Bob Iger.
Photo by: Robert Lopez

Robert Iger talks courage, talent and Disney+

“Being such a powerful person, how do you ground yourself, humble yourself and put things in perspective,” asked journalism major Spencer Petty.

For Robert Iger, the answer comes down to being genuine, admitting mistakes and treating others as equals. The Disney CEO also insists that he doesn’t want the title is emblazoned on his forehead, even though he often gets treated that way.

“I try to show up at work every day as the person that I have always been and not the title that I have become,” he said.

Just days after the highly anticipated launch of the Disney+ streaming service, Iger spent an afternoon sharing these and other insights from his best-selling book, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of The Walt Disney Company (Random House).

USC Cinematic Arts Dean Elizabeth Daley led the Nov. 15 conversation with Iger as more than 200 USC students gathered in the George Lucas Building’s Ray Stark Family Theatre.

To introduce the discussion, USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay highlighted Iger’s many accomplishments, including producing blockbuster movies such as Avengers: Endgame and opening Shanghai Disneyland as well as nine other parks and lands around the world.

Iger said he is often asked about the secret to his success.

“I thought it would be a generous thing for me to write it down, ultimately in book form, and share it with everybody, particularly people such as this audience,” he said.

Iger also shared that proceeds from the book’s sale will support scholarships for journalism students at several institutions, including USC Annenberg, where the endowed scholarship will support journalism master’s students from underrepresented backgrounds. 

Here are five takeaways from the event, in Iger’s own words.

Photo by: Spencer Quinn

The courage to be creative

You can’t really be creative unless you’re courageous. Oftentimes organizations that are in the creative business are not as courageous as they need to be because there’s often a lot of money at stake…. That is, in my opinion, the worst way to be when you’re managing creativity….

At The Walt Disney Company, virtually all of our commerce emanates from creativity: television shows and obviously movies, theme parks, theme park parades and shows, and I could go on and on.

I felt all along that understanding that creativity isn’t an art or a science and, therefore, is far less predictable, is the right approach. Knowing how to process failure, which is inevitable when it comes to creativity, is also incredibly important. We try not to beat each other up when we have creative failure. We like to learn what may have gone wrong so we don’t walk down the same path again, but by punishing failure and creativity, you ultimately diminish your creative abilities.

Talent and tech

I think, if you’re on the creative side of the business, there’s never been a better time…. competition for great creators and for great product is extraordinary these days….

I think one of the things that’s also nice about this environment, because there are so many opportunities for storytellers, is that it’s enabling people who may not have had a chance to show their creativity, to exhibit, to display it, to give it a shot. That’s a good thing….

This is a phenomenal era in television and in movies because technology has given creators an opportunity to tell stories and reach people in so many new ways. There’s a lot more creativity being generated, particularly on what we call the television side….

What technology does today more than anything else is it gives us access to every market in the world. That was not always the case. Yes, there are local regulations and government issues, but the world is ours to create in. That’s a great thing, but in order to do that successfully, the product you make has to better reflect the world that you’re making it for. That’s not only people on screen, but people behind the camera. It’s writers and directors and anyone involved in the process.

Leading amid tragedy

What I’ve learned, in the darkest moments, is the best thing to do is be really generous with your feelings. I think people generally, when they’re dealing with difficult times, prefer community and sharing versus anything else. I think maybe the instinct is to be the opposite, give people their quiet time to ponder or grieve or whatever. I think often the best thing is for them to have the company of others.

I also think information is really important, too. Being candid, being candid quickly, sometimes even without all of the information, and we’re frequently counseled in these jobs to be extremely careful in whatever we say publicly. We know we’re in a world where the smallest misstep in terms of words can create a lot of trouble.

I often find, while you obviously have to be careful and you have to try to be factual, often your zeal to get words right and all the facts right takes way too much time. In that period of time, there are a lot of people who need more in those voids and they don’t get it because of conservatism or some conventional wisdom that isn’t necessarily correct.

Trusting instinct

[A few years ago,] we were looking for more modern technological ways to distribute our product directly to consumers; it’s actually quite relevant today because of the product we just launched in Disney+. We looked at all different possibilities. We tried to convince Netflix to sell to us, but they wouldn’t. Then we decided that acquiring the Twitter platform would be a tremendous way to get to consumers worldwide.

The conversation began with that in mind. We actually were very far down the road at acquiring Twitter. Our board of directors had given us permission to do so and we were in the final stages. In fact, we had a board meeting on a Friday, and I went home and thought about it all weekend. And, on Sunday, I sent the board a note saying, “Changed my mind.” It just didn’t feel right.

I think one of the things people don’t understand in business is that you can do all the analysis in the world about big business decisions or even small ones, whether they require extreme infusion of capital and so on, but in the end it comes down to one person often getting in touch with their own instincts and their own inner thoughts and deciding, is this the right thing to do or not? In thinking about it, I concluded it wasn’t….

Even though it was an extremely powerful platform and very tempting, … the problems that would come with it were problems we had never dealt with as a company. They could potentially put the reputation of the company, in particular the brand, which is the most valuable thing we have, in jeopardy. It just didn’t feel right to me. I learned early on from some great bosses that if something doesn’t feel right to you, then it probably isn't right for you and that was the decision that was made.

Ingredients of success

My career path was not planned…. It’s interesting. 45 years. And it looks like it was just a straight line from being a production assistant, studio supervisor to being CEO and that’s what I wanted to be at the beginning, not true at all.

Three things that were most important to me along the way, that got me where I am. Not in any specific order. Mentors, great mentors, really hard work. Showing up every day, liking what I did, rolling up my sleeves, willing to do more. Put me in and I’ll do it, any door that opened, any opportunity door that opened, I walked through it. That really helped. And luck is a big deal and I’m the recipient of a lot of it.