The Disney Dilemma

Disney is not like most companies. In fact, it's not like any other company. It was born from one of the most creative geniuses in our time, Walt Disney. With his death came a period of stagnation, followed by a creative renaissance driven by Michael Eisner and his finance and operational partner, Frank Wells. With astute, strategic acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd, it reached even greater heights due to the astute vision of Bob Iger.

Disney now has a succession dilemma. Who should run it next? The longtime groomed and heir apparent was Tom Staggs who had been promoted to chief operating officer only about one year ago. But he was just passed over for the top spot, and so he recently announced his departure. Prior to that, he and fellow Disney executive CFO Jay Rasulo were in contention for the top spot. Wall Street loved these guys for their financial and operational talents, but Disney's Board found them lacking, most likely in their creative roots.

And that, at its essence, is the Disney Dilemma. The person who helms the company is expected to be a master of the three disciplines; To forge an astute strategic vision, to understand how that vision can be imbued with massive creativity, and to make that creativity operationally and financially sound.

It's nearly impossible to find all three skills in just one person, so everyone comes up short. Bringing the head of a studio in to run Disney won't cut it. Most studio heads make creative decisions based on gut instinct and are not skilled in the kind of strategic and operational demands that are essential of an organization where theme parks, cruise ships, and dolls are critical. Executives skilled in operations or finance won't cut it. Without the vision of strategy or the skills to make creative leaps, the execution of operations will suffer and there will be far less money to count.

Strategy, creativity, and operations are the trifecta. That's why a film like Toy Story 3 can make about $1 billion at the box office but deliver an estimated $10 billion retail when all downstream and ancillary operational avenues are accounted for. That's why Disney, on a strategic level, will open Shanghai Disneyland while knowing that it might cannibalize on Hong Kong Disneyland. It's about hard choices made with a keen foundation of strategy, creativity, and operations.

And that's why, perhaps, the Disney Board decided that Tom Staggs wasn't the guy. But then who is?

Disney's Board might consider that they are not looking for one person, but for a duo, which was the same shrewd choice made when they selected Michael Eisner and Frank Wells in the 80's. And truth be told, it's the same combination of strengths that made the likes of Bob Iger, Tom Staggs, Jay Rasulo and I'll add chief creative officer John Lasseter such a powerful team.

If Tom Staggs had been partnered with a strong creative voice at the top, that might have been the solution after all. Instead, the Board let another talented Disney executive go free.

Disney's Dilemma was not created because of Tom Staggs' departure. Perhaps it was created because the Board lacked the same type of creative problem solving skills that they expect their chief executive to possess.

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