Nov 22, 2022 - Economy

Disney just revealed how not to do a CEO succession plan

Illustration of two cartoon hands: one making a thumbs-up, the other making a thumbs-down.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Bob Chapek, when he was CEO of Disney, struggled constantly against the fact that he was, in the words of former U.K. finance minister Norman Lamont, "in office but not in power." That's not his fault, so much as it's the fault of the Disney board, and especially of former board chair Bob Iger.

Why it matters: Succession planning is really hard, especially for hard-driven CEOs who consider themselves to be irreplaceable.

Flashback: When Iger took over as Disney CEO for the first time, in 2005, the succession was handled in a smooth and professional manner. Iger was named the CEO-apparent in March; there was a clearly-delineated six-month interregnum where outgoing CEO Michael Eisner brought him up to speed; and he became sole CEO in October.

  • When Iger took over as Disney CEO the second time, this week, the Financial Times led its front page with the word "Putsch."
  • In between was the elevation of Chapek to CEO, which was orchestrated by a board led by Iger.

Between the lines: Iger was a legendary CEO, but was terrible at succession planning.

  • Iger had 15 years as CEO to find a successor, and never really succeeded. Candidates like Tom Staggs and Kevin Mayer would be considered the heir apparent, only to be passed over.
  • Even when Iger finally settled on Chapek, he was reluctant to really hand over power, installing himself as "executive chairman" — a hands-on full-time employee who was also Chapek's boss.

The big picture: Chapek, who came from the theme-park arm of Disney, inherited a streaming strategy that was built by Iger and Mayer and that very deliberately involved spending billions of dollars to create a world-beating streaming platform.

  • That strategy was common across the media world, as Netflix and Warner Brothers and Paramount and Amazon can attest.
  • The stock market embraced that strategy in 2021, and then punished it in 2022, across the board.
  • The Disney board, however, which had imposed the strategy on Chapek, then blamed him for it.

The bottom line: While Iger embraced bold strategic shifts, he and his board wouldn't give Chapek the same freedom. In the end, the board seemed more willing to listen to former Iger lieutenants than they were to his handpicked successor.

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