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Eisner explains why ‘Great Partnerships Succeed’

Former Disney CEO Michael D. Eisner tells the stories and secrets of successful collaborations. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

What are the secrets of great companies? In “Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed,” Michael D. Eisner, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company, and TV producer Aaron Cohen showcase 10 successful partnerships and explore what makes them powerful. An excerpt:

1. Frank Wells and I: Where I learned 1 + 1 = 3 (if not much more)
“I still can’t believe I said that,” I told my wife. But like many things in life, you had to be there to understand the moment.

It had been eight hours earlier, a beautiful Saturday morning in September 1984 in Los Angeles. For the previous year and a half, Barry Diller and I had been riding a roller coaster at Paramount Pictures working for Marty Davis. Davis was the head of Paramount’s parent company, Gulf & Western. I had spent eight years as the president of Paramount, brought there by Barry, whom I had been working for and with from the time we were twenty-four-year-old assistants at ABC in New York. Barry had been a mentor, a teacher, and a friend, but was about to leave Paramount to go to Twentieth Century-Fox, thanks to Davis, a man whom Barry found unbearable and who’d become the chairman of Gulf & Western following the death of the eccentric but brilliant, supportive, and even affectionate Charlie Blühdorn. Without Barry, my life at Paramount — long so satisfying creatively and personally — was looking like it would be much less pleasant. Although I never really knew Marty Davis well, I did know he’d told Jeffrey Katzenberg, my talented young head of production, that “Michael Eisner is like a kid playing with blocks on the floor.” With delusional confidence in our performance, I had actually taken that as something of a compliment, but in some honest portion of my heart, I was pretty sure he didn’t mean it so flatteringly. Furthermore, it appeared I would now be not only working with a tough boss but going at it alone — without someone to bond with about this potential common enemy. In such situations, I had learned, shared frustrations could actually lead conversely to more creativity, and more fun. But without Barry Diller as my partner, I found working for Davis a very questionable proposition.

Then, by fate or perhaps circumstance, just as I began to see firsthand the difference between Charlie Blühdorn and Marty Davis, I had been approached by another entertainment corporation — more than just a film company, more exciting, and with bigger challenges to meet. That company, of course, was Disney — then called Walt Disney Productions — which had long been struggling to grow since the death of its founder Walt Disney eighteen years earlier, and was now in search of new leadership.

I had first been quietly approached to talk about working at Disney in late 1983, but the timing was not right for them or me. Now, though, it was a year later, and the company was being attacked by corporate raiders. And on this late summer day, I found myself at the home of an attorney named Stanley Gold, a round, rather larger-than-life man with bright red glasses, a ubiquitous unlit cigar in his mouth, an odd sense of humor, and uncompromising loyalty to his one client, Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew.

I had been summoned to Stanley’s Beverly Hills home to bring this courtship to a conclusion, and determine whether or not I’d be joining the Disney company. Other relevant parties were in attendance, most notably a man named Frank Wells, who had run Warner Bros. a few years earlier before leaving Hollywood for a different kind of challenge: climbing the tallest peaks on each of the world’s continents. He had scaled six out of the seven, and was now back looking to resume his entertainment career. Frank and I had crossed paths over the years a few times, but I didn’t know him very well. He was, though, close to Stanley, and as we sat out on the terrace, the two of them were presenting what I knew was the latest plan for Disney’s new leadership. It was very clear that the moment had arrived for decisions to be made. Time had run out on my hesitations and confusion about why I hated being at Paramount with Diller and Blühdorn gone, even as we remained atop the industry in motion pictures and television. The handwriting was on the Paramount wall, with an arrow pointing in Disney’s direction. But one big part of the Disney plan made me uncomfortable.

“You and Frank,” Stanley summarized, “will be co-CEOs. You will share power at the top of the company, and together report to the board of directors. You’ll handle the creative side. He’ll handle the business side. But you’ll be equals.”

“I really don’t want to do this unless I’m the sole CEO,” I heard myself saying. “I’m extremely flattered, of course, but I just don’t think that arrangement makes sense.”

There was an utter quiet in the room. As I would tell Jane that night, I couldn’t believe what I had just said. Sure, I believed what I was saying, but still: the most storied entertainment company in the world was offering me a parachute away from what threatened to become for me a Hollywood dungeon, and I was telling them their plan wouldn’t fly.

