Persuasion and Influencing People, Leadership Lessons from Robert Iger of Disney

A big part of a leader’s role is to persuade different people across all levels. Sometimes, the leader has to influence senior management/board members to get the approval of his/her idea or for new infrastructure investments or acquisitions or to change the organization’s business model/market focus. He/She may have to persuade employees to get their support in the execution of an idea or to change the culture of an organization or something else.

To grow up quickly in his/her career and reach a leadership position, a person needs many essential traits. One of the most critical traits is the ability to Persuade and Influence people.

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Robert Iger-Image Source: Heidi Gutman/Walt Disney Television, ABCnews

ROBERT IGER, CEO(2005–2020), THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

Robert Iger became CEO of Walt Disney Company in 2005, after years of serving as number two, under Michael Eisner. Unfortunately, he had to endure an emotionally draining selection process before becoming the organization’s topmost leader.

An Unwelcome CEO

In the early 2000s, it was widely perceived by many people that The Walt Disney Company had lost its charm and growth in the last few years under the CEO, Michael Eisner. The voice for replacing him grew louder and louder. Yet, the board members were reluctant to act on him. Finally, a massive protest from Roy Disney and other shareholders forced Eisner to decide on not renewing his contract with Disney. The situation allowed the board members to search for a suitable candidate to replace him. Ideally, they should have promoted Robert Iger, who was next-in-line in the company. Unfortunately, shareholders perceived choosing Iger as a continuation of Eisner’s legacy as he had been working under Michael for more than a decade. So, the board of directors decided to conduct a new interview process where Robert would be one of the candidates.

The Selection — After a thorough interview process, the board members found that only Robert Iger offered a better fit than other candidates. With no other options, they hesitantly announced Robert as the next leader. Unfortunately, a few board members weren’t comfortable with the decision. They were also vocal about it.

When the board announced Robert Iger as CEO, Roy Disney & other shareholders protested and blamed the selection process as rigged one. Roy also filed a lawsuit against the company.

Need To Prove Himself —So, Robert Iger entered the leadership position with a series of knives hanging above his head, waiting to cut him into pieces on the first misstep. He had to prove himself to all the stakeholders as early as possible and show them that he’s the right man for the job.

In the meantime, the Walt Disney Company was also in a downward spiral, losing money rapidly. So, Robert Iger’s priority is to turnaround the company as quickly as possible and prove himself.

The Challenge — The reputation of the Disney board had been all-time low mong the shareholders as they were late in removing Eisner and also for approving Robert Iger. They did not want to send an image of continuing Eisner’s legacy. They had become overly cautious. The board members would be going to view even the smartest ideas of Iger with skepticism.

In such a hostile situation, how could Iger persuade and influence the board members to approve his ideas?

It’s going to be a difficult and arduous journey. Let’s see how Robert Iger managed it.

1.0 FOCUS ON ‘DISPROPORTIONATE INFLUENCE’ FACTOR

For Robert Iger, it was critical to quickly show every stakeholder(including employees and board members) that he’s the right man for the job. He had to earn their trust. For that to happen, Robert had to show remarkable performance results as early as possible.

Disproportionate Influence — What should be the way forward? Leaders prioritize things. Focusing on too many things at a time would spread the energy & resources thin, and results in an ineffective output. So, a great leader generally focuses on one or two activities that could exercise a disproportionate influence on the outcome — It is about conserving resources and saving time. Identify one critical factor and leverage it.

The key to persuasion is focus, not divergence.

Shareholders and analysts were not going to give Robert Iger an extended grace period. Yet, they would expect him to show a higher impact through his performance within that short period. So, Robert doesn’t have time to concentrate on too many things. He has to focus all his energy and resources on only one or two items.

The One Big Factor — Robert Iger had to find one critical factor that could exercise disproportionate influence in breaking the status quo and transforming the company. He deeply thought about the whole process of the company — What could be the one thing that could generate maximum long-term profits?. One factor stood out — The Animation.

Animation — Walt Disney brand was built wholly on animation. It was the fuel that powered other businesses -consumer products, toys, television, theme parks, merchandise, and other related products. If animation goes, then the company goes. If animation performs well, then all the other businesses would flourish. It’s the right factor that could disproportionately influence multiple things.

Unfortunately, the company’s animation was performing very poorly in the last decade. So, Robert Iger felt that his priority should be to focus on turning around the animation division. He believed that turning animation around would also totally change the perception of Disney in the consumer’s minds.

2.0 RESEARCH, INSIGHTS, AND SOLUTION

We saw that as a first step, Robert Iger had chosen one critical problem that could create a more significant impact if solved.

