[Book Review] The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company

My ratings of the book
Likelihood to recommend: 5/5
Educational value: 4/5
Engaging plot: 5/5
Clear & concise writing: 5/5
Suitable for: everyone, especially those interested in management & business

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company is the memoir of Robert Iger, named as the 2019 businessperson of the year by Time magazine. Iger is well-known for revitalizing Disney with key initiatives such as the acquisition of Pixar & Marvel, and the launch of streaming services. This book is an absolute enjoyment to read – I finished it within one day.

For those who are short on time and want to get straight to the “talking points”, Roger has summarized the key takeaways in Appendix – Lessons to Lead By. I quote some of my favorites below:

“To tell great stories, you need great talent.”

“I talk a lot about ‘the relentless pursuit of perfection’…It’s not about perfectionism at all costs. It’s about creating an environment in which people refuse to accept mediocrity. It’s about pushing back against the urge to say that ‘good enough’ is good enough.”

“Don’t start negatively, and don’t start small. People will often focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty.”

“Don’t let ambition get ahead of opportunity. By fixating on a future job or project, you become impatient with where you are. You don’t tend enough to the responsibilities you do have, and so ambition can become counterproductive.”

“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.

Some other takeaways from the book:

1/ Great leaders value ability over experience. This is not to say that experience is not important, but to highlight that if it comes down to placing your bet on one of the two, you should “bet on brains”.

“Tom and Dan were the perfect bosses in this regard. They would talk about valuing ability more than experience, and they believed in putting people in roles that required more of them than they knew they had in them. It wasn’t that experience wasn’t important, but they ‘bet on brains.'”

2/ A dysfunctional leadership between senior management hurts the morale of the entire company, making the staff confused, afraid, or both. It rarely ends up well.

“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. It’s like having two parents who fight all the time.”

3/ Respecting people’s time is underrated – how you deal with time is one of the things that immediately solidifies your reputation (or breaks it). People remember the seemingly small things.

“Once, he took a call, in my office, from President Clinton, talking with him for forty-five minutes while I sat outside. A call from Tom Cruise interrupted another meeting.”

“Meeting after meeting was either canceled, rescheduled, or abbreviated, and soon every top executive at Disney was whispering behind his back about what a disaster he was. Managing your own time and respecting others’ time is one of the most vital things to do as a manager.”

4/ Micromanagement not only frustrates your employees, but could make you look petty and narrow-minded as a leader.

“Michael was proud of his micromanagement, but in expressing his pride, and reminding people of the details he was focused on, he could be perceived as being petty and small-minded. I once watched him give an interview in the lobby of a hotel and say to the reporter, ‘You see those lamps over there? I chose them.’ It’s a bad look for a CEO.”

5/ Don’t forget people who have helped you, and don’t step on them to get your own way. I respect how Iger tried to not look better at the expense of Michael, Disney’s CEO before him, who had a bad reputation and was blamed for Disney’s troubles.

“I respected Michael and was grateful for the opportunities he’d given me. I’d also been COO of the company for five years, and it would have been hypocritical, transparently so, to lay all of the blame on someone else. Mostly, though, it just wouldn’t have been right to make myself look better at Michael’s expense. I vowed to myself not to do that.”

6/ A big question to ask yourself is: who do you want to be remembered as? What is a defining feature of your identity? For George Lucas, his identity and values are largely defined by the Star Wars series – and it is touching to see how much that one thing matters to him and gives his life meaning.

“He (George Lucas) said something else that I kept in mind in every subsequent onversation we had: ‘Whe nI die, the first line of my obituary is going to read ‘Star Wars creator George Lucas…’ It was so much a part of who he was, which ofcouse I knew, but having him look into my eyes and say it like that underscored the most important factor in these conversations.”

7/ Doing what’s right as a CEO doesn’t necessarily mean doing what’s financially right. Doing what’s right means literally what it says: doing what’s right. Kudos to Iger’s decision to terminate a high-profile employee after her inappropriate Tweet.

“‘We have to do what’s right. Not what’s politically correct, and not what’s commercially correct. Just what’s right. If any of our employees tweeted what she tweeted, they’d be immediately terminated.’ I told them (the management) to feel free to push back or tell me I was crazy (to fire her), but no one did.”

“It was an easy decision (to let her go), really. I never asked what the financial repercurssions would be, and didn’t care. 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.”

In general, I find Iger’s tone to be matter-of-the-fact without much self-promotion (of himself or the company). I appreciate how he points out what he sees as strengths and weaknesses of people whom he has worked with, including his former managers or mentors.

There are some things that I think would be good to include in the book:

A/ The one business decision that Iger made, which I was not sure about, was passing the opportunity to acquire Twitter. Iger said it did not feel right, and he was worried about the (potential) liability to manage and / or moderate an open platform where anyone could post anything. It would be interesting to see what Disney would have made out of Twitter – at least I would have liked Iger to share more about what he and Disney’s Board & management initially planned to do with Twitter.

B/ I would have wanted Iger to talk more about what he felt were missed opportunities or mistakes on his own part. I felt the book largely focused on what he did right – and while he narrated these stories in a fairly neutral way (and I believe he does deserve credit where it is due), I would have liked to see his candid self-assessment on what he did wrong.

C/ One thing that the book didn’t touch upon too much is how to manage an amusement park the scale of Disney. Iger mentioned he learnt many things from his predecessors on the various aspects of design & management. It would be really cool to know what are the details that Disney management pays attention to.

That being said, the book overall has not disappointed, and could be finished in half a day. Do consider giving it a try.

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