Maybe, though, I had an instinct. Even if I was overplaying my hand, maybe, just maybe, it might work.

Less than three seconds later, Frank Wells broke the silence.

“Okay,” he said. “You can be chairman and CEO, and I’ll be president and COO.”

If I had stunned myself by blurting out my own demand, I was, silently, at least doubly shocked by Frank’s reply. After all, he had set up the plan that they proposed. Fortunately, I had learned early in my career to take yes for an answer. Too many times a person is told okay, and then says, “Really? You must be kidding. I can do that?” I knew when to say yes. So I simply said, “Great. I’m in.”

But in the days and weeks ahead, I found myself wondering about Frank. What kind of person would spend his life so successfully climbing his way up the corporate ladder and then, at the very top, step aside for someone else — and someone else, for that matter, he didn’t know very well? I had spent the previous twenty years working in a terrific partnership alongside Barry Diller, one of the most brilliant executives the entertainment world has ever seen, but now, this Frank Wells appeared to be a different sort of animal: an executive who could cede power just like that, and be as comfortable as a number two as he was as a number one. Could that really be true?

I was about to find out. Frank and I got the jobs, just as we had defined them that day on the terrace at Stanley Gold’s house. We were headed into the toughest challenge of our professional lives, together. For the next ten years, that journey would be as exciting, enjoyable, rewarding, and triumphant s either of us could have dared to hope. From our first day in the office that fall, my partnership with Frank Wells caught me what it was like to work with somebody who not only protected the organization but protected me, advised me, supported me, and did it all completely selflessly. I’d like to think I did the same for Frank, as well as the company. We grew together, learned together, and discovered together how to turn what was in retrospect a small business into indeed a very big business.

We learned that one plus one adds up to a lot more than two. We learned just how rewarding working together can be.

This is a story that begins on opposite sides of the country, about two young men who couldn’t have been much more different. You see, while I grew up in New York City, Frank was a Navy brat from California who moved around a lot as a child before attending Pomona College and then going overseas to spend two years at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. After I graduated from Denison University in Ohio, I lasted just two weeks in Europe. I thought I’d be a playwright in Paris, but solitary views of the Eiffel Tower and lonely nights at cafés weren’t my thing. I came home and got a job at NBC as a clerk. I was ecstatic. There were people around.

Frank finished his education with a law degree from Stanford, and also spent two years in the army before becoming a lawyer with the well-known firm of Gang, Kopp & Brown (later Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown). He entered the studio entertainment side of the business in 1969 by joining Warner Bros., a client of his firm, and then worked his way up to company president a decade later. I had arrived in Hollywood from ABC in New York in the summer of 1973, joining Barry Diller so we could both be closer to the center of production at ABC after seven years together in New York City. Then, in 1976, I followed Barry again across town to become his second in command at Paramount Pictures, president to his chairman. Still, other than at industry functions, I didn’t really cross paths with Frank until 1982, when we ran into each other skiing in Vail, Colorado, and decided to have dinner together with our wives. It was just after Frank had decided to take leave of the entertainment business to spend a year climbing those seven tallest peaks. That night, I met a man who was clearly adventurous, and clearly in need of something new. He had achieved a lot as a lawyer and a motion picture executive, but having found two executives (Bob Daly and Terry Semel, who would form their own example of a great partnership over the next two decades) to step into his job as head of Warner Bros., he was ready to move on. To me, though, the idea of climbing the world’s highest mountains was at once fascinating and baffling, and as I am wont to do, I asked him roughly a thousand questions about his plans for an adventure, most of them variations on the theme: Who would be crazy enough to take that kind of risk? I learned several years later that he couldn’t believe I asked all those questions. He told me nobody else bothered to ask more than one. He would say that he knew at that moment that I was the inquisitive type. (He may have used a different adjective.) Maybe what surprised me most was learning that his previous climbing experience amounted to having hiked to the top of Vail a handful of times. Frank wasn’t exactly Lance Armstrong. This wasn’t like Rocky training by running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art — to this day, I’m not even sure Frank trained much at all. In other words, this was not a finely tuned athletic specimen testing the limits of his body, even if he may have looked the part. (Years later, I’d confirm all this on our fifth day on the job at Disney, when Frank hit his head on every crossbeam on the inside of the Matterhorn theme park ride as we explored Disneyland.) What I learned that night at dinner was that he was a successful middle-aged executive who had simply decided to embark on an adventure. With a twinkle in his eye, he was very aware of what he was doing, and seemed to know what I had always believed: as long as you think and act as if you’re coming from behind, you have a shot at staying ahead. I liked him immediately for that.

