What We Can Learn From The Walt Disney Company About Risk

Bob Iger once stated, in reference to making decisions as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, that he was “not risk-averse”. I found his comment surprising, given what I know about Disney and the strategic moves that Iger has made. I can’t think of even one risky thing he has done (including the fact that at 69 years of age he still exercises every day and avoids junk food).

The acquisitions he made on behalf of Disney include, Pixar (Toy Story, Incredibles, et al), Marvel (Avengers, Iron Man, et al), Lucas Films (Star Wars and Indiana Jones), all of 21st Century Fox’s movies (Avatar, Ice Age, The Simpsons, et al) and a majority stake in Hulu. All of which seem like no-brainers. He also contemplated acquiring Twitter, but decided not to, because he thought it was too risky. And he was extra careful getting involved in streaming movies online, waiting a decade after Netflix came to prominence before creating Disney+.

Even the movies that Disney makes aren’t risky, because of all the preparation that goes into each one. Iger has said that he doesn’t allow films to be released until they’re as good as they can possibly be. Disney sometimes goes outside the box with movies like Black Panther and Maleficent, but Iger knows that most of the movies the company makes are going to do well and that the company can afford a flop now and then. The big hits make so much money that they make up for the flops. Even if the company loses 50-million dollars on a movie (which isn’t often) that amount of money represents a small percentage of what the company is worth (250-billion dollars), with some movies bringing in up to 3-billion dollars each.

Disney takes risks. They have to. But they’re strategic risks. They put a lot of thought and planning into everything they do, making sure there’s minimal downside. Iger knows he can’t just sit there and do nothing. The company has to create and it has to evolve, and that means risking some minor losses along the way. But he never once put the company in jeopardy. The board of directors would likely never allow that anyway. Iger uses his chips wisely, making sure that he has plenty left if some of his bets don’t work out.

[P.S. Ironic, and slightly annoying, is the fact that Disney sometimes makes movies that seem to encourage kids to take big risks. Moana, for example. Teenage girl with no sailing skills and no supplies takes a small boat into the pacific ocean on her own and it all works out great.]