The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger – Here are my six lessons and takeaways

(A personal note:  I am writing this blog post during the great pandemic of 2020.  Some of the books I read, and present, seem oddly out of place with our current reality.  Even as I write this post, Disney had quite a difficult reopening of Disney in Florida…
But this book is a terrific book, on business success, and on leadership.
One can only hope that life returns to “normal” as soon as possible).

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At its simplest, this book is about being guided by a set of principles that help nurture the good and manage the bad.The Ride of a Lifetime
I’ve come to believe that I have insights that could be useful beyond my own experience.
If you run a business or manage a team or collaborate with others in pursuit of a common goal, this book might be helpful to you.

We used to call our biggest, most exciting theme-park attractions “E-Tickets.” That’s what comes to mind when I think about the job, that it’s been a fourteen-year ride on a giant E-Ticket attraction known as the Walt Disney Company.

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At the July First Friday Book Synopsis, I presented my synopsis on The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger.

This is a very good book.

Robert (Bob) Iger has been at the top position of Disney for fifteen years.  (He stepped out of that role just before the pandemic, and quickly returned to the role because of the pandemic).  He started at the bottom, and was mentored by Roone Arledge at one point.  ESPN; ABC; Disney. Quite a resumé!

In my synopses, I always ask:  What is the point?  Here is my answer for this book: Leadership is earned. And respect is earned. Robert Iger came up from the bottom, learned his lessons, and earned the title of leader. 

And I ask, Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three reasons for this book.
#1 – This book is a history of the Disney organization in modern times (along with some history of ABC and ESPN), and a tutorial on how to successfully pull off acquisitions and mergers.
#2 – This book is a reminder, yet again, that there are very few geniuses.  Steve Jobs was one of those geniuses.
#3 – This book is a reminder that success most often comes from the basics; getting lucky with your opportunities and mentors; working hard; cultivating the right mix of strategic insights and human-centered leadership.

I always include Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted passages.  Here are a number of the very best from my synopsis handout:

• Optimism. One of the most important qualities of a good leader is optimism, a pragmatic enthusiasm for what can be achieved. Even in the face of difficult choices and less than ideal outcomes, an optimistic leader does not yield to pessimism. Simply put, people are not motivated or energized by pessimists.
• A company’s success depends on setting high ethical standards for all things, big and small.  Another way of saying this is:  The way you do anything is the way you do everything.
• However you find the time, it’s vital to create space in each day to let your thoughts wander beyond your immediate job responsibilities, to turn things over in your mind in a less pressured, more creative way than is possible once the daily triage kicks in.
• It’s about creating an environment in which you refuse to accept mediocrity.
• One lesson in this story, the obvious one about the importance of taking responsibility when you screw up.
• 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.
• My instinct throughout my career has always been to say yes to every opportunity. In part this is just garden-variety ambition. …but I also wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of doing things that I was unfamiliar with.
• Your inexperience can’t be an excuse for failure.
• Managing creative processes starts with the understanding that it’s not a science—everything is subjective; there is often no right or wrong.  …a delicate balance is required between management being responsible for the financial performance of any creative work and, in exercising that responsibility, being careful not to encroach on the creative processes in harmful and counterproductive ways.
• When the two people at the top of a company have a dysfunctional relationship, there’s no way that the rest of the company beneath them can be functional.
• I would give him a stack of materials in advance of a meeting, and the next day he’d come in not having read any of them and say, “Give me the facts,” then render a fast opinion.
He was covering up for not being prepared, and in a company like Disney, if you don’t do the work, the people around you detect that right away and their respect for you disappears.
You have to be attentive. You have to learn and absorb.
• At its essence, 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.
• Pessimism became the rule more than the exception, and it led him to close ranks and become increasingly cloistered. …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.
• “The world is moving so much faster than it did even a couple of years ago.” …Our decision making has to be straighter and faster, and I need to explore ways of doing that.”
• 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.”
• 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. 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. 

The book has so many lessons, and great stories. 

I especially appreciated the story of how Robert Iger salvaged the relationship with Roy Disney (the nephew of Walt Disney).  Mr. Iger has a heart of empathy, and that shows in his leadership decisions; especially in this decision.

He also was greatly helped by his close friendship with Steve Jobs.  His stories about that business and personal friendship are worth the price of the book!

