June 9, 2020
Distilling Priorities

When Robert Iger became CEO of The Walt Disney Co. in 2005, one of his first priorities was to change the company’s culture.

Disney was facing a crisis.

Its animation studio had a long run of mediocre releases. A key relationship with Steve Jobs’ Pixar Animation Studios was in tatters. Influential board members had been agitating for the ouster of Iger’s predecessor. And the company had become far too centralized in its decision-making at the expense of creativity.

Iger needed to convince Disney’s board that he was the right guy for the job — a “change agent” — despite spending his entire career at the company. To do so, he prepared a long list of priorities to address in his interview.

“You’re going to seem unfocused,” a friend of his said. “You only get three.”

“He was right,” Iger writes in his book The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. “There was no signaling as to what was most important, no easily digested, comprehensive vision.”

“A company’s culture is shaped by a lot of things, but this is the most important — you have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly,” Iger continues. “In my experience, it’s what separates great managers from the rest.”

So that’s what Iger did.

He constructed a strategy around three priorities: (1) devoting more time and capital to the creation of high-quality branded content, (2) embracing technology to create better content and distribute it more broadly and efficiently, and (3) become a truly global company.

Iger accomplished all of this and more in his 15-year tenure as CEO — today, he’s executive chairman.

Disney acquired Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm and 21st Century Fox on his watch. It opened Disney’s first theme park in mainland China. And its revenue more than doubled, and its earnings more than quadrupled, over the past decade and a half.

If one were to draw a Venn diagram of leadership acumen and quantifiable results, Iger would sit comfortably in the overlap.

“You can do a lot for the morale of the people around you (and therefore the people around them),” Iger writes, “just by taking the guesswork out of their day-to-day life.”

Distilling one’s priorities takes discipline, but it pays major dividends.

• John J. Maxfield, executive editor of Bank Director