tied up by other studios, it wasn’t as pure an IP acquisition as we would ideally have liked.
Your negotiating style has to be adaptable to the person you are negotiating with.
[Marvel CEO] Ike [Perlmutter] would never fit easily into a corporate structure or respond well to what he perceived as Hollywood slickness, so if he was going to be comfortable with selling to Disney, he had to feel like he was dealing with someone who was being authentic and straight with him, and who spoke a language he understood.
Our connection was much more than a business relationship. We enjoyed each other’s company immensely, and we felt we could say anything to each other, that our friendship was strong enough that it was never threatened by candor. You don’t expect to develop such close friendships late in life, but when I think back on my time as CEO—at the things I’m most grateful for and surprised by—my relationship with Steve is one of them. He could criticize me, and I could disagree, and neither of us took it too personally.
Steve Jobs wasn’t a Marvel fan:
When Iron Man 2 came out, Steve took his son to see it and called me the next day. “I took Reed to see Iron Man 2 last night,” he said. “It sucked.”
The Marvel deal draws skeptics:
ON AUGUST 31, 2009, a few months after my first meeting with Ike, we announced we were buying Marvel for $ 4 billion. There were no leaks in advance, no speculation in the press about a possible acquisition. We just made the announcement, then prepared for the backlash: Marvel is going to lose its edge! Disney is going to lose its innocence! They spent $ 4 billion and they don’t have Spider-Man! Our stock fell 3 percent the day we announced the deal.
Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, which owned NBCUniversal at the time. (Before long, Comcast would buy NBC from them.) Jeff had apparently told Brian that our Marvel deal confounded him. “Why would anyone want to buy a library of comic book characters for $ 4 billion?” he’d said. “It makes me want to leave the business.” I smiled and shrugged. “I guess we’ll see,”
Iger shares his philosophy on firing people:
There’s no good playbook for how to fire someone, though I have my own internal set of rules. You have to do it in person, not over the phone and certainly not by email or text. You have to look the person in the eye. You can’t use anyone else as an excuse. This is you making a decision about them—not them as a person but the way they have performed in their job—and they need and deserve to know that it’s coming from you. You can’t make small talk once you bring someone in for that conversation. I normally say something along the lines of: “I’ve asked you to come in here for a difficult reason.” And then I try to be as direct about the issue as possible, explaining clearly and concisely what wasn’t working and why I didn’t think it was going to change. I emphasize that it was a tough decision to make, and that I understand that it’s much harder on them.
Iger finds a management star who was cast aside by Warner Bros. due to his age:
Bob Daly, who was then co-chair of Warner Bros., called me and said I should talk to Alan Horn about serving as an adviser to Rich. Alan had been pushed out as president and COO of Warner Bros. He was sixty-eight at that point, and though he was responsible for several of the biggest films of the past decade, including the Harry Potter franchise, Jeff Bewkes, Time Warner’s CEO, wanted someone younger running his studio.
Alan eventually agreed, and in the summer of 2012 he came on as the head of Disney Studios. What I saw in him wasn’t just someone who at this late stage in his career had the experience to reestablish good relations with the film community. He also had something to prove. He was galvanized, and that energy and focus transformed Disney Studios when he took over. As I write this, he’s now past seventy-five and is as vital and astute as anyone in the business. He’s been successful in the job beyond all of my hopes. (Of the nearly two dozen Disney films that have earned more than $ 1 billion at the box office, almost three-quarters of them were released under Alan.)
… another lesson to be taken from his hiring: Surround yourself with people who are good in addition to being good at what they do.
The Marvel acquisition was a huge success:
THE ACQUISITION OF Marvel has proved to be much more successful than even our most optimistic models accounted for. As I write this, Avengers: Endgame, our twentieth Marvel film, is finishing up the most successful opening weeks in movie history. Taken together, the films have averaged more than $ 1 billion in gross box-office receipts, and their popularity has been felt throughout our theme-park and television and consumer-products businesses in ways we never fully anticipated.
