What I learned from reading the CEO of Disney’s biography
These were some of my favorite passages from Robert Iger’s book about lessons he has learned about leadership, life, business, and leaving a legacy.
“ABC Sports showed me the world and made me more sophisticated. I got exposed to things I’d never contemplated before. I remember exactly where and when I ate my first fine French meal in Paris, the first time I ever uttered the word Montrachet, and my first experience driving through Monaco in a luxury sports car.”
“Roone had been tapped to run ABC Sports in the early 1960s, and by the time I arrived he was already television royalty. More than anyone in the history of broadcasting, he changed the way we experience televised sports. He knew, first and foremost, that we were telling stories and not just broadcasting events, and to tell great stories, you need great talent. He was the most competitive person I’ve ever worked for, and a relentless innovator, but he also knew that he was only as good as the people he surrounded himself with. Jim McKay, Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson. Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, Chris Schenkel, Bob Beattie in skiing, Jackie Stewart in auto racing. They all had magnetic broadcast personalities, and Roone turned them into household names.”
Innovate or die, and there’s no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new or untested.
No detail was too small for Roone. Perfection was the result of getting all the little things right. On countless occasions, just as I’d witnessed at the Sinatra concert, he would rip up an entire program before it aired and demand the team rework the whole thing, even if it meant working till dawn in an editing room. He wasn’t a yeller, but he was tough and exacting and he communicated in very clear terms what was wrong and that he expected it to get fixed, and he didn’t much care what sacrifice it required to fix it. The show was the thing. It was everything to him.
Decades after I stopped working for Roone, I watched a documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about a master sushi chef from Tokyo named Jiro Ono, whose restaurant has three Michelin stars and is one of the most sought-after reservations in the world. In the film, he’s in his late eighties and still trying to perfect his art. 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.” I fell in love with Jiro when I watched it and became fascinated by the concept of shokunin.
I watched in awe as he deftly laid out nineteen gorgeous pieces of sushi, one after the other, over the course of thirty-five minutes. (The speed of the meal was due to his commitment to serve the sushi on rice that was at body temperature. If the meal took too long, the rice would drop a couple of degrees below 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which to Jiro was unacceptable.)
This is what it looks like to take immense personal pride in the work you create, and to have both the instinct toward perfection and the work ethic to follow through on that instinct.
Only later, when I worked more closely with him, would I discover what people meant when they said that he refused to accept no for an answer. If he asked you to do something, you were expected to exhaust every possible method to accomplish it. If you came back and said you tried and it couldn’t be done, he’d just tell you, “Find another way.”
It’s a delicate thing, finding the balance between demanding that your people perform and not instilling a fear of failure in them. Most of us who worked for Roone wanted to live up to his standards, but we also knew that he had no patience for excuses and that he could easily turn on anyone, in his singularly cutting, somewhat cruel, way, if he felt we weren’t performing to his satisfaction.
Roone never said anything to me about it, but he treated me differently, with higher regard, it seemed, from that moment on. In my early days, I thought there was only one lesson in this story, the obvious one about the importance of taking responsibility when you screw up.
you’ll be more respected and trusted by the people around you if you honestly own up to your mistakes.
I was able to make peace with the way Roone exercised his authority, to be motivated by the good and not be too personally wounded by the bad. I was naturally resilient, I think, and working for Roone made me more so. And I prided myself on working hard, especially in a place where so many of the people around me were better educated and from more sophisticated backgrounds.
Dennis would say he didn’t know, and then he’d turn to me and others for help. He regularly asked me to take the lead in conversations with higher-ups while he sat back, and he took every opportunity to extol my virtues to Tom and Dan.
It was an enormous opportunity for me, and a perfect example of how Dennis never put himself ahead of anyone else.
It was who he was, a naturally generous man, but 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 hired people who were smart and decent and hardworking, they put those people in positions of big responsibility, and they gave them the support and autonomy needed to do the job. They were also tremendously generous with their time and always accessible. Because of this, executives working for them always had a clear sense of what their priorities were, and their focus enabled us all to be focused, too.
