Towles takes inspiration from famous hero’s journeys, including The Iliad, The Odyssey, Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, and Of Mice and Men.
I don’t read many books about how to run a business. In my experience, it is rare to find one that really captures what it’s like to build and operate an organization or that has tips you could really put into practice.
It’s still the case that the best business book I have ever read is Business Adventures, a little-known collection of articles by a reporter named John Brooks. Whenever someone asks me to recommend one book on business, that’s the one I suggest most often.
But I recently read another business book that I will happily recommend to anyone who asks: The Ride of a Lifetime, by former Disney CEO Robert Iger. In fact, I have already suggested it to several friends and colleagues, including Satya Nadella.
As the person who led Disney’s acquisition of Pixar, Lucasfilm (that is, all the Star Wars stuff), Marvel, and most of 21st Century Fox, Iger is able to take you inside the workings of a massive media company and show how he thought about building on its strengths and shoring up its weaknesses. This is a short, readable book with smart insights, and along the way he crosses paths with some colorful characters.
Iger does a great job explaining what it is like to be a CEO. You’re always worried, “Which thing am I not spending enough time on?” As Iger writes, “You go from plotting growth strategy with investors, to looking at the design of a giant new theme-park attraction with Imagineers, to giving notes on the rough cut of a film, to discussing security measures and board governance and ticket pricing and pay scale... there are also, always, crises and failures for which you can never be fully prepared.” Although I never had to deal with most of those specific issues, the overall picture he draws is quite accurate.
“Iger decides to try to buy the most successful animation company out there: Pixar.”
One of the most memorable parts of the book occurs in 2006, shortly after Iger becomes Disney’s CEO. Although the company had built its reputation on animation (including old classics like Snow White and modern ones like the original Lion King), by the time Iger took over, Disney had experienced a long series of box-office disappointments. Rather than trying to rebuild the studio, Iger decides to try to buy the most successful animation company out there: Pixar, whose CEO and majority owner was Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
Iger takes you through all the twists and turns of the negotiations with Steve. Some people thought the $7 billion-plus price tag they settled on was too high, but Iger was convinced it was the only way to go. No one else had managed to solve the problem by rebuilding from within, and Iger didn’t think he could do it either.
There’s an especially dramatic and poignant moment near the end of the story. Just 30 minutes before the press conference where they will announce this massive merger, Steve takes Iger aside and shares some crushing news that only his wife and doctors know: After years in remission, his pancreatic cancer has returned and spread to his liver.
“I am about to become your biggest shareholder and a member of your board,” Steve tells him. “And I think I owe you the right, given this knowledge, to back out of the deal.”
Iger chooses to go through with it. As it turns out, the acquisition is a brilliant move, quickly re-establishing Disney at the cutting edge of animation. By keeping his ego in check and realizing that he wasn’t the guy who was going to rebuild Disney’s animation studio, Iger was able to make a big bet that paid off phenomenally well. (Sadly, Steve passed away five years later, in 2011.)
Another big bet that Iger made was to build a streaming service that would host all of Disney’s content. It may seem obvious now, but at the time Iger made the decision, it was considered a risky move. Disney would have to take their content off other services, where it was generating healthy revenue streams for the company. Would they be cannibalizing their other business, like the ABC television network? Could they attract enough subscribers to make it worthwhile?
Iger knew that, to draw enough of an audience, Disney would need a massive amount of great content. That is why he was willing to potentially overpay not only for Pixar but also for Lucasfilm, Marvel, and the non-news divisions of 21st Century Fox. As Iger makes clear in the book, his strategy was to double down on high-quality content and put it into a modern format via a streaming service. I think it is fair to say the strategy worked: Disney+ gained more than 28 million subscribers in its first three months.
Iger concludes the book with a list of what he calls “lessons to lead by.” Normally, I am allergic to lists like this because they’re so vacuous. But Iger’s is quite perceptive. For example, he advises, “Value ability more than experience, and put people in roles that require more of them than they know they have in them.” And he writes, “I became comfortable with failure—not with lack of effort, but with the fact that if you want innovation, you need to grant permission to fail.” Melinda and I regularly give the same advice to the teams at our foundation.
Earlier this year, Iger stepped down as CEO of Disney after 15 years and announced that he plans to retire from the company in 2021. He has had a brilliant career. I think anyone would enjoy this book, whether they’re looking for business insights or just want a good read by a humble guy who rose up the corporate ladder to successfully run one of the biggest companies in the world.