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Mickey Mouse on Leadership

Lessons In Leadership from Disney and Coca-Cola

My US colleague, onboarding guru George Bradt had this to say recently in Forbes:

Most leaders are unbalanced. That is, they’re stronger in some areas than others. The secret to making them more productive is to accentuate their strengths and at the same time bring in others with complementary strengths.to work with them

Eisner and Wells at Disney

Mickey greeting guests at Disneyland ParkMickey leaving Boardroom meeting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner was the organization’s enthusiastic, visionary leader.  When I worked at the Disney Institute, our team met with him and the room was electric. He applauded our best ideas, built on them, went into excruciating detail to make sure the creative vision carried through everything, and demolished our bad ideas without a second glance. When he approved things, we were inspired to get going.

But then we had to stop.

Because once we’d sold Eisner on the idea, we had to go to then COO Frank Wells to make sure it would work. Wells focused on the business side, making sure we knew what we were going to invest, how, over what time frame to make the business proposition work.

The two were stronger together than either was on his own. Wells allowed Eisner to let his creative instincts run.  Eisner allowed Wells to focus on the practical side of things.

Ivester and Zyman at Coca-Cola

Coca-Colaa bottle of Coca-Cola (in case you’ve not seen one before) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the start of each year’s annual planning process at Coca-Cola, then President Doug Ivester would send out a note stating his expectations. To reinforce the importance of consistency and follow through, he would attach the notes he’d sent us in each of the previous three years.

At one meeting he said, “We need to be consistent.” At the next moment, then Chief Marketing Officer Sergio Zyman replied, “Well, I’m inconsistent and proud of it.”

There was a fiery tension between the two. Ivester was the southern accountant who had joined Coca-Cola as controller and then became CFO, President, and eventually CEO.  Zyman was the Mexican advertising and brand person who was passionate about surprising and exciting consumers.

Ivester and Zyman were incomplete individually. Together, they were amazing.

Other examples of such complementariness:  Jobs and Wozniak, Gates and Allen, Anthony and Cleopatra, Martin and Lewis.

Strategy, Operations, Organization

You can figure out most businesses by looking at how its plans, people and practices align around a shared purpose. Business leaders tend to have relative strengths in the strategic area (plans), organizational area (people), or operational area (practices). If you’re like most, here’s our prescription:

  • If you are stronger in strategy and organization, find a complementary Chief Operating Officer to manage the operations.
  • If you are stronger in strategy and operations, find a complementary Chief Human Resource officer to help lead the organization.
  • If you are stronger in organization and operations, find a complementary Chief Strategy Officer to help develop strategy.
  • If you are one of the few who are actually balanced, find a Chief of Staff to give you leverage.

A strong argument could be made that it’s better to be unbalanced.  If you’re balanced and bring in people to give you leverage, you probably think you can do any one of their jobs. They’ll discover that and may resent you for it.

But if you’re unbalanced and know it, you bring in others to complement your strengths. If you know you need them, they’ll know you need them and they’ll feel that much more valued and valuable.

For more information about how to lead like Mickey and be like Coca-Cola, ask me about our Succeed Before You Start:  100 Day Action Plan for Leaders.


About Dr. Duff Watkins [www.execsearch.com.au]

international executive search consultant / author-- dispensing career advice about how the job market really works


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