His storytelling instincts were as sharp as ever. But it was such a stressful way to kick things off, and a reminder of how one person’s unwillingness to give a timely response can cause so much unnecessary strain and inefficiency.
It was a perfect example of the need for optimism. 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.
A FEW WEEKS LATER, I got called into a meeting with Tom and Dan. “We want to get to know you better,” Tom said. He told me they’d watched me closely in Calgary, and they were impressed with how I’d handled myself under pressure. “Some things might be opening up,” Dan said, and they wanted me to know they had their eyes on me. My first thought was that maybe I had a chance at the top job at ESPN, but shortly after that meeting they gave it to the guy who was executive vice president of ABC Television at the time. There I was, frustrated at being passed over again, when they called me back in and gave me his job. “We want to park you there for a little while,” Dan said. “But we have bigger plans.”
She was incredibly supportive. “Life’s an adventure,” she said. “If you don’t choose the adventurous path, then you’re not really living.”
You have to be humble, and you can’t pretend to be someone you’re not or to know something you don’t. You’re also in a position of leadership, though, so you can’t let humility prevent you from leading. It’s a fine line, and something I preach today. You have to ask the questions you need to ask, admit without apology what you don’t understand, and do the work to learn what you need to learn as quickly as you can. There’s nothing less confidence-inspiring than a person faking a knowledge they don’t possess. True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.
I could be insecure about that, or I could let my relative blandness—my un-Hollywood-ness—be a kind of mystery that worked to my advantage while I absorbed as much as I could.
Empathy is a prerequisite to the sound management of creativity, and respect is critical.
You have to own your own failures. You earn as much respect and goodwill by standing by someone in the wake of a failure as you do by giving them credit for a success.
The way they conveyed their faith in me at every step made all the difference in my success.
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.
You have to be attentive. You often have to sit through meetings that, if given the choice, you might choose not to sit through. You have to learn and absorb. You have to hear out other people’s problems and help find solutions.
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?
but the ones who are proving themselves to be indispensable day in and day out.
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.
and we’d become complacent and unimaginative in our development process. NYPD Blue was still in the top 20, and we had a couple of others—Home Improvement, The Drew Carey Show—that did well. But the rest of our lineup, with the exception of the perennial juggernaut that is Monday Night Football, was largely uninspiring.
could have answered in any number of ways (it was actually an interesting challenge), but something in Roone’s tone and body language told me his problem wasn’t really with the visuals. It was that he was being asked to execute a big idea that wasn’t his, by the guy who used to say “How high?” when Roone said “Jump.” I’d been Roone’s boss since 1993, when Tom and Dan made me president of the network. We’d worked well together over those years. He was proud that I’d risen to the top of the company, but he still thought of me as his understudy—that I’d cut my teeth under him and I was his ally in the front office who would protect him from corporate meddling and allow him to do his thing. I was less blindly devoted to Roone than he wanted to believe, but there was no harm in his thinking it, and no real reason for me to ever disabuse him of the notion. He was at his best when his ego was least threatened.
showing respect but also communicating that this was going to happen no matter what. “Roone,” I said, “if there was ever an idea that people would assume came from you, this is it. It’s big and bold. It could be impossible to execute, but when has that ever stopped you?”
I wasn’t exactly sure if it was the idea he didn’t like, or if at that point he just didn’t feel he had the energy for a big production like this. But I knew he couldn’t walk away from a challenge, so I was playing to his pride to get him on board. He didn’t say anything, but he smiled and nodded, as if to say Okay, I got it.
The world had changed. He didn’t have much time left. I looked down at him in bed and I knew this would be the last time I saw him. “No, Roone,” I said. “It’s not what it used to be.”
He recognized that he couldn’t keep things going as they were, but he didn’t want to deal with the complications of dividing responsibility and sharing decision making and having to involve someone else in his various goings on.
