The quality of mentoring in corporate life is somewhat exaggerated.
The late Jerry Nachman, a talented and clever New York news executive who won Peabody, Emmy and Murrow awards, once told me this about his mentors: “I never took a job where there wasn’t still an outline of my predecessor’s body on my office floor.”
Lack of mentoring came to mind when I recently visited Walt Disney World in Orlando. I had just completed reading James B. Stewart’s book “Disney War” and heard the announcement that Robert Iger, Walt Disney Co.’s president, will replace Michael Eisner as chief executive officer.
Like many a top executive who feared rather than mentored his apparent replacement, Eisner forced out CEOs-in-waiting Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Ovitz at enormous financial cost to his company. Finally, as Eisner’s clout with Disney’s board and shareholders evaporated, only Iger was left standing.
Here, according to the Stewart book, was the Eisner mentoring style over the years:
He told key directors that Iger “can never succeed me” and lacked “the stature” to lead Disney.
He told Iger at dinner: “Every time I think of naming a president, I feel like I’m competing with myself.”
He told Ovitz that he was “very concerned about Mr. Iger’s ability creatively.”
He described Iger to Disney’s board this way: “He is a corporate executive. He is not an enlightened or brilliantly creative man, but with a strong board he absolutely could do the job.”
With that kind of encouragement, Iger’s rise to the top is nothing short of amazing, though there has been criticism by dissident board members that Disney should have cast a wider net.
The search team did meet 11 times to discuss succession, but the number of outside candidates was not revealed. Meg Whitman of eBay Inc. was reportedly consulted about the job but withdrew her name when she felt that Iger was a shoe-in.
Eisner did great things for Disney early on, but could not delegate, and his judgment faltered. He undermined his top executives and bickered with Pixar’s Steve Jobs and Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew.
In today’s insecure executive suite, talk of mentoring has been replaced with the words: “Chief executive officer. Does not play well with others.”