Iger overrules the skeptics who said Black Panther and Captain Marvel wouldn’t work:
I’ve been in the business long enough to have heard every old argument in the book, and I’ve learned that old arguments are just that: old, and out of step with where the world is and where it should be.
I called Ike and told him to tell his team to stop putting up roadblocks and ordered that we put both Black Panther and Captain Marvel into production.
Black Panther is the fourth-highest-grossing superhero film of all time, and Captain Marvel the tenth. Both have earned well over $ 1 billion.
Chapter 11: Star Wars
Chapter 11 discusses Iger’s long and patient play to acquire Star Wars. The biggest hurdle: George Lucas and the tether of his very identity to the mythology he created.
With every success the company has had since Steve’s death, there’s always a moment in the midst of my excitement when I think, I wish Steve could be here for this.
In the summer of 2011 … We sat in our dining room and raised glasses of wine before dinner. “Look what we did,” he said. “We saved two companies.”
He [Jobs] was convinced that Pixar had flourished in ways that it never would have had it not become part of Disney, and that Disney had been reenergized by bringing on Pixar.
After the funeral, Laurene came up to me and said, “I’ve never told my side of that story.” She described Steve coming home that night. “We had dinner, and then the kids left the dinner table, and I said to Steve, ‘So, did you tell him?’ ‘I told him.’ And I said, ‘Can we trust him?’ ” We were standing there with Steve’s grave behind us, and Laurene, who’d just buried her husband, gave me a gift that I’ve thought about nearly every day since. I’ve certainly thought of Steve every day. “I asked him if we could trust you,” Laurene said. “And Steve said, ‘I love that guy.’ ” The feeling was mutual.
On the day of the rededication of Star Tours in Orlando, I set up a breakfast with him [George Lucas] at the Brown Derby, which was near the attraction in our Hollywood Studios Park.
I asked George if he’d ever thought about selling. I tried to be clear and direct without offending him. He was sixty-eight years old at the time, and I said, “I don’t want to be fatalistic, George, and please stop me if you would rather not have this conversation, but I think it’s worth putting this on the table. What happens down the road? You don’t have any heirs who are going to run the company for you. They may control it, but they’re not going to run it. Shouldn’t you determine who protects or carries on your legacy?” He nodded as I talked. “I’m not really ready to sell,” he said. “But you’re right. And if I decide to, there isn’t anyone I want to sell to but you.”
He said something else that I kept in mind in every subsequent conversation we had: “When I die, the first line of my obituary is going to read ‘Star Wars creator George Lucas…’ ” It was so much a part of who he was, which of course I knew, but having him look into my eyes and say it like that underscored the most important factor in these conversations. This wasn’t negotiating to buy a business; it was negotiating to be the keeper of George’s legacy, and I needed to be ultra-sensitive to that at all times.
About seven months after that breakfast, George called me and said, “I’d like to have lunch to talk more about that thing we talked about in Orlando.”
Lucas had many talented employees, particularly on the tech side, but no directors other than George, and no film development or production pipeline, as far as we knew.
Disney had already begun to assess the value of the Star Wars franchise:
We’d done some work trying to figure out their value ...
Our analysis was built on a set of guesses, and from those we tried to build a financial model—valuing their library of films and television shows; their publishing and licensing assets; their brand, which was dominated by Star Wars; and their special effects business, Industrial Light and Magic, which George had founded years earlier to provide the dazzling special effects for his films. We then projected what we might do if we owned them, which was pure conjecture. We guessed we could produce and release a Star Wars film every other year in the first six years after acquiring them,
Next, we tackled their licensing business. Star Wars remained very popular with kids, particularly young boys, who were still assembling Lego Millennium Falcons and playing with lightsabers.