Here are a few of the key points I included in my synopsis handout: 

  • a lesson in crisis management
  • after the alligator attack — Within twenty-four hours, they had ropes and fences and signs up throughout the park, which is twice the size of Manhattan.
  • a lesson in Innovation
  • you have to do it
  • you may need a whole new culture to do it; it may be much easier to acquire a true innovation culture than to make a non-innovative culture innovative
  • a lesson in pushing management and decision-making out to the teams…
  • Iger dismantled the strategy and decision-making culture – and he did it in one big swoop!
  • Their dismantled strategy was fairly simple. They were hypervigilant about controlling costs, and they believed in a decentralized corporate structure.
  • 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. 
  • Take responsibility
  • 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.
  • What’s not okay is to undermine others by lying about something or covering your own ass first.
  • You will fail – learn from your failures
  • Of all the lessons I learned in that first year running prime time, the need to be comfortable with failure was the most profound.
  • You have got to be aware when the world is changing/has changed
  • 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. 
  • You only get three — priorities (Disney: High quality branded content; embrace technology; global company)
  • 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. 

Here was a real highlight of the book:  he began this book with “The Priniciples,” and he ended it with “lessons to lead by.”  Both of these were great lists, with explanation and commentary.  Her are just a few, from each list:

  • The Principles:
  • Optimism. — Simply put, people are not motivated or energized by pessimists.
  • Courage. — The foundation of risk-taking is courage,
  • Curiosity. — A deep and abiding curiosity enables the discovery of new people, places, and ideas, as well as an awareness and an understanding of the marketplace and its changing dynamics. The path to innovation begins with curiosity.
  • Empathy — essential, as is accessibility. …People committing honest mistakes deserve second chances, and judging people too harshly generates fear and anxiety, which discourage communication and innovation. …Nothing is worse to an organization than a culture of fear. — Empathy is a prerequisite to the sound management of creativity, and respect is critical.
  • The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection. — This doesn’t mean perfectionism at all costs, but it does mean a refusal to accept mediocrity or make excuses for something being “good enough.” …If you believe that something can be made better, put in the effort to do it. …be in the business of making things great.
  • Integrity. — Nothing is more important than the quality and integrity of an organization’s people and its product. …setting high ethical standards for all things, big and small. 
  • Lessons to Lead By:
  • 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.        
  • Take responsibility when you screw up.
  • Be decent to people. Treat everyone with fairness and empathy.
  • As a leader, if you don’t do the work, the people around you are going to know, and you’ll lose their respect fast.
  • A company’s reputation is the sum total of the actions of its people and the quality of its products.
  • You can’t communicate pessimism to the people around you. It’s ruinous to morale.
  • Long shots aren’t usually as long as long as they seem. Take big swings.
  • You have to do the homework. You have to be prepared.
  • If something doesn’t feel right to you, it won’t be right for you.
  • When hiring, try to surround yourself with people who are good in addition to being good at what they do. — Genuine decency—an instinct for fairness and openness and mutual respect—is a rarer commodity in business than it should be, and you should look for it in the people you hire.
  • Most deals are personal.
  • The decision to disrupt a business model that is working for you requires no small amount of courage. — Deal with this kind of uncertainty by going back to basics: Lay out your strategic priorities clearly. Remain optimistic in the face of the unknown. And be accessible and fair-minded to people.
  • You have to approach your work and life with a sense of genuine humility.
  • Hold on to your awareness of yourself, even as the world tells you how important you are.

And here are my six lessons and takeaways:

#1 – You cannot live off of yesterday’s successes.  Innovate or die.
#2 – What is not paid careful attention to…becomes mediocre in a hurry.
#3 – It may not be possible to turn around a dysfunctional culture; especially one which spent a long time becoming dysfunctional.  The answer may be to acquire the culture you need.
#4 – Treat people decently! Cultivate empathy. – Remember the Roy Disney story.
#5 – Cultivate the key relationships.
#6 – A footnote – regarding Marvel, and a dinner which included the two leaders and their wives – (Note: Robert Iger is married to Willow Bay, who is quite accomplished. She is the current Dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism).

And, I wish I had included his strong emphasis on the leader’s need to “take responsibility” in my lessons and takeaways, which comes through throughout the book.  The responsibility is on the leader!

Though I always think it is better for folks to read a book for themselves, there are times when I think my synopsis will give someone “enough” of the book to be more than helpful.  I do believe my synopsis of this book is quite thorough.  But it cannot possibly give you the emotion or the full impact of the stories. This is a very good book.  I encourage you to read it, especially if you are in a position of leadership.

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I present synopses of two books a month at the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas.  My synopsis of this book, with my comprehensive, multi-page synopsis handout and the audio recording of my presentation, will be available to purchase soon at the “Buy Synopses” tab at the top of this page.  Click here for our newest additions.

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