I’d worked incredibly hard to integrate ABC into Disney, making sure that our people were valued and respected and helping to initiate an assimilation process that hadn’t been thought through on the Disney side. I’d designed and implemented an entire international structure for the company, which required being away from my family for trip after trip, traveling constantly for over a year. Through it all, I’d always been a defender of and a loyalist to Michael, and now I was being told again, twenty-five years after my first boss had told me back in 1975—I “wasn’t promotable.”
“You have to be straight with me about what this is,” I said. His reaction was more candid than I expected. He said he wasn’t sure I would want to move back to L.A., so that was a concern. The bigger issue, though, was that if he named me COO, he’d be “competing with myself,” he said. I assumed he meant that the board would have someone to turn to if they wanted to replace him, but I was never really certain.
I’d be executive vice president rather than president and COO, he said, and the board seat would be eliminated. I told Sandy it was president, COO, and a member of the board or nothing. He called me back an hour later to confirm all three, and we announced the next day.
Michael gave me access to much of his thinking and decision making. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he taught me how to see in a way I hadn’t been able to before. I had no experience with the creative process that went into building and running a theme park, and had never spent time visually imagining a visitor’s experience. Michael walked through the world with a set designer’s eye, and while he wasn’t a natural mentor, it felt like a kind of apprenticeship to follow him around and watch him work.
Michael would also allow me to accompany him on his many visits to Walt Disney Imagineering, located on a sprawling campus in Glendale, California, just a few miles from our studio lot in Burbank. Imagineering has been the subject of many books and articles, and the simplest way I can describe it is that it is the creative and technical heart of everything we build that isn’t a film or TV show or consumer product. All of our theme parks and resorts and attractions, cruise ships and real estate developments, all of the live performances and light shows and parades, every detail from the design of a cast member’s costume to the architecture of our castles emanates from Imagineering. It is impossible to overstate the creative and technical brilliance of Disney’s Imagineers. They are artists, engineers, architects, and technologists, and they occupy a place and fulfill
When I visited Imagineering with Michael, I’d observe him critiquing projects large and small, reviewing everything from storyboards detailing the experience in one of our attractions to the design of a stateroom on a soon-to-be-built cruise ship. He’d hear presentations about upcoming parades, or review the design of the lobby of a new hotel. 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.
Thanks to my years working for Roone Arledge, I didn’t need to be convinced that the success or failure of something so often comes down to the details. Michael often saw things that other people didn’t see, and then he demanded that they be made better. That was the source of so much of his and the company’s success, and I had immense respect for Michael’s tendency to sweat the details.
It was an interesting time, and marked what I saw as the beginning of the end of the traditional media as we knew it. 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. There was no one who embodied that change more than Steve Jobs, who in addition to running Apple was the CEO of Pixar, our most important and most successful creative partner. In the mid-’90s, Disney had made a deal with Pixar to coproduce, market, and distribute five of their films. Toy Story was released in 1995 under a previous deal.
but it was clear that Pixar was gaining swagger as Disney was losing it, and these two strong-willed personalities were destined to battle each other for supremacy.
Michael had plenty of valid reasons to be pessimistic, but as a leader you can’t communicate that pessimism to the people around you. It’s ruinous to morale. It saps energy and inspiration. Decisions get made from a protective, defensive posture.
Michael’s natural pessimism often worked for him, up to a point. He was motivated in part out of a fear of calamity, and that often fueled his perfectionism and his success, although it’s not a very useful tool to motivate people. Sometimes his concerns were justified, and it was right to address them, but often a kind of free-floating worry had him in its grip. This wasn’t Michael’s only state. He also had a natural exuberance that was often infectious. But in his later years, as the stress on him steadily increased, pessimism became the rule more than the exception, and it led him to close ranks and become increasingly cloistered.
No one could have handled the stress that Michael was under perfectly, but 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. No one wants to follow a pessimist.
