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Tuesday, January 4, 2022

6 Big Lessons from Bob Iger’s Disney Exit Interview

 by Ray Keating



January 4, 2022


After nearly 50 years at ABC and Disney, Bob Iger’s last day as Disney’s chairman of the board came on December 31, 2021. Of course, Iger had stepped down as CEO in February 2020.


A great deal has been and will be said about Iger’s tenure as one of only six CEOs in the history of The Walt Disney Company, especially the company’s acquisitions of Pixar, Star Wars (Lucasfilm), Marvel and 21st Century Fox assets under his leadership, as well as the launching of and refocusing on streaming services, in particular, Disney+ and ESPN+.


For now, I’d like to put those aside and instead highlight several lessons provided by Iger in his final big interview as chairman with Variety in December.

Lesson #1: Talent over Experience


Variety: “On a recent trip to New York, he met up with his 96-year-old former boss at Cap Cities/ABC and longtime mentor, Tom Murphy. ‘One of the things he taught me was take chances with people. Don’t overemphasize experience — overemphasize talent,’ Iger says Murphy counseled him about making hiring decisions. ‘He took chances on me a number of times. That was a huge lesson.’”


Experience is great, but there needs to be much more. In the business world, but even more so in other areas like education and government, there too often is a default to experience in the worst sense of the word, that is, to tenure or seniority. Hanging around longer than others often means little in terms of such essential undertakings as innovation, productivity, working well with others, creativity, leadership, and so on. Taking chances, if you will, on talent will pay off far more often than defaulting to whomever happens to be next in line.


Lesson #2: Be Disruptive


Variety: Iger said, “I’m investing in companies that are using technology to disrupt current businesses.”


To his credit, Iger was the CEO of a massive global business, and yet he was not afraid to embrace technological change. Instead, he saw the benefits of technology for Disney, as illustrated by the launching of Disney+. And in his post-Disney undertakings, he’s talking about making investments in companies using technology to disrupt industries. That’s an effort rich in uncertainty and risk, but at the same time, it is essential and holds the potential for considerable achievements and returns. In the world of economics, Joseph Schumpeter wrote about “creative destruction,” that is, economic development and growth coming via the kinds of changes generated by entrepreneurs who create new industries, and/or new ways of doing things, with old industries and processes being replaced along the way. The vital enterprises that disrupt need funding from investors – apparently one will be Iger. 


Lesson #3: Realistic Optimism


Variety: Iger said, “Another is the whole notion of needing to be optimistic — because I think, particularly during a crisis, people are looking for hope and optimism — but at the same time needing to be extremely realistic to call it like it is so that those people are acting accordingly.”


One of my favorite quotes from Walt Disney is: “I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.” And here’s Iger saying similar things about optimism mixed with realism.


I appreciate this because I’ve long considered myself – even before I read the Walt quote – to be a realistic optimist. I’ve explained this joining of realism and optimism in one of my books (The Realistic Optimist TO DO List & Calendar 2019):


What exactly, though, am I talking about when claiming to be a realistic optimist? Well, let’s take a moment to look at the meaning of the two key words. First, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “optimism” means “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.” That’s a fair definition. Meanwhile, “realism” is defined as “the attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly.” 


Are these two definitions in conflict? To the contrary, for the realistic optimist, they are complementary. Too often when hearing that an individual is an optimist, some people will think of the wild-eyed optimist detached from reality, subscribing to the notion that nothing will ever go wrong and failure doesn’t exist. That’s not true optimism, but instead, it’s an unhealthy effort to cut oneself off from real life. 


An optimist doesn’t shun reality for fantasy. Rather, substantive optimism must be rooted in reality. Hopefulness and confidence in the future and in success does not mean that there will not be setbacks and failures. If Walt Disney were around today, he would certainly tell you that, as he experienced failure before achieving his success, as well as some failures amidst his subsequent amazing achievements. The realistic optimist understands that all will not go perfectly and is prepared to deal with it. The realistic optimist persists and perseveres through the setbacks, challenges and failures. The realistic optimist learns from failures and unexpected turns, and moves forward with hope and confidence in ultimately being successful in accomplishing whatever task is set out, whether that be, in no particular order, building a business, choosing a new career, being a good husband or wife, working for that promotion, writing a book, teaching a new class, being a caring parent, making a presentation, moving to a new town, earning a degree, attending and being active at church, creating the retirement one desires, learning a language, taking up and working at a new hobby, creating more time for grandchildren, and so on.


For good measure, being a realistic optimist doesn’t mean that you will not have some bad days or down times. We all do. But the realistic optimist works not to wallow in such periods, but instead, works to truncate them; to, again, come away with lessons learned; and to get back to positively advancing toward one’s goals.


In addition, being a realistic optimist does not mean forging ahead with an effort in spite of what one learns. In a career and life in general, experience, successes and failures often teach us that certain goals might have to be altered, redirected, or even tossed aside altogether. That’s the realist part of realistic optimism that sometimes must come to the fore. 


