[Book Notes] 10 insights: The ride of a lifetime

Disney is one of the most fascinating companies that I have been following for the last few years. Some of their bets in the last few years have really paid off: (1) Marvel’s acquisition, (2) investment in Disney+ streaming service etc. The foundation for those bets were laid under the leadership of Bob Iger – Disney’s ex CEO. Iger’s book – The Ride of a Lifetime – provides an inside view into many of these decisions. Some of my notes/insights from this book are as follows:


#1:

The relentless pursuit of perfection.

In practice that means a lot of things, and it’s hard to define. It’s a mindset, really, more than a specific set of rules. It’s not, at least as I have internalized it, about perfectionism at all costs. Instead, it’s about creating an environment in which you refuse to accept mediocrity. You instinctively push back against the urge to say There’s not enough time, or I don’t have the energy, or This requires a difficult conversation I don’t want to have, or any of the many other ways we can convince ourselves that “good enough” is good enough.

 

#2:

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. If you start petty, you seem petty. And if the big picture is a mess, then the small things don’t matter anyway, and you shouldn’t spend time focusing on them.

 

#3:

“Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year!” He was telling me not to invest in projects that would sap the resources of my company and me and not give much back.

 

#4:

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?

 

#5:

I’ve been asked a lot over the years about the best way to nurture ambition—both one’s own and that of the people you manage. As a leader, you should want those around you to be eager to rise up and take on more responsibility, as long as dreaming about the job they want doesn’t distract them from the job they have. You can’t let ambition get too far ahead of opportunity. I’ve seen a lot of people who had their sights set on a particular job or project, but the opportunity to actually get that thing was so slim. Their focus on the small thing in the distance became a problem. They grew impatient with where they were. They didn’t tend enough to the responsibilities they did have, because they were longing so much for something else, and so their ambition became counterproductive. It’s important to know how to find the balance—do the job you have well; be patient; look for opportunities to pitch in and expand and grow; and make yourself one of the people, through attitude and energy and focus, that your bosses feel they have to turn to when an opportunity arises. Conversely, if you’re a boss, these are the people to nurture—not the ones who are clamoring for promotions and complaining about not being utilized enough but the ones who are proving themselves to be indispensable day in and day out.

 

#6:

It’s a tricky thing, moving people over to your side and enlisting their enthusiastic engagement. Sometimes it’s worth talking through their reservations and patiently responding to their concerns. Other times you simply need to communicate that you’re the boss and you want this done. It’s not that one approach is “nice” and the other isn’t. It’s just that one is more direct and nonnegotiable. It really comes down to what you believe is right for the moment—when a more democratic approach is useful both in getting to the best outcome and in building morale, and when you have enough certainty in your opinion that you’re willing to be an autocrat even in the face of disagreement.

 

#7:

We also negotiated what we called a “social compact”—a two-page list of culturally significant issues and items that we promised to preserve. They wanted to feel that they were still Pixar, and everything related to protecting that feeling mattered. Their email addresses would remain Pixar addresses; the signs on their buildings would still say Pixar. They could keep their rituals for welcoming new employees and their tradition of monthly beer blasts. A much more sensitive negotiation took place over the branding on films, merchandise, and theme-park attractions. Our research showed that Pixar had eclipsed Disney as a brand—a fact that they were well aware of—but I felt that over time the strongest branding for the Pixar films, especially since John and Ed would now be running Disney Animation, would be Disney-Pixar. Ultimately, that’s what we settled on. Pixar’s famous “Luxo Junior” animation would still open each of their films, but it would be preceded by the Disney castle animation.

Ride of a lifetime: Disney's movie releases
 

#8:

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. We wouldn’t have all the characters under one umbrella, which would potentially cause some brand confusion and some licensing complications down the road.

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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.

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The Marvel skeptics in New York weren’t the only ones who felt that a black-led superhero movie couldn’t perform at the box office. There’s a long-held view in Hollywood that films with predominantly black casts, or with black leads, will struggle in many international markets. That assumption has limited the number of black-led films being produced, and black actors being cast, and many of those that have been made had reduced budgets to mitigate the box-office risk.

Ride of a lifetime: Marvel acquisition
 

#9:

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. There’s a kind of euphemistic corporate language that is often deployed in those situations, and it has always struck me as offensive. There’s no way for the conversation not to be painful, but at least it can be honest, and in being honest there is at least a chance for the person on the receiving end to understand why it’s happening and eventually move on, even if they walk out of the room angry as hell.

 

#10:

In George’s mind, Lucasfilm was as valuable as Pixar, but even from our relatively uninformed analysis they weren’t. They might be someday, but it would take years of work to get it there, and we’d still have to make great films. I didn’t want to offend him, but I didn’t want to lead him on, either. The worst thing you can do when entering into a negotiation is to suggest or promise something because you know the other person wants to hear it, only to have to reverse course later. You have to be clear about where you stand from the beginning. I knew if I misled George, simply to begin the bargaining process, or to keep the conversation going, it would ultimately backfire on me.

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I eventually called George and told him we had narrowed it down to a price range, and we still needed time to home in on a specific price. It would be between $3.5 billion and $3.75 billion. George had come way down from his “Pixar price,” but I could tell he was not going to accept anything lower than Marvel. I met with Kevin and his team and we looked at our analysis again. We didn’t want to falsely raise our box office estimates, but even at the top end of the range I’d given George, there was some room for us to pay more, though it would put a lot more pressure on the timing and performance of the films. Could we make three in six years? These were Star Wars films, and we would have to be very careful. Ultimately, Kevin and I decided we could afford $4.05 billion, or slightly above what we paid for Marvel, and George immediately agreed.

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On top of George’s reaction, there was a lot of speculation in the press and from die-hard fans about how we were going to “Disney-fy” Star Wars. As with Marvel, I made the decision not to put “Disney” anywhere in the film credits or the marketing campaigns, and to not in any way change the Star Wars logo. “Disney-Pixar” made sense from an animation-branding perspective, but Lucas fans needed to be reassured that we, too, were fans first, respectful of the creator and looking to expand on his legacy, not usurp it.

 

Others:

At some point over the years, 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 all want to believe we’re indispensable. You have to be self-aware enough that you don’t cling to the notion that you are the only person who can do this job. At its essence, good leadership isn’t about being indispensable; it’s about helping others be prepared to step into your shoes—giving them access to your own decision-making, identifying the skills they need to develop and helping them improve, and sometimes being honest with them about why they’re not ready for the next step up.

 

Michael Eisner used to say, “micromanaging is underrated.” I agree with him—to a point. Sweating the details can show how much you care. “Great” is often a collection of very small things, after all. The downside of micromanagement is that it can be stultifying, and it can reinforce the feeling that you don’t trust the people who work for you.

 

A lot of companies acquire others without much sensitivity toward 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 others). But usually what they’re really acquiring is people. In a creative business, that’s where the value lies.