Lastly, we considered what we might do at our theme parks, given the fact that we were already paying Lucasfilm for the rights to the Star Tours attractions in three of our locations. I had big dreams about what we might build, but we decided to ascribe little or no value to them because there were too many unknowns.
Iger has to reset the acquisition price in Lucas’s mind:
In George’s mind, Lucasfilm was as valuable as Pixar, but even from our relatively uninformed analysis they weren’t.
So I said right away, “There’s no way this is a Pixar deal, George.” And I explained why, recalling my visit to Pixar early on, and the richness of creativity that I discovered.
He was momentarily taken aback, and I thought the discussions might end right there. Instead, he said, “Well, then, what do we do?”
I told him we needed to look closely at Lucasfilm and we needed his cooperation.
I said, “I’m not going to come in low and negotiate toward the middle. I’m going to do it the way I did it with Steve.”
… at the end of that process we still found ourselves struggling to settle on a firm valuation. A lot of our concern had to do with how to assess our own ability to begin making good movies—and quickly.
Ultimately, Kevin and I decided we could afford $ 4.05 billion, or slightly above what we paid for Marvel, and George immediately agreed.
But the most difficult part of the negotiation was personal and emotional—Lucas has to cede control of his creation:
Then the more difficult negotiations began over what George’s creative involvement would be.
With Lucas, there was only one person with creative control—George. He wanted to retain that control without becoming an employee.
… his entire self was wrapped up in the fact that he was responsible for what was perhaps the greatest mythology of our time. That’s a hard thing to let go, and I was deeply sensitive to that.
I also knew we couldn’t spend this money and do what George wanted, and that saying that to him would put the whole deal at risk. That is exactly what happened.
… twice [the parties] walked away from the table and called the deal off. (We walked the first time and George walked the second.)
George told me that he had completed outlines for three new movies.
we needed to buy them, though we made clear in the purchase agreement that we would not be contractually obligated to adhere to the plot lines he’d laid out.
Negotiations were stuck. But tax law saved the day:
an upcoming change in capital gains laws that eventually salvaged the negotiations. If we didn’t close the deal by the end of 2012, George, who owned Lucasfilm outright, would take a roughly $ 500 million hit on the sale.
he reluctantly agreed to be available to consult with us at our request. I promised that we would be open to his ideas (this was not a hard promise to make; of course we would be open to George Lucas’s ideas), but like the outlines, we would be under no obligation.
On October 30, 2012, George came to my office, and we sat at my desk and signed an agreement for Disney to buy Lucasfilm. He was doing everything he could not to show it, but I could tell in the sound of his voice and the look in his eyes how emotional it was for him. He was signing away Star Wars, after all.
After the acquisition, the creative development process is rocky:
A FEW MONTHS before we closed the deal, George hired the producer Kathy Kennedy to run Lucasfilm.
this was one final way for George to put someone in whom he trusted to be the steward of his legacy.
J.J. and I had dinner soon after he decided to take on the project.
I joked at some point during dinner that this was a “$ 4 billion movie”—meaning that the whole acquisition depended on its success—which J.J. later told me wasn’t funny at all.
There’s no rule book for how to manage this kind of challenge, but in general, you have to try to recognize that when the stakes of a project are very high, there’s not much to be gained from putting additional pressure on the people working on it.
Early on, Kathy brought J.J. and Michael Arndt up to Northern California to meet with George at his ranch and talk about their ideas for the film. George immediately got upset as they began to describe the plot and it dawned on him that we weren’t using one of the stories he submitted during the negotiations.
we all agreed that it wasn’t what George had outlined. George knew we weren’t contractually bound to anything, but he thought that our buying the story treatments was a tacit promise that we’d follow them,
I could have handled it better.
I should have prepared him for the meeting with J.J. and Michael and told him about our conversations, that we felt it was better to go in another direction.
George felt betrayed ...
