Bob Iger, chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company and a 1973 alumnus of Ithaca College, recounted a story from earlier in the day: He’d asked a classroom of some 200 IC students whether they based their TV viewing on the merits of individual programs or by channel preference.
Only one student, he said, had raised their hand in favor of TV channel. “Is that person in the room?” he asked, looking out over the large crowd assembled in Ford Hall. “You’re a very unique individual!” he said with genuine praise, earning a round of laughter.
The anecdote served to highlight the large-scale shift in how people relate to their entertainment. It was a theme that ran throughout the hour-long question-and-answer session on Wednesday, Oct. 26, and an apt one for an audience comprised largely of a generation that has seen tremendous and ongoing shifts in how content is created, delivered and consumed.
Since being appointed CEO in 2005, Iger has both grown Disney and helped maintain its well-known and beloved brand, all while steering the company through that rapidly shifting landscape of media consumption.
"You have to embrace change. You can't will it away. If you ignore it or try to stop it – particularly as it relates to the march of technology – it's going to happen anyway,” Iger said.
Be good, be relevant
The Q&A panel discussion with Iger was led by Diane Gayeski, dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications, and Sean Reid, dean of the School of Business. Each took turns asking Iger questions before turning it over to pre-selected questions from students among the capacity crowd inside Ford Hall.
Topics ranged from the traits he relies on for success in himself and others, cultivating creativity in employees and technology, his career path, the current and future of the entertainment industry, and brand values.
To that last point, Iger said that Disney’s embrace of changes in technology and culture hasn’t meant the company needed to sacrifice values by resorting to the addition of sex, drugs, violence and bad language in their products.
"You don't necessarily have to loosen standards to be modern. You have to be good; you have to be relevant; you have to fulfill a brand promise," he said.
That promise is individually defined for the various intellectual properties Disney owns – animation studio Pixar, the Marvel Comics cinematic universe and LucasFilm’s “Star Wars” franchise chief among them – and serves as a guiding light for all content produced under those individual labels.
“You have a general expectation as a customer, as an audience, of what you're going to get. We then try to fulfill that promise and then some,” Iger said. “We want people to say 'What will they think of next?' or 'Wow! They raised the bar even higher!' We love that challenge.”
As for how that content gets in front of an audience, Iger said: "Our intention as a company is focused on making great content and worrying less about how it gets distributed. Knowing that if we make it great, we'll find the right distribution model and the right monetization model in the future."
Curiosity and rolled-up sleeves
As head of one of the most influential brands on the planet, it’s no surprise Iger was asked several questions pertaining to the traits he’s relied on throughout his career.
Iger stressed modesty as the first important quality to possess when asked about his personal attributes for success. "No matter how successful you are, and no matter how good or great the world thinks you are, it's still really important to not let that go to your head," he said.
He also emphasized a strong work ethic, in and of itself, and because so much of leadership is about setting a proper example for employees.
“Next to integrity – which I think goes without saying – I don't think anything else really beats working hard. You do not have to be the smartest person in the world. Sometimes you don't even have to be the most talented,” Iger said.
Creativity is emphasized across the Disney properties, and good content creation, or the smart adoption of new technology, requires curiosity. That’s another prized attribute for Iger, especially in senior leaders.
“Curiosity becomes one of the first things that I try to spot,” Iger said. “Because typically a curious person is a person who is going to try new things, go new places, be open to new ideas, concepts and ways of doing things.”
“And you can test for that pretty quickly," he added, by simply peppering in questions about what a person reads, what her interests are, where he’s traveled, what she watches or listens to can all help in the assessment.
Iger also reflected on how Ithaca College set a foundation for his professional success. “I took complete advantage of everything that was available to me here. That was really important. I rolled my sleeves up and I worked on everything.”
Later, he added: “I came with a passion and I left with a passion that was even stronger than what I came with. That's served me so well over the years."
A definition of success
Fielding his final question of the afternoon, Iger looked back over the span of his over 40-year career before answering:
"Success is enjoying what it is you do, who it is you work for and work with,” he said. “And hopefully deriving satisfaction from whatever collected experience a career happens to deliver to you. It's that simple."
He reflected on the good fortune and circumstances that led him to his current role, one he never would have dreamed of when he left IC in 1973. "I could have stopped a number of steps along the way and chalked my career up to having been really fulfilling,” he said.