There was nothing Steve was more averse to than someone trying to use leverage over him. If you tried to do that, he went nuts. Michael, too, was averse to anything he perceived as bullying of him or the company, and the combination of the two of them made an already challenging negotiating process nearly impossible. At some point, Steve referred to Disney Animation’s string of “embarrassing duds,” and then in January 2004, he made a very public, in-your-face announcement that he would never deal with Disney again. “After ten months of trying to strike a deal, we’re moving on,” he said.
It was the first time in my career I’ve ever had to withstand the glare of so much press scrutiny, and while there was no way to reverse the tide that was coming in, I look back on that moment and feel proud for having been able to stand there and hold my ground.
After they were done we took questions for an hour. Michael knew it would be an all-out assault from the beginning, but he carried himself through it admirably. He acknowledged many of the difficulties and made his case that our performance and our stock price were improving. He talked about his passion for the company, but it was a foregone conclusion that the day was not going to end well for him.
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? There had been some decisions I disagreed with, and I thought the company was in need of change given all the noise, but I respected Michael and was grateful for the opportunities he’d given me. I’d also been COO of the company for five years, and it would have been hypocritical, transparently so, to lay all of the blame on someone else.
In some abstract way, yes, I understood that, but I hadn’t been thinking of it in the literal terms Scott meant. I needed a strategy for getting votes, he said, which meant figuring out who on the board might be persuadable and focusing my message on them. He asked me a series of questions: “Which board members are definitely in your corner?” “I’m not sure any of them are.” “Okay, who’s never going to give you a chance?” Three or four names and faces immediately flashed through my mind. “Now, who are the swing voters?” There were a handful whom I thought I might be able to convince to take a flyer on me. “Those are the ones you have to focus on first,” Scott said.
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.”
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. In my experience, it’s what separates great managers from the rest. If leaders don’t articulate their priorities clearly, then the people around them don’t know what their own priorities should be. Time and energy and capital get wasted. People in your organization suffer unnecessary anxiety because they don’t know what they should be focused on. Inefficiency sets in, frustration builds up, morale sinks.
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. A CEO must provide the company and its senior team with a road map. A lot of work is complex and requires intense amounts of focus and energy, but 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.
With an explosion of choice, consumers needed an ability to make decisions about how to spend their time and money. Great brands would become even more powerful tools for guiding consumer behavior.
“But my goal is for Disney to be the most admired company in the world, by our consumers and our shareholders and by our employees. That last part is key. We’ll never get the admiration or the public unless we get it from our own people first. And the way to get the people working for us to admire the company and believe in its future is to make products they’re proud of. It’s that simple.”
But I learned, through strong self-discipline and love from my family, that I had to recognize it for what it was—that it had no bearing on who I was—and put it in its proper place. I could control what I did and how I comported myself. Everything else was beyond my control. I didn’t maintain that perspective every moment, but to the extent that I was able to, it kept the anxiety from having too strong a hold.
Mostly, I was thankful for Willow. I couldn’t have done it without her faith and wisdom and support. She was rooting for me the whole time, of course, but time after time, she told me this was not the most important thing in my life, in our lives. I knew she was right, but taking her words to heart took work, too, and she helped me do that. Once the call ended, Willow and I sat quietly for a moment, trying to savor it all. I had a mental list of the people I wanted to call right away, and I was fighting the urge to start dialing and instead trying to just be still, to breathe a bit, to let in both the elation and the relief.
“Second, we have to try to salvage a relationship with Pixar and Steve Jobs.” The end of the Pixar partnership was a huge blow to Disney, from both a financial and a public-relations standpoint. Steve was one of the most respected people in the world at that point—in technology and business and culture—and his rejection and withering criticism of Disney was so public that any mending of that fence would be seen as a big early win. Plus, Pixar was now the standard-bearer in animation, and while I didn’t yet have a complete sense of just how broken Disney Animation was, I knew that any renewed partnership would be good for our business.
He’d aged considerably in the two years since he’d left the board, and he struck me as needy and frail in a way he hadn’t in the past. I wondered if all of this wasn’t a part of some larger psychic struggle. The truth was, it wasn’t just Michael who was at odds with Roy; 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. Once I saw Roy in that light, I began to think that maybe there was a way to appease him and put this fight to rest.