Just prior to the global release, Kathy screened The Force Awakens for George. He didn’t hide his disappointment. “There’s nothing new,” he said. In each of the films in the original trilogy, it was important to him to present new worlds, new stories, new characters, and new technologies. In this one, he said, “There weren’t enough visual or technical leaps forward.”
Looking back with the perspective of several years and a few more Star Wars films, I believe J.J. achieved the near-impossible, creating a perfect bridge between what had been and what was to come.
Shortly after the release, though, an interview George had done a few weeks earlier with Charlie Rose aired. George talked about his frustration that we hadn’t followed his outlines and said that selling to Disney was like selling his children to “white slavers.” It was an unfortunate and awkward way for him to describe the feeling of having sold something that he considered his children. I decided to stay quiet and let it pass. There was nothing to be gained from engaging in any public discourse
George called me. “I was out of line,” he said.
Though each major acquisition, a common trait saved negotiations:
Looking back on the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, the thread that runs through all of them (other than that, taken together, they transformed Disney) is that each deal depended on building trust with a single controlling entity.
Chapter 12: If You Don’t Innovate, You Die
Chapter twelve discusses Iger’s strategy to create and deploy a direct-to-consumer service: a Netflix competitor which would eventually become Disney+.
AFTER THE DUST settled on the last of our “big three” acquisitions, we began to focus even more on the dramatic changes we were experiencing in our media businesses and the profound disruption we were feeling. The future of those businesses had begun to seriously worry us, and we concluded it was time for us to start delivering our content in new and modern ways, and to do so without intermediaries, on our own technology platform.
Disney goes through a build-vs-buy decision process:
We landed on Twitter. We were less interested in them as a social media company than as a new distribution platform with global reach, which we could use to deliver movies, television, sports, and news.
Twitter’s board supported the sale, and on a Friday afternoon in October, our board gave their approval
Iger’s gut feeling to kill the deal is prescient—Twitter’s issues would have been devastating to the Disney brand.
Something inside me didn’t feel right. Echoing in my head was something Tom Murphy had said to me years earlier: “If something doesn’t feel right to you, then it’s probably not right for you.” I could see clearly how the platform could work to serve our new purposes, but there were brand-related issues that gnawed at me.
I couldn’t get past the challenges that would come with it.
how to manage hate speech,
making fraught decisions regarding freedom of speech,
fake accounts algorithmically spewing out political “messaging”
and the general rage and lack of civility
I felt they would be corrosive to the Disney brand.
Disney moves on to Plan B.
AROUND THE SAME TIME that we entered into the Twitter negotiations, we also invested in a company called BAMTech, which was primarily owned by Major League Baseball and had perfected a streaming technology that allowed fans to subscribe to an online service and watch all of their favorite teams’ games live.
… we agreed to pay about $ 1 billion for a 33 percent stake in the company, with an option to buy a controlling interest in 2020.
Ten months later, in June 2017, we held our annual board retreat … We decided to spend the entire 2017 session talking about disruption …
I don’t like to lay out problems without offering a plan for addressing them.
We would accelerate our option to buy a controlling stake in BAMTech, and then use that platform to launch Disney and an ESPN direct-to-consumer, “over the top” video streaming services.
On our August 2017 earnings call … we shared our plans to launch two streaming services: one for ESPN in 2018, and one for Disney in 2019.
Iger moves from plan to execution—and must remake Disney’s culture and strategic priorities to make it work:
THAT ANNOUNCEMENT MARKED the beginning of the reinvention of the Walt Disney Company.
… we were now hastening the disruption of our own businesses, and the short-term losses were going to be significant.
I referred to a concept I called “management by press release”—meaning that if I say something with great conviction to the outside world, it tends to resonate powerfully inside our company.
We immediately began working on two fronts in the wake of our August announcement. On the tech side, the team at BAMTech, along with a group that was already in place at Disney, started building the interfaces for our new services,
At the same time, back in L.A., we were putting a team together to develop and produce the content that would be available on Disney +.
