Former Disney CEO Bob Iger’s Management Style

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Ride of a Lifetime" by Bob Iger. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to know about former Disney CEO Bob Iger’s management style? What can you learn from Iger’s over 15 years of experience running one of the worlds largest media companies?

Bob Iger was the CEO of Disney from 2005 to 2020. He took Disney from a company struggling to stay relevant to one of the largest media companies in the world. Along the way, Bob Iger’s management style gained him the trust and respect from those around and under him.

Keep reading to learn about the Bob Iger management style.

The Bob Iger Management Style

Bob Iger has had a long career—22 years at ABC, then 23 at Disney (after Disney acquired ABC). He started as a bottom-level crew member on television sets and eventually became CEO of Disney for 15 years. He led Disney through momentous changes in technology, global expansion, and its noted acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. He still looks back at his career in mild disbelief as an incredible, lucky ride of a lifetime.

Here are 18 pieces of advice about the Bob Iger management style that he teaches in his memoir The Ride of a Lifetime.

Carve Out Personal Time

Today, Bob Iger still wakes up at 4:15 AM. He relishes the time he gets to himself and his thoughts before the daily mundane demands of email and triaging priorities set in. 

Even if you don’t want to wake up at 4:15 AM, it’s important to carve out time to yourself every day to explore your creativity unfettered.

Trust Your Team

Iger confesses that he usually doesn’t feel anxiety when things go bad. He sees a crisis more as a problem to be solved, rather than something he has no agency over. 

When emergencies like the Orlando nightclub shooting and the Disney alligator attack happen, he triages the problem, decides the response, trusts his team to do their jobs, and then gets out of the way when he has little more to add. This avoids micromanagement and meddling with little benefit.

Pursue Perfection

The Bob Iger management style is to practice “the relentless pursuit of perfection.” This doesn’t mean being 100% perfect at all costs. Rather, it means refusing to accept mediocrity. Don’t just make things “good enough”—make them great. Sweat the details.

A successful pursuit of perfection consists of two things: 1) a mindset of perfection, and 2) the work ethic to achieve it. 

Be Empathetic and Fair

Today, Iger knows that the pursuit of perfection doesn’t have to come at all costs. You can achieve greatness while still being empathetic and fair.

This doesn’t mean lowering your expectations. Rather, it means hearing people out, being emotionally stable, and giving people second chances for legitimate mistakes.

Don’t Manufacture Trombone Oil

At Capital Cities, Dan Burke gave Iger a note cautioning him not to get in the business of making trombone oil. They might make the world’s best trombone oil, but the world only needs a few gallons of it a year.

The point was to avoid focusing on small projects that don’t yield much in return. Instead, focus on big projects that can produce big gains.

Treat Creators Empathetically

When giving feedback to creative people, understand that they pour their souls into their works. They may understandably be sensitive to feedback, especially if you seem to be trampling on their vision. 

When giving feedback, the Bob Iger management style is to always start out positively. Then he focuses on the big picture, not with nitpicking small items.

For example, when giving notes to young director Ryan Coogler for Black Panther, Iger first made clear that he thought the film was special and that the entire company had faith in him.

Make It OK to Fail

Playing it safe never leads to greatness. To be great, you need to take big risks. And if you take big risks, you will inevitably have big failures. 

You should personally accept that failure will come when you aim for greatness. Then you should push your team to take risks and accept the possibility of failure; when they do fail, support them through it and prepare them to take more risks.

The owners of Capital Cities Dan and Tom sometimes disagreed with Iger’s creative choices, but they had faith in him and encouraged him to take chances. 

Be Clear When It’s Not Working

When you desperately want something to work, you may blind yourself to the reality that it’s not working. At these times, take a step back and force yourself to explain how it will work. If you feel any doubt as you explain this, figure out why. Then figure out why you want it to work so much, and whether you’ve gotten too personally invested in the solution.

Be Ambitious, But Not Impatient

Ambition to take on more responsibility and rise up is valuable, but it can be stretched too far toward impatience. Some people focus so much on the job they want that they start doing poorly in the job they have. In turn, they sabotage themselves from achieving the job they want.