I contacted Stanley once more and proposed the following: I would give Roy an emeritus role on the board and would invite him to film premieres and theme-park openings and special company events. (He wouldn’t attend board meetings, however.) I’d also give him a small consulting fee and an office on the lot so he could come and go and call Disney his home again. In exchange, there would be no lawsuit, no public proclamation of victory, and no more airing of criticisms. I was stunned when Stanley said we should draw up an agreement to be executed within twenty-four hours. Just like that, a crisis that threatened to loom over my early days as CEO was resolved. Making peace with Roy and Stanley would be viewed by some parties as a kind of capitulation, but I knew the truth, and that was far more valuable than perception. 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. 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. My job was to set our company on a new path, and the first step was to defuse this unnecessary struggle. The easiest and most productive way to do that was to recognize that what Roy needed, ultimately, was to feel respected. That was precious to him, and it cost me and the company so little.
A little respect goes a long way, and the absence of it is often very costly. Over the next few years, as we made the major acquisitions that redefined and revitalized the company, this simple, seemingly trite idea was as important as all of the data-crunching in the world: If you approach and engage people with respect and empathy, the seemingly impossible can become real.
Any product demo by Steve was powerful, but this was a personal demonstration. I could feel his enthusiasm as I stared at the device, and I had a profound sense of holding the future in my hand.
Steve responded to boldness, and I wanted to signal to him that there could be a different way of doing business with Disney going forward. Among his many frustrations was a feeling that it was often too difficult to get anything done with us. Every agreement needed to be vetted and analyzed to within an inch of its life, and that’s not how he worked. I wanted him to understand that I didn’t work that way, either, that I was empowered to make a call and that I was eager to figure out this future together, and to do so quickly. I thought that if he respected my instincts and my willingness to take this risk, then maybe, just maybe, the door to Pixar might crack open again. So I told him again, yes, we were in. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll get back to you when there’s more to discuss.”
I’d essentially brokered the deal myself, with assistance from Anne Sweeney, who ran ABC. The ease and the speed with which we got it done, combined with the fact that it showed an admiration for Apple and its products, blew Steve’s mind. He told me he’d never met anyone in the entertainment business who was willing to try something that might disrupt his own company’s business model. When I walked onstage that day to announce our Apple partnership, the audience was confused at first, thinking, Why is the new Disney guy up there with Steve? It can only be one reason. I had no script, but the first thing I said was “I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not here for that!” There were laughs and groans. Nobody wished we were making that announcement more than I did.
The reality was, Steve had all of the leverage in the world. By then, Pixar had become the standard-bearer for inventive, sophisticated animated filmmaking, and he never seemed worried about walking away from us. Our only bargaining chip was that we currently had the rights to make sequels of those earlier films without them, and in fact we’d started to develop some under Michael when talks had broken down two years before. Steve knew we would struggle to make anything genuinely great, though, given the state of Disney Animation, and he almost dared us to try.
Over that same stretch of time, Pixar had produced success after success, both creatively and commercially. Technologically, they were doing things with digital animation that we—Disney!—had only dabbled in. More profoundly, they were connecting in powerful ways to both parents and kids. After painting that bleak financial picture, I asked Tom to present the results of our brand research. Among women with children under twelve, Pixar had eclipsed Disney as a brand mothers thought of as “good for their family.” In a head-to-head comparison, Pixar was far more beloved—it wasn’t even close. I noticed a few board members murmuring to each other and sensed some anger starting
I didn’t yet fully appreciate just how much Steve liked radical ideas. “Tell me now,” he said. 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. He might also be offended at what he perceived as the arrogance of the idea. How dare I think Pixar was something Disney could just come along and buy? Even if he told me where I could shove it, though, the call would end, and I’d be left exactly where I already was. I had nothing to lose. “I’ve been thinking about our respective futures,” I said. “What do you think about the idea of Disney buying Pixar?” I waited for him to hang up or to erupt in laughter. The quiet before his response seemed endless.
