✨What Robert Iger taught me about Internal Communications
📘 Book Report: The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company
I haven’t met Robert Iger, but his autobiography made me feel that I had joined him at multiple inspiring and challenging moments throughout his career – the opening of a Disney theme park, a confidential visit to Pixar’s creative campus, a poignant vineyard stroll with Steve Jobs and many more thought-provoking times.
The Prologue of his book — The Ride of a Lifetime — begins with a chilling, heart-wrenching story that demonstrates the strength of his character and his deep aptitude for communications, in particular internal communications.
While in China in June 2016 for the opening of Shanghai Disneyland, he learned about the tragic Pulse nightclub shooting. Mourning the loss of 50 lives, Iger waited to learn about the safety of Disney’s 70,000 employees in Orlando. He detailed the system in place for tracking employees when disasters strike and the updates sent to the CEO over the years after global tragedies occurred.
Sadly, he was informed that two part-time employees had been murdered and many others had friends or relatives that were victims. “Our trauma and grief counselors went to work, contacting those affected and arranging mental health services” (xiv). This commitment to empathy, integrity and authenticity in the face of a crisis —including learning that Disney World had been the suspect’s primary target — continues throughout the book as Iger shares his leadership principles.
As I learned about his 15-year impact as CEO and 47 years at ABC/Disney, many lessons Iger shares demonstrate the power of internal communications in collaboration with the C-suite. I’ve highlighted my top 10 moments that resonated the most for internal communications leaders.
☀️ #1 Encourage Optimism
Iger identifies this value as one of the most important qualities of a leader and the need to promote it with employees: “simply put, people are not motivated by or energized by pessimists” (xxii). He shares stories of the positive results when you take an optimistic approach — it motivates employee confidence, fulfillment and success.
In addition, Iger addresses the importance of leading internal communications with inspiration rather than fear.
“Projecting your anxiety onto your team is counterproductive. It’s subtle, but there’s a difference between communicating that you share their stress—that you're in it with them—and communicating that you need them to deliver in order to alleviate your stress…My job was to not let us lose sight of our ambition when we confronted creative and practice obstacles and to help us get to solutions in the best possible way” (184).
☎️ #2 Be Relatable and Reachable
As Iger reflects on his career, he looks back at the email he sent to all employees on his first day as CEO. In this message, he shares his deep connection to Disney while growing up. It’s easy to imagine him watching the shows as he describes these memories.
He also shows vulnerability by confiding in employees about the awe he feels stepping into this role: “I never dreamed I would one day lead the company responsible for so many of my greatest childhood memories” (223). This is the type of internal communications that motivates employees to work hard towards accomplishing their goals.
Rather than sitting atop a castle and making employees jump through hoops and hurdles to reach him, Iger emphasizes the importance of accessibility to employees, no matter the topic. This took the shape of prioritizing individual conversations and large group meetings.
“It’s easy for leaders to send a signal that their schedules are too full, their time too valuable, to be dealing with individual problems and concerns. But being present for your people—and making sure they know that you’re available to them—is so important for the morale and effectiveness of a company. With a company the size of Disney, this can mean traveling around the world and holding regular town hall-style meetings with our various business units, communicating my thinking and responding to concerns, but it also means responding in a timely way and being thoughtful about any issues brought to my direct reports” (194).
🧭 #3 Emphasize Priorities
Internal communications ensures information is clear, concise and consumable – ranging from culture to business and all topics in between. With so many daily responsibilities, it’s not always clear for employees to see the balcony-level view of priorities. Iger believed in emphasizing what was most important for employee success.
“A company’s culture is shaped by a lot of things, but this is one of the most important—you have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly. In my experience, it’s what separates great managers from the rest. If the leaders don’t articulate their priorities clearly, then the people around them don’t know what their own priorities should be” (100).
He shares the story of a former manager, Dan Burk, who taught him this valuable lesson with a note that Iger still keeps on his desk to remind him to prioritize the projects where he invests his time.
“‘Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year!’ He was telling me not to invest in small projects that sap my and the company’s resources and not give much back” (227).
📈 #4 Invest in Employees First
Internal communications connects employees to purpose. If your employees aren’t invested in your success, your customers won’t be either. Instill a sense of pride and wonder in your employees. This rings true now more than ever as we observe the ways organizations manage the pandemic and their workforce, from closing offices to offering Mental Health Days.
“My goal is for Disney to be the most admired company in the world, by our consumers and our shareholders and by our employees. That last part is key. We’ll never get the admiration of the public unless we get it from our own people first. And the way to get the people working for us to admire the company and believe in its future is to make products they are proud of. It’s that simple” (103).
🪞 #5 Minimize Ego
The ability to suspend your ego is a strength at the core of internal communications. With multiple stakeholders and audiences, your writing will be changed over and over again.
Iger emphasizes this skill as central to success: “Something that tends not to get enough attention when people talk about business, which is: Don’t let your ego get in the way of making the best possible decision” (119-120).
Over the course of his career, he emphasizes maintaining a sense of wonder – the same feeling that Disney’s movies and theme parks spark – with a dose of humility.
“No matter who we become or what we accomplish, we still feel that we’re essentially the kid we were at some simpler time long ago. Somehow that’s the trick of leadership, too, I think, to hold onto that awareness of yourself even as the world tells you how powerful and important you are. The moment you start to believe it is all too much, the moment you look yourself in the mirror and see a title emblazoned on your forehead, you’ve lost your way. That may be the hardest but also the most necessary lesson to keep in mind, that wherever you are along the path, you're the same person you’ve always been” (224).
