Juanjo Coello

Software Developer & Perpetual Wannabe
I tweet stuff at @jjcoellov

On Decency & Excellence - Leadership Lessons from Bob Iger

Lately, I have been reading more and more about business leadership beyond technology, which is the area I used to focus more on. Since I moved to Paris last year to take upon an engineering leadership position within QuickBooks France, I have been more exposed to strategic decisions outside of the pure engineering function; part of my role now consists of having a voice on the office leadership team and contributing to the business’s success, not only as the representative of the product development team, but also in other areas, such as go-to-market, hiring, or general office well-being. This has definitely taken me out of my comfort zone, but it also has put in front of me a lot of challenges and opportunities to grow.

There are a bunch of companies I admire a lot. However, there are a handful of them that are quite high in my particular inspiration list, probably because their products are the ones that shaped me the most and they are still really influential - Disney is clearly one of them. While I was reflecting on this, I realised that I should learn more about what makes those companies so successful. I should seek to understand how they are big, important companies, and at the same time thrive as creative force powers and sound businesses.

This learning journey led me to read a New York Time’s profile on Bob Iger, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company: The Slow-Burning Success of Disney’s Bob Iger. It resonated profoundly with my own personal leadership style which I am now purposefully building, deeply grounded in my personal principles and core values: pursue decency, personal empathy and excellence in service to build a team that achieves incredibly bold goals, where everyone feels inspired to work in. Also, the vision and business acumen Bob Iger demonstrated when Disney acquired Pixar, Marvel and LucasFilm and how this has played out for Disney is a great success story to learn from.

It was not a coincidence, then, that I decided to continue learning more about Bob’s leadership style. During last Christmas’s holidays, I devoured Bob Iger’s biopic: The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed it and learnt a lot from it, and there were several behaviours that go directly to my own leadership playbook.

Here there are some of the quotes I highlighted while I read it, which I found the most inspiring. Profit!


On decency

“Be decent to people. Treat everyone with fairness and empathy. This doesn’t mean that you lower your expectations or convey the message that mistakes don’t matter. It means that you create an environment where people know you’ll hear them out, that you’re emotionally consistent and fair-minded, and that they’ll be given second chances for honest mistakes.

“Empathy is a prerequisite to the sound management of creativity, and respect is critical.

“I learned from them that genuine decency and professional competitiveness weren’t mutually exclusive.”

“How a company’s integrity depends on the integrity of its people.

“If you approach and engage people with respect and empathy, the seemingly impossible can become real.

“Don’t mean to stand on a high horse, but as a company, we have always tried to do what we felt was right, no matter what the politics or the commerce. In other words, demanding quality and integrity from all of our people and of all of our products is paramount, and there is no room for second chances, or for tolerance when it comes to an overt transgression that discredits the company in any way.”

On excellence

Excellence and fairness don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

“Do what you need to do to make it better (…) It’s not, at least as I have internalized, about perfectionism at all cost. Instead, it’s about creating an environment in which you refuse to accept mediocrity. You instinctively push back against the urge to say There’s not enough time, or I don’t have the energy, or This requires a difficult conversation I don’t want to have, or any of the many other ways we can convince ourselves that “good enough” is good enough.”

“He understood that “great” is often a collection of very small things, and he helped me appreciate that even more deeply.”

“I didn’t need to be convinced that the success or failure of something so often comes down to the details.

On innovation and experimentation

“Now more than ever: innovate or die. There can be no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new.”

“Got up and addressed the cast and crew. “We tried something big and it didn’t work,” I said. “I’d much rather take big risks and sometimes fail than not take risks at all.”

“Of all the lessons I learned in that first year running prime time, the need to be comfortable with failure was the most profound. Not with lack of effort but with the unavoidable truth that if you want innovation—and you should, always—you need to give permission to fail.

On owning mistakes

“In your work, in your life, you’ll be more respected and trusted by the people around you if you honestly own up to your mistakes. It’s impossible not to make them; but it is possible to acknowledge them, learn from them, and set an example that it’s okay to get things wrong sometimes. What’s not okay is to undermine others by lying about something or covering your own ass first.

“You have to ask the questions you need to ask, admit without apology what you don’t understand, and do the work to learn what you need to learn as quickly as you can. There’s nothing less confidence-inspiring than a person faking a knowledge they don’t possess. True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.