I proposed a radical idea—essentially, that I would determine compensation, based on how much they contributed to this new strategy, even though, without easily measured financial results, this was going to be far more subjective than our typical compensation practices.
“I know why companies fail to innovate,” I said to them at one point. “It’s tradition. Tradition generates so much friction, every step of the way.”
Chapter 13: No Price no Integrity
Chapter 13 discusses Iger’s ethical challenges within the Disney culture, as talented executives make personal mistakes that harm others, and themselves. While dealing with those issues, Iger has to remake the company in response to technology disruptions which force Disney to change its creative and distribution processes.
RUPERT’S DECISION TO sell was a direct response to the same forces that led us to create an entirely new strategy for our company. As he pondered the future of his company in such a disrupted world, he concluded the smartest thing to do was to sell and give his shareholders and his family a chance to convert its 21st Century Fox stock into Disney stock, believing we were better positioned to withstand the change and, combined, we’d be even stronger.
In the fall of 2017, we heard complaints about John Lasseter from women and men at Pixar, about what they described as unwanted physical contact.
Alan Horn and I met with John in November of that year, and together we agreed that the best course was for him to take a six-month leave to reflect on his behavior and give us time to assess the situation.
As Disney was about to announce its acquisition of Fox, Iger is blindsided by ESPN president John Skipper’s issues:
December 14 ranks as another of the most compartmentalized days of my career.
GMA announcement at 4:00 A.M.
Conference call with investors at 5:00 A.M.
CNBC Live at 6 00 A.M.
Bloomberg at 6:20 A.M.
Webcast with investors at 7:00 A.M.
From 8:00 A.M. till noon were calls with Senators Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, then Representative Nancy Pelosi and several other members of Congress, in anticipation of the regulatory process that was about to unfold.
… that afternoon, Jayne came into my office to have the conversation that we’d punted on the day before. She told me that John Skipper had admitted to a drug problem, which had led to other serious complications in his life and could potentially jeopardize the company.
Following the acquisition, Iger again sets out to reset Disney’s culture and structure:
I asked myself: What would, could, or should the new company look like? If I were to erase history and build something totally new today, with all of these assets, how would it be structured? I came back from our Christmas holiday and dragged a whiteboard into the conference room next to my office and began to play around. (It was the first time I’d stood before a whiteboard since I was with Steve Jobs in 2005!)
The first thing I did was separate “content” from “technology.” We would have three content groups: movies (Walt Disney Animation, Disney Studios, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Twentieth Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Searchlight), television (ABC, ABC News, our television stations, Disney channels, Freeform, FX, National Geographic), and sports (ESPN). All of that went on the left side of the whiteboard. On the other side went tech: apps, user interfaces, customer acquisition and retention, data management, sales, distribution, and so on. The idea was simply to let the content people focus on creativity and let the tech people focus on how to distribute things and, for the most part, generate revenue in the most successful ways.
Chapter 14: Core Values
Chapter 14 is the wrap-up chapter; Iger looks back at his tenure from a high view, and realizes his time at Disney will soon be over.
The intensity of the work didn’t fully inoculate me against a kind of wistfulness creeping in, though. The future that we were planning and working so feverishly on would happen without me. My new retirement date is December 2021, but I can see it out of the corner of my eye. It surfaces at unexpected times. It’s not enough to distract me, but it is enough to remind me that this ride is coming to an end. As a joke a few years back, dear friends of mine gave me a license plate holder, which I immediately attached to my car, that says, “Is there life after Disney?” The answer is yes, of course, but that question feels more existential than it used to.
Even when a CEO is working productively and effectively, it’s important for a company to have change at the top. I don’t know if other CEOs agree with this, but I’ve noticed that you can accumulate so much power in a job that it becomes harder to keep a check on how you wield it. Little things can start to shift. Your confidence can easily tip over into overconfidence and become a liability.