As an employee, do a great job in where you are today. Make your ambition clear through your action—be eager to learn, help out where you can, and work hard. When your boss has an opportunity, you want to be the one they think of first.

As a manager, when you think about who to promote, don’t focus on people who keep asking for promotions but don’t have the work to back it up. Focus on people who do the work well and are true team players. In turn, if you establish a pattern of rewarding people on merit and not on politics, your team will be loyal to you.

Lead With Optimism

A pessimistic “everything’s going to fail” attitude leads to defensiveness and risk aversion, possibly exactly when you need to be bold. Plus, no one likes working for pessimists—it kills energy and inspiration.

Optimism isn’t blindly believing things will work out. Instead, it’s about believing in yourself and your team’s abilities to get to the best outcome. It’s about looking for new solutions without prematurely giving up.

Define Your Priorities

Priorities are an articulation of where you want to go and how you’re going to get there.

If your team members understand the priorities clearly, they can focus their own work in the right direction. They can make individual decisions that support the priorities.

In contrast, a team without priorities is aimless and anxious. They waste time wondering what they should be doing and working on things that don’t help the priorities.

Choose just a few priorities. Communicate them often.

Filter the Noise

There may come a time when you have lots of detractors. People tell you you’re terrible at your job and that you should be replaced. This might even be public, and people who don’t know you make judgments about you.

During these times, don’t let how other people feel affect how you feel about yourself. You have little control over what other people say about you, but you do have control over what you do and how you feel. This perspective will help you through the rough times.

Don’t Let Ego Override Your Decision-Making

Your job is to find the best possible solution. Don’t let your ego bias you away from that.

Iger felt a blow to his ego when Roy and Stanley challenged his appointment, but he knew the better path was to suck up his pride and repair the relationship.

Treat People With Respect

This should go unsaid, but it’s often not put into practice. If you treat people with respect and empathy, you will gain their trust and open up new opportunities you never thought possible.

Take Big Risks, Thoughtfully

Some people self-sabotage, preventing themselves from taking big risks. They think rationally about the odds, then convince themselves not to do it before they even seriously try. But if you don’t take big risks, you won’t get big wins.

Instead, the Bob Iger management style is to believe in your ability and your team’s ability to accomplish great things. With energy, perseverance, and resourcefulness, you can achieve even the biggest, most outlandish ideas.

This doesn’t mean you should gamble compulsively. You still need to thoughtfully collect data and analyze things. But ultimately you’ll never have complete information, and you need to trust your instinct.

How to Fire Someone

Firing or demoting someone, especially a friend or loyal employee, is always difficult. Iger gives the following advice:

* Do it yourself; don’t give the dirty work to someone else. People deserve that respect, and they need to hear it from you.

* Do it in person, and look them in the eye. Don’t do it by phone or email.

* Don’t start off with small talk. Iger starts with, “I’ve asked to meet for a difficult reason.”

* Be direct. Talk about the issue, explain why it isn’t working, why you think it can’t be fixed.

* Be empathetic. Say that it’s not about them, but about their performance on the job. Say that it was a hard decision to make, and it’ll be harder for them.

If you’re authentic during this, the recipient will at least feel respected, even if they disagree with the decision.

Share in Stress, Don’t Add to It

In stressful situations, both you and your team will feel the pressure deeply. In this situation, you should avoid adding stress to other people. Don’t remind people how stressed you are. This suggests that you want them to work primarily to relieve your stress.

Instead, let them know empathetically that you’re in it with them. You share their stress, but you’ll work through it together. Be supportive—guide them through the original vision, clear roadblocks for them, and remind them that you believe in their abilities.

Maintain Integrity

Your company is defined by its actions and the actions of people working for it. Any behavior that discredits the company is intolerable and needs to be acted on. You cannot compromise your integrity, regardless of the financial losses you might incur in the short term.

Former Disney CEO Bob Iger’s Management Style

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Bob Iger's "The Ride of a Lifetime" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Ride of a Lifetime summary:

  • How Bob Iger went from television crew member to CEO of Disney
  • The 10 major principles behind Iger's management style and success
  • How Iger resuscitated Disney Animation by buying Pixar

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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