Instead, he said, “You know, that’s not the craziest idea in the world.” I’d so braced myself for rejection that now, even though I knew rationally that there were a million more hurdles between this moment and ever bringing this idea to fruition, I felt a rush of adrenaline that it was even a possibility. “Okay,” I said. “Great. When can we talk more?”
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.” Two hours later, the pros were meager and the cons were abundant, even if a few of them, in my estimation, were quite petty. I felt dispirited, but I should have expected this. “Well,” I said. “It was a nice idea. But I don’t see how we do this.” “A few solid pros are more powerful than dozens of cons,” Steve said. “So what should we do next?” Another lesson: 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. Steve died six years later. I joined the Apple board not long after his death. Every time I went to a meeting there and looked at that gigantic whiteboard, I saw Steve, intense, energetic, engaged, and far more open to the possibility of making this idea (and I suspected many ideas) work.
There were people milling about and convening in small groups in a way that reminded me more of a university student union than a film production company. The place was vibrant with creative energy. Everyone seemed happy to be there.
If I had to name the ten best days I’ve ever had on the job, that first visit to the Pixar campus would be high on the list. John and Ed welcomed me warmly and explained that I would spend the first half of the day meeting with every director, and they would show me elements of the films they were working on—rough cuts of scenes, storyboards, concept art, original scores, and cast lists. Then I would see their new “technology pipeline” and get a sense of how the tech side and the creative side worked together.
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. The banker had a point. It’s true that on paper the deal didn’t make obvious sense. But I felt certain that this level of ingenuity was worth more than any of us understood or could calculate at the time. It’s perhaps not the most responsible advice in a book like this to say that leaders should just go out there and trust their gut, because it might be interpreted as endorsing impulsivity over thoughtfulness, gambling rather than careful study. As with everything, the key is awareness, taking it all in and weighing every factor—your own motivations, what the people you trust are saying, what careful study and analysis tell you, and then what analysis can’t tell you. You carefully consider all of these factors, understanding that no two circumstances are alike, and then, if you’re in charge, it still ultimately comes down to instinct. Is this right or isn’t it?
My instinct about Pixar was powerful. I believed this acquisition could transform us. It could fix Disney Animation; it could add Steve Jobs, arguably the strongest possible voice on issues of technology, to the Disney board; it could bring a culture of excellence and ambition into ours that would reverberate in much-needed ways throughout the company. Ultimately, the board could say no, but I couldn’t let go of this out of fear. I told my team that I respected their opinions, and I knew they were looking out for me, which I appreciated, but I thought we had to do this. At the very least I had to exhaust every possible way of making it happen before I gave in.
I couldn’t pretend I felt anything other than pure enthusiasm. I described the day to him from beginning to end, and hoped that my honesty would ultimately serve me better than any “shrewd” pretense anyway. It could have seemed like a weakness—if you show that you want something so badly you’ll be made to pay—but in this case the genuine enthusiasm worked. I ended by saying, as if it wasn’t already clear, that I really wanted to try to make this happen. Steve told me he would seriously consider it only if John and Ed were on board. After we talked, he contacted them to say that he was open to a negotiation, and to promise them that he would never make a deal without their blessing. We planned that I would meet with each of them again, so I could explain in more detail what I was imagining and could field any questions they had. Then they would decide if they were interested in going forward with a negotiation.
In most cases, what they’re really acquiring is people. In a creative business, that’s where the value truly lies.
All these years later, John said he was still smarting at having been fired from Disney, but his respect for the heritage of Disney Animation was powerful. Just as I had an impossible time hiding my enthusiasm from Steve, John had an equally impossible time hiding his at the thought of running Disney Animation. “Well, that would be a dream,” he said.
I knew going in that I didn’t want the process to be drawn out. Steve was constitutionally incapable of a long, complicated back-and-forth (the prolonged, acrimonious negotiations with Michael were still fresh in his memory). He was already averse to the way Disney made deals, and I feared that if we got bogged down on any one point, he would sour on the whole thing and walk away. So as soon as we sat down, I said, “I’ll be straight with you. This is something I feel we have to do.” Steve agreed that we needed this, but unlike in the past, he didn’t use his leverage to demand a wildly impossible number.