Before thinking of solving the problem, it was critical to understand the problem deeper from multiple perspectives. As Robert Iger had been working in the company for more than ten years, he had a more profound knowledge of the challenges in turning around the animation division. He also knew why the studio was struggling to deliver great animation films in the last decade.

Additionally, he asked his team to talk to customers and collect as much information as possible.

Based on the research insights, Robert Iger arrived at a possible way to turn around the company.

Now, the decisive test is to make the board members accept his solution. How to do it? How to influence them?

3.0 INFLUENCING PEOPLE

3.1 DEEPER AWARENESS OF THE PROBLEM

The first step to making anyone believe in your idea/solution is to make them intensely aware of the problem that you are planning to solve. The profound knowledge of the problem would help them in understanding the necessity of the solution. It would also assist them in judging the idea. It’s also the hardest part of influencing people.

Robert Iger has to make the board members understand the magnitude of the existing problem in Disney’s Animation Division.

No Facts & Figures —How would you explain the extensive impact of the problem? What would most of the people do in this scenario? Yes, several people focus on pointing to the numbers — sales figures, revenues, competitor data, and other estimates. The truth -Messages communicated through numbers seldom stick with people.

Before talking about the numbers, people should feel the magnitude of the problem rather than understanding it.

Don’t focus on explaining the problem, concentrate on making the people feel the problem.

Only, when they feel the problem, they could understand the impact of the solution — They would also have the motivation to involve themselves in solving the issue.

With numbers, there’s no emotional connection — No stickiness — It’s just an abstract concept.

How to make people feel the problem? — We have to target their emotional mind.

3.2 TARGETING EMOTIONAL MIND

The conventional wisdom in psychology states that our brain isn’t of one mind. It has two independent systems —

  • Emotional mind — that is instinctive and feels pain & pleasure
  • The Rational Mind — whose function is to analyze and deliberate on things.

The Decision-Making Mind — The highlight of having two independent systems is that most of the decisions are taken by our emotional mind and not the rational mind.

Whenever we present problems in numbers or facts, we are talking to the listener’s rational mind that plays the least role in decision making. For convincing people, our content should be talking to the listener’s emotional brain.

The emotional mind is the one that gets things done. It provides the motivation and energy to the person to execute the project.

Influence Emotions — John Kotter and Dan Cohen in The Heart Of Change says that most successful managers spoke to people’s feelings than talking about strategy, structure, culture, or systems for convincing people. They advise us to find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.

Kotter and Cohen also add that targeting the emotional mind is essential in cases where the future is fuzzy(The Walt Disney Studio’s future was very hazy at that time).

So, first target emotional mind and then, the rational mind.

How to target the emotional mind? — Present the evidence in such a way that would make the person feel something — It should hit at the emotional level. It could be a visual display — or, It could be a story — or any other sensory input. All sensory organs have direct shortcuts to our emotional mind. Let’s exploit them. Let people see, hear, taste, touch, or smell, and then experience.

Research in neuroscience and cognitive science shows that people remember and respond most effectively to what they sense and experience.

Great leaders build on the above insight to inspire/influence people. Instead of relying on numbers/data, they make the people experience the need for change.

What did Robert Iger do?

Robert combined visual display and a story -He showed the opening of the Honk Kong Disneyland video that happened a few weeks back. Almost every board member had attended that ceremony. In that function, there was a display of floats carrying all the famous Disney characters from the movies — Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Little Mermaid, Lion King, and other personas. The floats also had characters from Pixar’s films — Toy Story, Monster’s Inc., Finding Nemo, and others.

While the board members were watching the procession of characters in the film, Robert Iger paused the video and asked them, “Do you people notice anything about this parade?”

The members watched again and shook their heads, symbolically saying that nothing stood out to them.

Robert, pointing at the end of the parade, queried, “Do you see any Disney characters from the last ten years?”

Nothing!

Robert heard the collective “oohs” from the members. He could see that the discovery had shaken them. The members were speechless for a few seconds. The visual story touched their feeling.

Robert continued, “The last few movies weren’t good. It meant characters weren’t popular or memorable. It had significant ramifications for our other businesses and our brand.”

And, then, Robert tapped another emotion — The Emotion Of Pride.

Robert looked at the board members and added, “Disney was built successfully on creativity, inventive storytelling, and great animation, and very few of our recent films lived up to our storied past.”

He touched the positive emotions associated with the past achievements that could only increase the chances of successful influencing the board members.