Back at Paramount, I suppose I thought about Frank from time to time while he was walking the ends of the earth — particularly when someone on his Everest expedition (the one mountain he failed to summit) died near the top. And though we crossed paths once or twice when he returned — actually cochairing a political event at one point — we remained business acquaintances rather than friends. Though we certainly got along well, I can’t pretend that we ever talked about collaborating in the future. Still, Frank knew my work at ABC and Paramount and must have respected my accomplishments there, just as I respected his success at Warner Bros. And then, all of a sudden, there we were — on that terrace at Stanley Gold’s Beverly Hills house, talking as we looked out at a tennis court, swimming pool, and the backyard grass of a neighbor’s house.

I learned later that Frank had stayed close to Roy Disney and Stanley Gold, hoping that some business opportunity would come up for him at Walt Disney Productions. He had come back from his trip a few months earlier and had been talking to them. He knew Roy always hated the way he was treated by his uncle’s successors, Card Walker and Ron Miller. He also knew Roy had quit the Disney board over the frustration of being ignored. He had known Roy since they were in college together, had worked as his lawyer, and had turned over his law practice to Stanley at their firm when he moved to Warner Bros. And he also knew the Disney Company was in chaos and was being approached by corporate raiders, and that Roy was looking for revenge and a way to spare his father and uncle’s company from being broken apart. Frank was looking for the next step in his own career, but then, with a kind of honesty to which the business world often seems allergic, suggested they talk to me. I’m still not sure whether it was because I had a pretty good record over the past two decades or because I had quizzed him incessantly about his mountaineering wanderlust at the Vail dinner years before. He hadn’t simply said to them, “Well, I’m available,” but instead offered the advice, “You should talk to Michael Eisner.” And then, of course, his selflessness had culminated on the terrace.

Getting the job wasn’t quite as simple as that, of course; we had to get the board of directors to approve the deal. This wasn’t just a company making a leadership change — this was the Walt Disney Company, less than twenty years after the death of its founder, still never having brought someone in from outside the company family to run things. We in fact would be taking over for Walt’s son-in-law, Ron Miller, who had been the CEO since 1980. But after some impressive votes of confidence by people like Card Walker and the investor Sid Bass, we got the jobs, and on Monday morning, September 24, 1984 — just a few weeks after the conversation on Stanley Gold’s terrace — I found myself driving to the Disney lot in Burbank to start my first day of work. The coverage in the press was enormous, surprising me greatly. During the rush to get our jobs, I had forgotten just how fond of, and interested in, Disney as a company the public was. It made me nervous. For years, I had avoided making deals out of ego and testosterone that would make the front page of the Wall Street Journal — only to appear a few years later on the business obituary page of the New York Times. As I drove to Burbank that day, I hoped that wouldn’t be the fate of this experiment.

Lucille Martin, who had been Walt’s secretary and then worked for Ron Miller, was there to welcome me into the office where Walt himself had once worked. I had been there for maybe ten minutes when Frank arrived with a big hello and sat down across from me. I pushed back my chair and began talking about what we had to do that day, figuring he’d respond and then head out, but after about fifteen minutes, something else became apparent to me.

“Frank,” I asked him, “are we going to sit here together?”

“Well, yeah,” he said. “I thought we would.”

I wasn’t sure how to react. Yes, I suppose partners who work together should be able to actually work together, but the whole idea made me uncomfortable. I need my privacy. I made the point to Frank, and offered to go find another office, leaving this one to him.

“No, no,” he said, jumping up. “You stay here, I’ll go.” And he walked to the room next door and sat down. Though Frank projected a tremendous, statesmanlike sense of calm and stability to everyone else that day, I — the supposed creative executive — could tell he was truly nervous starting this adventure. I liked that. For the first time, I saw that he was human — and this was going to work. Underneath that handsome, perfectly postured, military-son Rhodes scholar was real flesh and blood, so much more than I expected. Although we didn’t share the same space, we came into each other’s offices anyway about twenty times each over the course of that morning, sharing news and comparing notes from phone calls, a pattern that would repeat itself countless more times over the next ten years.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from “Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed," by Michael D. Eisner with Aaron Cohen. © 2010 by Harper Business.