Just after noon, Steve found me and pulled me aside. “Let’s take a walk,” he said. I knew Steve liked to go on long walks, frequently with friends or colleagues, but I was surprised at the timing and suspicious about his request. I turned to Tom to ask what he thought Steve wanted, and we guessed either he want to back out or he wanted something more.
He told me the cancer was now in his liver and he talked about the odds of beating it. He was going to do whatever it took to be at his son Reed’s high school graduation, he said. When he told me that was four years away, I felt devastated. It was impossible to be having these two conversations—about Steve facing his impending death and about the deal we were supposed to be closing in minutes—at the same time.
Meanwhile, Kevin Mayer couldn’t stop fantasizing about what Disney could do if we added Marvel. Kevin is as intense and laser-focused as anyone I’ve ever worked with, and when he sets his sights on something of value, it’s very hard for him to accept my advice to “be patient,” and so he harangued me on a near-daily basis to find some way to get to Ike, and I told him we needed to wait and see what David could do.
However, Ike 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.
Luckily for me, Willow happened to be in New York on business that week, and so I suggested to Ike that he and his wife join us for dinner. Willow doesn’t often attend business dinners with me, but her understanding of business, her resumé, and her ease with people make her a secret weapon.
Ike’s wife, Laurie, is a smart, energetic person (who happens to be a competitive bridge player), and she and Willow made the conversation easy and relaxed. There wasn’t any business talk, it was just a chance to give them a sense of who we were and what was important to us, and for us to get a sense of who they were, too. Ike didn’t say it outright, but I felt confident by the end of the night that he was warming to the idea.
Since the Pixar deal, with Steve as a board member and our largest shareholder, whenever I wanted to do something big, I talked it over with him, to get his advice and support before taking it to the full board. Steve’s voice mattered in our boardroom; they had such respect for him. Before we went any further in the negotiations, I went up to Cupertino and had lunch with Steve and walked him through Marvel’s business. He claimed to have never read a comic book in his life (“I hate them more than I hate videogames,” he told me), so I brought my encyclopedia of Marvel characters with me to explain the universe to him and show him what we would be buying. He spent about ten seconds looking at it, then pushed it aside and said, “Is this one important to you? Do you really want it? Is it another Pixar?”
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.
Later, after we’d closed the deal, Ike told me that he’d still had his doubts and the call from Steve made a big difference to him. “He said you were true to your word,” Ike said. I was grateful that Steve was willing to do it as a friend, really, more than as the most influential member of our board. Every once in a while, I would say to him, “I have to ask you this, you’re our largest shareholder,” and he would always respond, “You can’t think of me as that. That’s insulting. I’m just a good friend.”
FIRING PEOPLE, OR taking responsibility away from them, is arguably the most difficult thing you have to do as a boss. There have been several times when I’ve had to deliver bad news to accomplished people, some of whom were friends, and some of whom had been unable to flourish in positions that I had put them in. 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.
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.
I needed to contain the damage, learn from my missteps, and move on, quickly.
And he’s a decent, kind, forthright, collaborative partner to everyone he works with. Which is another lesson to be taken from his hiring: Surround yourself with people who are good in addition to being good at what they do. You can’t always predict who will have ethical lapses or reveal a side of themselves you never suspected was there. In the worst cases, you will have to deal with acts that reflect badly on the company and demand censure.
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.
Suddenly I was saying to them, essentially, “I want you to pay less attention to the business at which you’ve been very successful, and start paying more attention to this other thing. And by the way, you have to work on this new thing along with these other very competitive people from other teams, whose interests don’t necessarily line up with yours. And one more thing, it won’t make money for a while.”
