Bob Iger, Sushi, and Excellence at Disney

Bob Iger, Sushi, and Excellence at Disney

Bob Iger: Showman of the Year

Congratulations to Bob Iger, who has just been named Variety’s Showman of the Year. Variety did the kind of interview I would want to have with Bob Iger. It covered important issues that needed addressing. I strongly encourage studying all of it.

Bob Iger on the cover of Variety.
Bob Iger on the cover of Variety.

As CEO of The Walt Disney Company, Bob Iger deserves to not only be the Showman of the Year, but perhaps the Showman of the Decade. He has delivered big results, especially in bringing aboard Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. He has opened a major resort in mainland China. But what captured my interest was how much of this greatness started with a nod to his fascination with the work of Jiro Ono, who at 91, has the reputation of being the world’s greatest sushi chef.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro, who is the focus of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, has a modest 10 seat sushi bar in a Tokyo subway station, and yet it has achieved Michelin three-star status.

Jiro Ono, in the film, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi"
Jiro Ono, in the film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

The documentary–titled because Jiro would dream of sushi at night, jumping out of his bed with new ideas–overviews some important messages you get about Jiro’s work:

“Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That is the secret to success.”

“All I want to do is to make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving it bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.”

“I’ve never once hated this job, and gave my life to it…Even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I have achieved perfection.”

Examples of Jiro’s drive for self improvement is given. For instance, it was easier for him in the early years to boil the shrimp in the morning, put it in the fridge and then serve later. But now he boils it at the time he makes the sushi, and while that’s more effort, it makes a better dish. The same could be said of the octopus, which he massages 40-50 minutes rather than 30 minutes, as he did in the past.

Excellence Across the Organization

All of these messages were so impactful that Bob Iger hosted an offsite with his management team emphasizing the messages Jiro brings. Clearly Bob links this epiphany to his work over the last number of years. But what must happen is not just that the message be spread to the senior management team. It’s critical that every Cast Member at Disney embrace these same ideas.

Bob Iger seen in Variety in front of Shanghai Disneyland's icon.
Bob Iger shown in Variety in front of Shanghai Disneyland’s icon.

How can tens of thousands of Cast Members working in a massive operation like Disney embrace these ideals? The answer is, one person at a time. One team at a time. It’s not something that can be “mandated” or “hard wired” from above. Rather, management must create the strategy, and then turn the organization pyramid upside down, and ask themselves, “How can we support the Cast in their efforts to deliver and perfect their labors.” Leadership is more about how you inspire and motivate others to be their best, rather than mandating some program.

A cast member striving to create the magic for guests rowing along the Rivers of America.
A cast member striving to create the magic for guests rowing along the Rivers of America.

The Opportunity For Any Organization

I see this in my own work with other organizations. Management sees the need for change–for improvement. So what do they do? They reorganize. And yet, what does it create? As Charlton Ogburn once put it:

“I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

Others spend millions on new technology hoping for advances. Yet often its promises come up short. The reality is, even though there is a time and place for investing in technology–or even to reorganize, those efforts will seldom succeed if there is not a culture that empowers employees to succeed. Creating an environment that allows thousands of Jiros to succeed is what is needed.

It is in the spirit of Jiro that we see the possibilities of what an organization can be–each individual working to constantly be their very best–finding new ways to improve daily. As Will Durrant summed up in his study of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

That is how Disney will be the greatest organization in the world–every Cast Member obsessed with excellence–not just the CEO. Moreover, it is the opportunity that is at the door stop of every organization seeking excellence.

J. Jeff Kober

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