Thursday, January 06, 2011


After returning from our Thanksgiving trip to Disney World, I found that while I wasn't very interested in Disney as a customer, I was relatively fascinated by Disney as a business.

In DisneyWar, James B. Stewart takes a methodical and penetrating look at Disney's Eisner era (1984-2005), and its look at the company and its executive culture was surprising--at least to me--for how it revealed that executives at Disney are, in most cases, no different than executives anywhere else.

I should explain what I mean by that.

I've worked in two large technology companies for a period of time that spanned over a decade. While I was always no higher than a middle manager, in both cases I had a mentor who both put me in position to interact with company executives and gave me additional insight as to what was really going on behind the scenes.

In both companies, it was remarkably similar: with almost no exceptions, executives held a cupcake with double icing in one hand and a knife in the other. If you ever tried to reach for that cupcake, boy, you better be careful.

I was consistently surprised by how tremendously paranoid executives were in comparison to other people in the company, and by how obsessed they were with their own status. There was almost zero teamwork at the executive level--sure, there were plenty of Powerpoint presentations given with tremendous gusto to the rank and file, but at a more substantial level, almost every executive thought every other executive was ruining the company.

Disney executives, with rare exceptions, were no different. The backbiting and paranoia was nothing short of epic, and in many ways, Eisner fostered that culture (one brief anecdote mentions that Eisner was the kind of person who would separately assign two people to the same project, evaluate their results, and fire #2). Eisner was remarkable in that he seemed to spend much of his time protecting himself from any potential challengers (another characteristic of executives that I have often seen).

Fortunately, since almost everyone above a certain level in the company wound up suing Eisner or Disney at some point, there are thousands of pages of court testimony to draw on, as well as interviews Stewart conducted with many of the principals.

It's quite a fascinating look at a legendary company, both for the executive animosity and numerous historical details. If you have any interest in The Walt Disney Company as a company, it's an excellent read.

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