The research shows that along with hope, pride is also often described as an emotion that facilitates performance attainment, as it can help trigger and sustain focused and appetitive effort to prepare for upcoming evaluative events. It may also help enhance the quality and flexibility of the effort expended (Fredrickson, 2001). According to Bagozzi et al., pride can have positive benefits of enhancing creativity, productivity, and altruism. — From Wikipedia.

The Pride emotion also played a role in influencing the board members.

3.3 TARGET RATIONAL MIND

Now, Robert Iger began to target the rational mind.

As the room was in eerie silence, Robert showed the facts and figures — How Disney lost billions of dollars in the movie industry. He also explained how Disney’s future merchandising programs and other businesses would collapse.

The board members were shell-shocked. They knew that the company had been struggling, but the reality had never been presented to them this starkly. The board members had no idea that the numbers were this bad. They wanted to do something to fix the problem as soon as possible.

Now, Robert got them emotionally charged and motivated. He had partly influenced them. He has finished half of the work.

What’s the next step?

3.4 SHAPING THE PATH BY SCRIPTING CRITICAL MOVES

A great leader doesn’t offer a solution but shows a likely path that could help in solving the problem. He/she believes in developing solutions through collaboration with his team so that everyone could feel that they had contributed to the idea. People should feel ownership of the solution. If they feel like an owner, then they would work wholeheartedly in implementing the plan. So, the role of a leader is to find & show the direction and shape the path by scripting the critical moves.

How is it possible to determine the best path/direction without knowing the destination?

So, the leader’s next task in influencing people is to point the destination, and then, show a likely path.

3.4a POINT TO DESTINATION

For influencing people, the destination should be clear, even though it could change over a while. Only when they know where they are going, they could figure out the demand for resources and efforts — Only then, people could judge the feasibility of the path.

Nearest Destination — The key to influence people is to show them smaller goals — It means, the leader has to point to a destination that’s closer at hand so that they could feel motivated to achieve — The goals that could be tackled in months, not in decades. Big Audacious goals are going to face resistance for approval. Sustaining motivation would be an arduous task for a long journey without intermediate wins.

As the company meets those small goals, the motivational levels of the people would be higher & the leader would gain more leverage to extend the destination point in the later period.

Robert Iger & The Destination — Once the board members felt the problem and then, realized that change is essential, Robert Iger showed them the destination — A ‘happy future place’ that the company should reach.

The happy future place that Robert Iger showed to the board members was Pixar Studio.

Robert said, “While Disney was floundering, Pixar had produced success after success, both creatively and commercially. The films were all of the original concepts and distinctive from each other. They were technologically superior & we are yet to achieve that. And, the most astonishing thing is that they are connecting in powerful ways to both parents and kids. Their films meet the changing attitudes, needs of those kids, and parents.”

Robert also shared the brand research data which he and his team had collected recently — The findings showed that Pixar had eclipsed as a brand, mothers thought of as excellent for their family. The studies also revealed that in a head-to-head comparison, Pixar was far more beloved than Disney. The brand wasn’t even close.

By this time, Robert began to notice a few board members murmuring to each other and sensed some anger in them. Their emotional charge had grown considerably. The members knew that animation had been struggling, and Pixar was close, but they didn’t expect that the new company had overtaken them.

Now, their minds are in a favorable condition to receive the new proposal.

3.4b SCRIPT CRITICAL MOVES

Once the leader has revealed the destination, then he/she has to show the path and script critical moves. It is another crucial factor in influencing people.

Why the leader has to Script Critical Moves?

The Choice Paradox —There could be multiple paths to a destination. Unfortunately, the research shows that more options, even good ones, could lead to decision paralysis.

Decisions on options need rigorous analysis & that saps the mental stamina — Our brains become overloaded. It’s a lot more tiring. Our mind is tilted naturally towards preserving energy. So, our subconscious mind fight against taking decisions on encountering multiple options and prefer to maintain the existing status quo.

Therefore, to influence people, we should try to focus on reducing the listener’s cognitive load. Make it easier for them to decide. A leader has to show not more than two or three options.

The Ambiguity Bias—Ambiguity also leads to decision paralysis. It makes people anxious, forcing them to maintain the status quo.

When the new path has uncertainty or has multiple levels of ambiguity, it would add to cognitive load & the people would subconsciously insist on taking the default path — to maintain the status quo.

To avoid Choice Paradox and Ambiguity Bias, the leader has to script the critical moves. He/she had to translate the uncertainty into concrete actions that could build people’s confidence.

