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

By Robert Iger

Published by Random House, Sept. 2019, 250 pages, Hardcover $28

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a Nutshell: The unlikely career path of Disney Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger and his personal philosophy that got him there.

Who’s it for? A perfect book for business owners, managers, and aspiring entrepreneurs.

Author’s Quote: “True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.”

The business biography is a bit of a lost genre in the book business. The ones that have appeared recently have more ego-driven components attached to them and less useful takeaway advice. Fortunately, Robert Iger, the longtime CEO of the Walt Disney Company (Disney), has enough situational awareness to discuss more of what he has learned combined with interesting accounts of events that have occurred during his professional life.

Early in the book, Iger apologetically claims, that “The Ride of a Lifetime” is not a memoir, yet for the first half of the book it is. His journey starts as a graduate of a small upstate New York college with a chance interview with ABC in New York City. The interview leads to a menial first job but is our first glimpse of Iger creating his own luck by meshing opportunities and tenacity. This combination of hard work and using personal connections becomes a pattern that will successfully repeat itself.

The book chronicles Iger’s path all the way to becoming the leader of the world’s largest media company. Throughout, we see strategic decisions that work well for Iger and also the people around him. Never outworked, he methodically navigates through decisions that at each point foresee future outcomes with the best potential results in mind. During his tenure, Iger was responsible for Disney’s successful mergers of Pixar, Lucasfilms LTD, Marvel, and 20thCentury Fox – all major acquisitions that required tremendous negotiating skills. He eventually becomes Disney’s CEO as the company is emerging from a self-inflicted identity and financial crisis in 2005.

“The Ride of a Lifetime” has essentially two sections: The biography and the section detailing Iger’s oversight of Disney, which serves as a handbook for managing people, customers, and investors. Perhaps the book’s biggest takeaway is Iger’s inclination to value long-term relationships over shorter-term profits.

During this time Iger masterfully directs Disney’s unlikely courtships of Pixar, Lucas Films, and 20thCentury Fox. It’s all recounted in fascinating first-person detail. The purchase of Pixar leads to a strong friendship between Iger and Steve Jobs. George Lucas becomes aware of the purchase of Pixar through Jobs and eventually trusts Iger to take his company under the large Disney umbrella, while retaining Lucas Films’ unique company culture. More recently Iger also oversaw the opening of a new Shanghai Disney Resort in China as well as the introduction of the Disney Plus streaming TV platform.

“The Ride of a Lifetime” also provides interesting “what if” details, including Disney’s failed purchase of Twitter and an outside job position that Iger almost accepted just prior to his assent at Disney. The strong relationship Iger builds with Apple’s Steve Jobs, up until Jobs’ death in 2011, is a remarkably touching part of the book.

Iger does have a good sense of timing up to a point. His scheduled departure in 2021 as the head of Disney would have been a storybook ending if not for the recent impact the COVID-19 virus is having on Disney’s assets.  With continued park closures and consumer weariness, perhaps “The Ride of a Lifetime” deserves an added chapter detailing the present roller coaster ride Disney and Iger find themselves on. The book finishes with a nicely organized section of Iger’s business philosophies, many of which focus on reaching business outcomes that that are mutually beneficial to all involved.

Chris Wendel is a Business Advisor with Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial institution (CDFI) based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org

 

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