“You can’t erase your mistakes or pin your bad decisions on someone else. You have to own your own failures. You earn as much respect and goodwill by standing by someone in the wake of a failure as you do by giving them credit for a success.”

On leading your team

“Surround yourself with people who are good in addition to being good at what they do.

“As a leader, you should want those around you to be eager to rise up and take on more responsibility, as long as dreaming about the job they want doesn’t distract them from the job they have.

“At its essence, good leadership isn’t about being indispensable; it’s about helping others be prepared to possibly step into your shoes—giving them access to your own decision making, identifying the skills they need to develop and helping them improve, and, as I’ve had to do, sometimes being honest with them about why they’re not ready for the next step up.”

“They hired people who were smart and decent and hardworking, they put those people in positions of big responsibility, and they gave them the support and autonomy needed to do the job.

“There’s no rule book for how to manage this kind of challenge, but in general, you have to try to recognize that when the stakes of a project are very high, there’s not much to be gained from putting additional pressure on the people working on it.”

“You have to demand honesty and integrity from everyone.”

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.”

“This is something I exhort my team to do, too—it’s okay to come to me with problems, but also offer possible solutions.

On strategy and focus on impactful work

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!”

“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 or 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’re proud of.

“People sometimes shy away from taking big swings because they assess the odds and build a case against trying something before they even take the first step. One of the things I’ve always instinctively felt— and something that was greatly reinforced working for people like Roone and Michael—is that long shots aren’t usually as long as they seem.

“With enough energy and thoughtfulness and commitment, even the boldest ideas could be executed.”

On priorities

Priorities are the few things that you’re going to spend a lot of time and a lot of capital on. Not only do you undermine their significance by having too many, but nobody is going to remember them all.”

“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.

“A lot of work is complex and requires intense amounts of focus and energy, but this kind of messaging is fairly simple: This is where we want to be. This is how we’re going to get there.

On optimism and leadership

“It’s about believing you and the people around you can steer toward the best outcome, and not communicating the feeling that all is lost if things don’t break your way. The tone you set as a leader has an enormous effect on the people around you. No one wants to follow a pessimist.

On personal growth and career progression

My instinct throughout my career has always been to say yes to every opportunity. In part this is just garden- variety ambition. I wanted to move up and learn and do more, and I wasn’t going to forgo any chance to do that, but I also wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of doing things that I was unfamiliar with.”

Do the job you have well; be patient; look for opportunities to pitch in and expand and grow; and make yourself one of the people, through attitude and energy and focus, that your bosses feel they have to turn to when an opportunity arises.”

On compassion through tough decisions

“At every step of the way it was necessary to be clear about where I stood, while being sensitive toward how emotional the entire process was for him.”

On instinct

“This isn’t to say that research and deliberation aren’t important. You have to do the homework. You have to be prepared. You certainly can’t make a major acquisition without building the necessary models to help you determine whether a deal is the right one, but you also have to recognize that there is never 100 percent certainty.

“As with everything, the key is awareness, taking it all in and weighing every factor—your own motivations, what the people you trust are saying, what careful study and analysis tell you, and then what analysis can’t tell you. You carefully consider all of these factors, understanding that no two circumstances are alike, and then, if you’re in charge, it still ultimately comes down to instinct.”

On seeking clarity

“It’s a hard thing to do, especially in the moment, but those instances in which you find yourself hoping that something will work without being able to convincingly explain to yourself how it will work—that’s when a little bell should go off, and you should walk yourself through some clarifying questions. What’s the problem I need to solve? Does this solution make sense? If I’m feeling some doubt, why? Am I doing this for sound reasons or am I motivated by something personal?”

On ego and humility

Don’t let your ego get in the way of making the best possible decision.”

“When I look back on that time now, I think of it as a hard-earned lesson about the importance of tenacity and perseverance, but also about the need to steer clear of anger and anxiety over things you can’t control. I can’t overstate how important it is to keep blows to the ego, real as they often are, from occupying too big a place in your mind and sapping too much of your energy.”

“Maybe this is the case for many of us: 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 on to that awareness of yourself even as the world tells you how powerful and important you are. The moment you start to believe it 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.

On time management

Managing your own time and respecting others’ time is one of the most vital things to do as a manager.”

On the importance of allowing time to think

“However you find the time, it’s vital to create space in each day to let your thoughts wander beyond your immediate job responsibilities, to turn things over in your mind in a less pressured, more creative way than is possible once the daily triage kicks in.”