At the same time, moving away from one endeavor to take up another – such as setting out on a new career or starting a business after being an employee for many years – is not about giving up. The act of giving up is something very different, falling within the purview of pessimism and defeatism. Indeed, in direct contrast to the realistic optimist stands the pessimistic defeatist. Pessimism sees the worst and expects it will happen. And the defeatist accepts and succumbs to failure. That’s a deadly combination. The pessimistic defeatist rarely ventures out to try something new or to accomplish anything significant, and when he does, at the first challenge or two, his solution usually is to give up, as opposed to learning and persevering.


Lesson #4: Managing Creativity


Variety: The interviewer asked, “How difficult has it been managing a huge creative enterprise like Disney?”


Iger replied: “It’s not difficult if you apply a few critical principles. First is you have to respect the creators and their creative processes a lot and not encroach. In other words, do no harm. Be there as a cheerleader to encourage, to push and to demand excellence and innovation. Part of the underpinning of successful creative leadership is trust — trusting people in the end to do the right thing.”


Iger hits on some key points when working with and managing others. Respect for the creativity and work of others is vital. Micro-managing creativity is a surefire path to losing creativity, and ultimately, creative people. Iger also is correct to point out that managing creative individuals involves encouragement, but it also must include some pushing and certainly clear expectations for excellence and innovation. One cannot simply assume that all will be well in terms of quality. And yes, trust is a vital two-way street, that is, entrepreneurs and managers must have trust in their people, and at the same time, employees must be able to trust the people running the show. Trust must flow both ways that the right things will be done.


Lesson #5: Innovation Must Be Ongoing


Variety: Iger said, “Any company that does not keep pace or allow itself to innovate will fail. It’s that simple. We’ve seen it countless times. If we pause for a moment and think back on all the companies that failed to be innovative, everybody always uses Xerox or Kodak, companies like that. If you were to look at all the most valuable brands in the world in the decade since Disney was founded in 1923, there are only two companies left that are still considered among the top global brands — Disney and Coca-Cola.”


Innovation – that is, bringing new products and/or new processes to the marketplace – always has been essential to success in the free enterprise system. But the rate of innovation has quickened over time, and the need for it to be ongoing has been magnified. Iger highlights this point in two ways. He notes that innovation is vital in order to survive and thrive, and then he brings it home with a lesson from history. Indeed, history can tell us a great deal not only about how we got here, but why and where things might be headed. In business, the lesson is that creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship are ongoing disruptors to the point that big and profitable companies today are likely not even to be around tomorrow if they stagnate.


Lesson #6: Sometimes the Hardest Lessons are the Best


Variety: The interviewer asked about the tortured, painful process he went through to succeed Michael Eisner as Disney CEO. Iger said, “I remember it well. Was it painful? Yes, partially because it was very public and there were so many doubters. It’s not easy experiencing that, but it strengthened me in a number of ways. I think it caused me to focus more on what my thoughts were about leading this company and what my plans might be. I think it ended up forcing a discipline on me that served me extremely well once I became CEO and in the years since then.”


It's not unusual that failure or difficult times in the careers of entrepreneurs and CEOs often provide the most powerful lessons. Indeed, that’s the case not just for business titans, but for all of us. If one can learn from failures and disappointments, these often provide the lessons that stick with us and make a real difference. That has been the case with my own career, and obviously, it made a major difference for Bob Iger.


Failure or tough times also can help put things in proper perspective. Walt Disney said, “It is good to have a failure while you’re young because it teaches you so much. For one thing it makes you aware that such a thing can happen to anybody, and once you’ve lived through the worst, you’re never quite as vulnerable afterward.” The key, again, is what one takes away from these challenges – lessons to build on or a defeatism. Let’s just say that a realistic optimist should never acquiesce to defeatism.




Ray Keating is the editor, publisher and economist for DisneyBizJournal.com, and author of the Pastor Stephen Grant novels and assorted nonfiction books. Have Ray Keating speak your group, business, school, church, or organization. Email him at raykeating@keatingreports.com.


The views expressed here are his own – after all, no one else should be held responsible for this stuff, right?


Get more out of 2022 with The Disney Planner 2022: The TO DO List Solution! It combines a simple, powerful system for getting things done with encouragement and fun for Disney fans, including those who love Mickey, Marvel, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Pixar, princesses and more. Also, “The Disney Planner 2022: The TO DO List Solution” comes with a handy spiral binding for easy use. 


Keating has three new books out. Vatican Shadows: A Pastor Stephen Grant Novel is the 13th thriller/mystery in the Pastor Stephen Grant series. Get the paperback or Kindle edition at Amazon, or signed books at www.raykeatingonline.comPast Lives: A Pastor Stephen Grant Short Story is the 14th book in the series. Again, get the paperback or Kindle edition at Amazon, or signed book at www.raykeatingonline.com. And order the 15th book in the series What’s Lost? A Pastor Stephen Grant Short Story – grab it at Amazon.com or signed editions at www.raykeatingonline.com


Also, check out Ray’s podcasts – the Daily Dose of DisneyFree Enterprise in Three Minutes, and the PRESS CLUB C Podcast.

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