Ride of a Lifetime – A leadership book to read

The years between 1975 and 2005 have been important ones in the history of Corporate America. These years witnessed the birth of Microsoft, Apple, WWW, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Industrial Automation, Pixar Animation Studios etc., Every time I read the Biographies of American Entrepreneurs these important years would definitely pop-up. For me, the latest addition to that is the story Robert Iger.

Robert Iger (Bob Iger) was the CEO of Walt Disney for 15 years and he turned it into one of the most successful companies in the world. Ride of a Lifetime is a journey of Bob Iger through ABC till Walt Disney.

I knew a bit about Bob Iger through Disney Pixar acquisition from the Biographies of Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull (Creativity Inc). With this book I got to learn another side of the story.

The first half of the book is a relatively slow account of Iger’s early years moving up the management ladder at ABC which was acquired by Capital Cities. Bob explains how he got into ABC as a weatherman; left it to become Junior staffer at ABC in 1974. He becomes ABC Entertainment president in 1989 and network president soon after. He decides to stay with the company when Walt Disney acquires ABC in 1995. He later becomes CEO of Walt Disney after Micael Eisner steps down as it’s CEO.

The second half of the book is about how he revamped Walt Disney through few tough decisions and acquisitions. One of the most interesting part of the book happens in 2006 when he becomes CEO of Disney. Even though company had produced hits like Snow White and Lion King, it had experienced series of Box Office Disappointments.

Walt Disney, under partnership with Pixar Animation Studio had produced and distributed few successful movies like Toy Story; but the relationship was deteriorating as Pixar started getting upper hand in the process. Iger believed that it was essential to repair the relationship with Pixar due to the poor state of Disney’s animation business. He thought buying the Pixar would fix Disney’s animation problem. Because that was crucial to all of Disney’s other businesses. Everyone including Disney’s own Board of Directors thought that was bad idea and Steve Jobs, the founder of Pixar wouldn’t sell the company to Disney.

“I knew there was nothing to be gained from arguing over the past,” Iger writes. “The only thing that mattered was the future, and I believed I had a clear idea of the direction Disney needed to go.”

Iger persuades Steve to sell Pixar. Steve tells Iger that he would seriously consider it only if John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were on board.

Steve believed that If Disney acquired Pixar then its culture would get diluted and it would be no longer Pixar. But Iger promised to keep Pixar separate and would never let Disney’s culture overtake Pixar’s. This is in important decision because Iger followed similar approach when he bought other companies in future.

Hours before the final deal to be signed, Steve talks about his pancreatic cancer with Iger, which had returned after few years. “I am about to become your biggest shareholder and a member of your board,” Steve tells him. “And I think I owe you the right, given this knowledge, to back out of the deal.”

Iger however continues with the deal and that turns out to be a successful in coming years.

Another feat achieved by Iger is Disney Streaming service. It may seem obvious now, but at the time Iger made the decision, it was considered a risky move. Iger saw the future in streaming all of Disney’s content in one place. This was similar to Apple’s iStore. Iger discussed this with Steve and he showed him the iPhone (before the launch in 2007) stating that he had built something similar.

To build the streaming service, Disney needed to have a host of content which can attract users. This also meant buying back licenses it had sold to other companies.

In Coming years, Iger successfully acquires Marvel, Lucas films and non News division of 21st Century Fox. Like Pixar, he ensures that the respective cultures of the acquired companies are protected.

Well, there are many leadership lessons through out the book. I liked the fact that he’s honest when he talks about the failures. It could be the TV shows which did poorly or about the relationship with his colleagues.

This book is about the relentless curiosity that has driven Iger for forty-five years, since the day he started as a studio supervisor at ABC. Earlier this year, Iger stepped down as CEO of Disney after 15 years and announced that he plans to retire from the company in 2021.