The Problem at Disney

The Problem at Disney

A map of Shanghai Disneyland on display at D23.
A map of Shanghai Disneyland on display at D23.

What is the problem at Disney?

Internal sources at Disney say that nearly every inch of concrete at Shanghai Disneyland has been torn up three times to get things right, causing an increase in costs and a delay in schedule.

Still, I look at new photos daily of Shanghai Disneyland. I studied the exhibit carefully at D23. And I’m convinced that this will be an amazing Magic Kingdom park. That is not the problem at Disney.

Similar sources told me that when Bob Iger dropped by a couple of weeks ago to view Rivers of Light at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the boats with their own GPS capability performed badly. The show didn’t go well, and now the opening has been pushed to somewhere later in May.

Still, every time I see videos and images, and every time I walk by the construction, I’m blown away and more excited for this new nighttime experience. That is not the problem at Disney.

The Problem at Disney
Rivers of Light under construction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The Good Dinosaur did not do well at the box office. Neither did the Finest Hours. But I happily downloaded Star Wars The Force Awakens after seeing it twice in the theater. And I just watched Zootopia twice at the theater as well. Movies are not the problem at Disney.

The Problem at Disney
A mural of the Star Wars legacy on display at the Star Wars Launch Bay.

So what is the problem at Disney? Leadership.

Whether the next heir to being CEO at Disney just stepped away from the greatest job in the world–or whether he was ousted by the board of directors and/or others, Disney has a serious problem. Mind you, how we got to this point was stupid. Tom Staggs was essentially pitted against Jay Rasulo as if it were some March Madness playoff. You might choose between building a resort in France or Spain by competing. You might choose between building a second California park in Long Beach or Anaheim. But you don’t pick your next CEO by hosting some open competition.

The Problem at Disney
Tom Staggs at a press event at Epcot. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The responsibility for this is squarely on the shoulders of the board and Bob Iger. Rather than courting a new NFL team, he should have been grooming a potential CEO. It also falls on the shoulders of the board of directors. Their job is not to play some “thumbs up/thumbs down” game like they were Caesar. Their job is to help “develop” the leadership–not just “decide” the leadership.

Now there’s talk that Disney may have to go outside the company to choose the next heir. Disney has had a long held belief that you promote from within. If Disney has to dg outside to get a CEO, then there really is a problem at Disney. What statement are you making when you say there is no one to run the company at that executive level? Not Ed Catmull? Not Kathleen Kennedy? Not George Kalogridis? Not John Lasseter? Not Bob Weiss? Not some combination of them? If not, then there really is a problem at Disney. Because I think that within its ranks there are people who get Disney and can run Disney.

I could have told you a year ago that Tom Staggs alone would not make it to the CEO position. But I think he would have been a great partner with one of the people just listed. After all, even Michael Eisner was never successful without a Frank Wells. I’m not even sure that Walt Disney would have succeeded without a Roy Disney at his side.

I fear that the problem at Disney is that they will go outside to get the next solitary CEO. And that is a problem. There is talent at Disney. It is the responsibility of the board and CEO to use the talents of the people they have in running the Disney of tomorrow. They must develop leadership, not just decide on it.

3 thoughts on “The Problem at Disney

  1. Jeff – You touch a delicate nerve here. The roots of the issue go all the way back to Walt. How do you fill those shoes? He tried really hard to teach his way of doing things, leaving mountains of media in the company vaults, documenting nearly every move. Some of that has made it into the right hands. Jeff Katzenberg mentioned it as a source of inspiration for him when he was asked to run Animation.

    A key element of this is something that isn’t taught in Business or Enginering schools and the thing that differentiates the winners from the loosers, both inside and outside the berm or theater. You can call it heart or humility. Its the difference between Theory X and Theory Y management and why Tomorrowland and The Great and Powerful Oz flopped. Its at the core of Imagineering. It’s also the central thread of the oldest stories we tell about ourselves, all the way back to our oldest ancestors. Caring about others more than you care about yourself, holding on to optimism in the face of fear, persisting until good overcomes evil. That was the way Walt taught. In some ways it wasn’t him, but it is what he, and the company he founded, should always strive for. Call it Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust, if you will. It works.

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