Hardcover | 272 pp. | Random House | 23/09/2019 | 1st Editiion
The Ride of a Lifetime is the memoir of Robert Iger, for 15 years CEO of Walt Disney. Reading this book was a “must” after Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc. Both speak at length, from two different points of view, of the acquisition of Pixar by Walt Disney, probably the most significant action that Iger did as a relatively new CEO of the company. And is also the liveliest part of the book.
Iger himself describes the book as not so much a memoir as an effort to share the knowledge and Leadership skills he’s gained after more than 45 years of working in different organisations. I think he fells short on delivering truly replicable leadership knowledge, but he illustrates a great example of Leadership Experience, in a genuinely uncommon workplace: Disney.
Iger’s Ride of Lifetime
The first part illustrates the origins of his career, from part-time jobs to his real beginning at ABC, where he then moved through the management ladder, sometimes assisted by some good luck. In these initial chapters there a few lessons that are worth mentioning, except maybe one around the usage of time and the importance of lateral thinking.
It’s vital to create space in each day to let your thoughts wander beyond your immediate job responsibilities. I am certain I’d be less productive and less creative in my work if I didn’t also spend those first hours away from the emails and text messages and phone calls that require so much attention as the day goes on.Bob Iger, The Ride of a Lifetime
One of the most intriguing parts of the book is about the relationship with George Lucas, after the acquisition of Lucasfilm. When Disney screened The Force Awakens, his reaction was almost brutal. And he also went public with some very annoying feedback on how Disney had executed the new movie. A tale that is a fascinating insight into the complexities of dealing with an iconic brand, not to mention an icon, even if you’re the most influential media executive alive.
Another big account is the history of the deal for the acquisition of Pixar. Iger had to push his entire weight with the board of Disney to get this investment approved. On the day of the announcement, Steve found me and pulled me aside. ‘Let’s take a walk,’ he said. … We walked for a while and then sat on a bench in the middle of Pixar’s beautiful, manicured grounds. Steve put his arm behind me, which was a beautiful, unexpected gesture. He then said, ‘I’m going to tell you something that only Laurene’ — his wife — ‘and my doctors know.’ He asked me for complete confidentiality, and then he told me that his cancer had returned. … ‘I am about to become your biggest shareholder and a member of your board,’ he said. ‘I think I owe you the right, given this knowledge, to back out of the deal.’” Igers went on with the deal, as we know, as his goal of reaffirming the centrality of Disney with animation was a key focus. But this example perfectly shows how much CEO’s decisions are down to very human relationships.
The other exciting tale comes from summer 2016 when Disney almost acquired Twitter. Iger had seen it as a distribution platform for content. He went ahead and had also won the OK from the board, but then he realised the significant issues in managing hate speech, fake profiles and in general a “freedom of expression” Twitter had that was not in tune with Disney’s culture, so he walked back from the deal.
Overall in his book he’s very diplomatic in a lot of the other relationships that he paints around the book.
The end of the book brings up the most exciting content, as Iger’s explains how he wanted to dramatically shift Disney to a new future based on technological innovation. After having focused on securing content (with the already mentioned acquisitions of Pixar and Lucasfilm, as well as that of Marvel), he made a big bet with investing in BAMTech, with using the company platform to launch a new subscription service, today called Diseny+.
The decision to disrupt businesses that are fundamentally working but whose future is in question—intentionally taking on short-term losses in the hope of generating long-term growth—requires no small amount of courage.Bob Iger, The Ride of a Lifetime
What would this move mean for the current standard TV programs? Would it be their end? Iger sees it very pragmatically: investment would continue until profit would still exist, but future growth would come from somewhere else.
As he discusses the reshaping of the overall strategy and the change in depth of Disney (especially with the 21st Century Fox Deal), Iger mentions in details his work on making sure incentives system was realigned within the organisation. An essential aspect that shows how relevant this topic is for executives in ensuring alignment of the organisation.
The Leadership Lesson
In the book, Iger distils a few characteristics that have helped him succeed in Leadership. He summarises four important ones:
- Optimism. Even in the face of difficulty, an optimistic leader will find the path toward the best possible outcome and focus on that, rather than give in to pessimism and blaming.
- Courage. Leaders have to be willing to take risks and place big bets. Fear of failure destroys creativity.
- Decisiveness. All decisions, no matter how difficult, can be made on a timely basis. Indecisiveness is both wasteful and destructive to morale.
- Fairness. Treat people decently, with empathy, and be accessible to them.
The Ride of a Lifetime is remarkably compelling work, as it shows three valuable lessons.
- Leadership is a journey: it can be a planned career or a piece of luck that got you in a role. But in any case, learning to be a leader is an individual journey made of humility, listening and practising.
- Business is Personal: also at this very high level, the big deals and the big problems reside in the personal relationship that people have. And caring for people across the business is an essential attribute for success.
- Innovate or die. No need to comment further, except that the CEO needs to have the courage to go for the innovation, and often “pull the plug” from what needs to be removed.
If you’re looking for a dose of ready-made recipes, or a book of quotes to recycle for any occasion than this is not the book for you. If instead, you want to learn what it takes to steer and change a traditional organisation with an enormous cultural heritage than this books is truly the tale for you.