ROBERT IGER & SCRIPTING OF CRITICAL MOVES

To turnaround the animation division, Robert Iger laid down the following critical steps—

  • Enhance Storytelling Ingenuity
  • Adaptation Of New Technology
  • Build a Culture Of Creativity

Robert Iger focused only on three things — He had prioritized the activities. He didn’t want his team or himself to spend the limited time & effort on too many things. In the eagerness to turnaround the company, he could have added five or six activities, but that would have undermined the value of the efforts. It would have appeared as an unfocused thought, lacking clarity, and of visionless endeavor. People also would find it difficult to remember more than three.

Robert writes, “A company culture is also shaped by how a leader conveys his/her priorities clearly and repeatedly. It separates great managers from the rest. Priorities should not be more than two or three. If you have five or six, they’re no longer priorities. If a leader doesn’t articulate the priorities properly, then their followers won’t know what their priorities should be. They would suffer from unnecessary anxiety because they don’t know what they should focus on. It would affect the company’s progress.”

So, Robert Iger identified the critical steps in reaching the destination.

Now the next challenge — Explain How to achieve those things?

Robert Iger presented a couple of options —

Option 01 — Stick with the current animation management team and see if they could turn things around.

  • Can they transform their storytelling ability to match the changing attitudes and needs within the given period?
  • Can they change their behavior to adopt the technology within a short time?
  • Can they suddenly generate original and distinctive movie concepts?

Robert expressed doubts about this option, given what they’d delivered so far. If it was feasible, they might have already done it. The board members agreed with Iger’s opinion.

Then, Robert presented the second option.

Option 02 — Hire a management team who could help the present team in achieving all those critical factors —

  • A visionary leadership team that could develop the culture of creativity
  • A team of great filmmakers who could help the Disney company with storytelling
  • A strong engineering group to realize the dreams of creative artists.

The board members agreed that identifying the new talent to run the division would be the best idea.

Robert with a smile, “In the six months since being named as CEO, I’d scoured the animation and moviemaking world looking for people who could do the job at the level we needed… We came up empty.”

He asked, “Where do you think we can find good storytellers?”

One member replied, “Obviously, only at Pixar.”

Pixar’s director & filmmaker John Lasseter was one of the best storytellers in the animation world. He had formed an excellent team of filmmakers/storytellers — Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Gary Rydstrom, Brenda Chapman, and Lee Unkrich.

Robert continued, “We want to hire visionary leaders who could build a culture of creativity. Who do you think has experience in building those cultures?”

He answered, “Only Pixar has. Ed Catmull and John Lasseter are those visionary leaders who had built the creativity culture at Pixar.”

At that time, at Pixar, the following movies were in the pipeline — Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Brave, Toy Story 3, Inside Out, Coco — The films were different and distinctive from each other, unlike Disney studio’s movies.

Robert continued, “Who do you think is at the forefront of technology adoption in the animation industry? — Without any doubt, we all would say that Pixar is at the forefront of advanced technology. They are not only breaking the box office records but also the technology frontiers. They are changing the boundaries of animation. The engineers at Pixar build tools on their own to realize the dreams of their directors. They challenge the artists to dream big and inspire them to think in ways they hadn’t done before. It led to artists upgrading themselves. It was a mutual growth. Therefore, nowhere we could find a better engineer or director or an artist than at Pixar.”

The board members stared at Robert Iger. One of the members asked him, “Are you asking us to hire an entire company?”

Robert continued, “We cannot hire Ed Catmull(who is responsible for Pixar’s technology & creativity culture) and John Lasseter(Storytelling and Creativity), as they are loyal to Pixar, its people, and its mission. We need visionary leaders like them. Similarly, most of the filmmakers at Pixar are faithful to the company. They are also not available for hire.”

Another board member with an intriguing tone, “Are you suggesting that we buy Pixar?”

Robert, with a firm voice, “Yes. Buying Pixar would allow us to bring John Lasseter and Ed Catmull along with Steve Jobs to Disney — They could continue to run Pixar, while simultaneously revitalizing Disney Animation ”.

When you acquire a company, in most cases, what you’re getting is people. It’s particularly true in the case of creative business. People are real assets. Hiring so many people is nevertheless equivalent to purchasing the whole company.

After a period of internal discussions, the board gave the nod to proceed. Robert Iger had successfully influenced his management team to approve his idea.

CONCLUSION

To influence people — Start by making people feel the problem by targeting their emotional mind — Then, focus on their rational mind. Once they have realized the magnitude of the problem, point them the destination, show them the path, and add critical steps along the route.

References: The Ride Of A Lifetime by Robert Allen Iger, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, The Paradox Of Choice by Barry Schwartz, The Paradox Of Choice by Barry Schwartz, How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, The Psychology Of Pride by Neil Mclatchie, Why People Don’t Believe You…: Building Credibility from the Inside Out By Rob Jolles.

Written by

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com

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