I also started studying like crazy, reading papers and articles about everything from healthcare to taxation, from immigration law to international trade policy to environmental issues to Middle Eastern history and federal interest rates. I also read some of the greatest speeches ever delivered, including Ronald Reagan’s speech on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day; Robert Kennedy’s impromptu speech in Indianapolis when Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed; Franklin Roosevelt’s and John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speeches; Obama’s speech after the massacre at the A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina; and numerous Churchill addresses. I even reread the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
He was clearly worried about the future of 21st Century Fox. “We don’t have scale,” he said several times. “The only company that has scale is you.”
The third was his confidence that we could integrate the two companies smoothly and set the newly combined company on a dynamic path.
In other words, demanding quality and integrity from all of our people and of all of our products is paramount, and there is no room for second chances, or for tolerance when it comes to an overt transgression that discredits the company in any way. Roseanne’s tweet violated that tenet and our only choice was to do what was morally right. A statement will be released momentarily.”
It was an easy decision, really. I never asked what the financial repercussions would be, and didn’t care. In moments like that, you have to look past whatever the commercial losses are and be guided, again, by the simple rule that there’s nothing more important than the quality and integrity of your people and your product. Everything depends on upholding that principle.
After John left, we made Pete Docter the chief creative officer at Pixar, and Jennifer Lee, who wrote and directed Frozen, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation. Both are brilliant, beloved, inspiring people, and their leadership has been a silver lining to what was otherwise a painful time for the company.
We wanted the service to be accessible to as many people as possible around the world, and we had settled on a price that we estimated would bring in somewhere between sixty and ninety million subscribers in the first five years. When Kevin announced we would be selling it for $6.99 a month, there was an audible gasp in the room.
on how you wield it. Little things can start to shift. Your confidence can easily tip over into overconfidence and become a liability. You can start to feel that you’ve heard every idea, and so you become impatient and dismissive of others’ opinions. It’s not intentional, it just comes with the territory. You have to make a conscious effort to listen, to pay attention to the multitude of opinions. I’ve raised the issue with the executives I work most closely with as a kind of safeguard. “If you notice me being too dismissive or impatient, you need to tell me.” They’ve had to on occasion, but I hope not too often.
believed that quality would matter most. I believed we needed to embrace technology and disruption rather than fear it. I believed that expanding into new markets would be vital. I had no real idea, though, especially then, where this journey would take me. Determining principles of leadership is impossible to do without experience, but I had great mentors. Michael, for sure, and Tom and Dan before him, and Roone before them. Each was a master in his own way, and I’d absorbed everything I could from them. Beyond that, I trusted my instincts, and I encouraged the people around me to trust theirs. Only much later did those instincts start to shape themselves into particular qualities of leadership that I could articulate.
To tell great stories, you need great talent. Now more than ever: innovate or die. There can be no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new. I talk a lot about “the relentless pursuit of perfection.” In practice, this can mean a lot of things, and it’s hard to define. It’s a mindset, more than a specific set of rules. It’s not about perfectionism at all costs. It’s about creating an environment in which people refuse to accept mediocrity. It’s about pushing back against the urge to say that “good enough” is good enough. Take responsibility when you screw up. In work, in life, you’ll be more respected and trusted by the people around you if you own up to your mistakes. It’s impossible to avoid them; but it is possible to acknowledge them, learn from them, and set an example that it’s okay to get things wrong sometimes. Be decent to people. Treat everyone with fairness and empathy. This doesn’t mean that you lower your expectations or convey the message that mistakes don’t matter. It means that you create an environment where people know you’ll hear them out, that you’re emotionally consistent and fair-minded, and that they’ll be given second chances for honest mistakes. Excellence and fairness don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Strive for perfection but always be aware of the pitfalls of caring only about the product and never the people. 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 leadership weapon. If you trust your own instincts and treat people with respect, the company will come to represent the values you live by.
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Davidson Hang is currently in Sales at Cheetah Digital which is a Marketing technology company located in NYC.
Davidson is an avid networker, personal growth- life and business coach.
He loves spreading the love and regularly helps people create and design the life they want for themselves.
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