❤️ #6 Embrace Empathy
In my 40 interviews with Internal Communications professionals, empathy was identified as one of the top skills to succeed in the field. Taking that approach at the leadership level leads to a caring community at work.
“A little respect goes a long way, and the absence of it is often very costly. Over the next few years, as we made the major acquisitions that redefined and revitalized the company, this simple, seemingly trite idea was as important as all of the data-crunching in the world: If you approach and engage people with respect and empathy, the seemingly impossible can become real” (120).
🦄 #7 Honor Culture
Internal communications are the keepers of the culture. When there’s a change, we’re at the core of helping communicate it. Iger made a commitment to Pixar’s CEO at the time of acquisition, Steve Jobs, that he would honor their unique creativity, in particular the culture.
“Bringing Pixar into our company would be a mammoth transfusion of leaders and talent, and we’d need to do it right. “Pixar needs to be Pixar…If we don’t protect the culture you’ve created, we’ll be destroying the thing that makes you valuable…We also negotiated what we called a ‘social compact’ – a two page list of culturally significant issues and items that we promised to preserve. They wanted to feel that they were still Pixar, and everything related to protecting that feeling mattered” (143-145).
👋🏽 #8 Welcome Talent
Iger believed in investing in great people, even when others overlooked them. He shares a powerful story that might relate more to Human Resources than to Internal Communications, but as People Partners are crucial collaborators to the field, this story shows the importance of welcoming talent.
Alan Horn was responsible for some of the biggest films of the decade, including Harry Potter! He was pushed out as COO of Warner Bros.
“Jeff Bewkes, Time Warner’s CEO wanted someone younger running his studio…in the summer of 2012 he [Alan Horn] came on as the head of Disney Studios. What I saw in him wasn’t just someone who at this late stage in his career had the experience to reestablish good relations with the film community. He also had something to prove. He was galvanized, and that energy and focus transformed Disney Studios when he took over.
As I write this, he’s now past 75 and is as vital and astute as anyone in the business. He’s been successful in the job beyond any of my hopes. (Of the nearly two dozen Disney films that have earned more than $1 billion at the box office, almost three-quarters of them were released under Alan). And he’s a decent, kind, forthright, collaborative partner to everyone he works with. Which is another lesson to be taken from his hiring: Surround yourself with people who are good in addition to being good at what they do. You can’t always predict who will have ethical lapses or reveal a side of themselves you never suspected was there” (166-168).
Horn just retired (again) at 78 years old. He made an incredible impact during his tenure. I believe the way that Iger managed this stipulation is an important lesson, especially as it relates to the next major take-away from the book….
📣 #9 Champion DEI
Black Panther is the fourth highest grossing superhero film of all time, but it almost didn’t make the cut if Iger hadn’t pushed for its production. The story of its success is due to Iger championing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion externally and internally.
“I devoured the comic, and before I even finished it had placed Black Panther on the list of must-do Marvel projects in my mind. The Marvel skeptics in New York weren’t the only ones who felt that a black-led superhero movie couldn’t perform at the box offices. There’s a long-held view in Hollywood that films with predominantly black casts, or with black leads, will struggle in many international markets…
I’ve been in the business long enough to have heard every old argument in the book, and I’ve learned that old arguments are just that: old, and out of step with where the world is and where it should be. We had a chance to make a great movie and to showcase an underrepresented segment of America, and those goals were not mutually exclusive…There may be no product we’ve created that I’m more proud of than Black Panther” (168-171).
As DEI partners, Internal Communications leaders should take note of this phenomenal letter Iger shared with his staff after the film’s opening week.
Dear Fellow Employee,
It’s hard not starting with Wakanda forever, as we share great news about Black Panther! Marvel's Black Panther is a masterpiece of movie making, a film that succeeds on multiple levels, touching hearts and opening minds…
As CEO of this phenomenal company, I receive a lot of feedback about what we create. In the last 12 years, I’ve had this role, I have never seen such an overwhelming outpouring of genuine excitement, praise, respect, and gratitude as I’ve seen for Black Panther…
It speaks to the importance of showcasing diverse voices and visions, and how powerful it is for all sectors of our society to be seen and represented in our art and entertainment. The movie’s success is also a testament to our company’s willingness to champion bold business and creative initiatives, our ability to execute an innovative vision flawlessly and our commitment to bringing extraordinary entertainment to a world that is hungry for heroes, role models, and unbelievably great storytelling” (169-172).
📰 #10 Leverage External Communications
In August 2017, Disney announced launching its own streaming platforms and pulled all of its shows from Netflix. It was a daring move that many argued would be detrimental to Disney, but Iger believed it was the right choice for long-term success.
To reinforce his objectives internally, Iger leveraged external communications in a tactic he called “management by press release—meaning that if I say something with great conviction to the outside world, it tends to resonate powerfully inside our company.”
“The team knew how serious I was about doing this, but hearing it communicated broadly, particularly to investors, and witnessing the reaction to it, fueled everyone with the energy and commitment to move forward…There were now expectations that we had to live up to. That meant added pressure, but it also gave me a powerful communications tool within the company, where there would naturally be some resistance to changing so much, so fast” (193-194).
The book concludes with a summary of all Iger’s leadership lessons. For internal communications, these recommendations are as magical as Disney with spoonfuls of creativity, compassion and innovation that are ingredients for a great CEO and partner. I hope you enjoy this unparalleled reading experience as much as I did!