She’ll tell me straight to my face

The autobiography of Disney’s CEO contains the most valuable lesson any PR person can ever learn about working with executives.

I found The Ride of a Lifetime by Bob Iger fascinating. It documents his rise from a peon getting bullied at ABC Sports to wooing Rupert Murdoch into selling him 21st Century Fox – which is why you can now watch all 639 episodes of The Simpsons on Disney+ :).

But here’s what stood out to me: Throughout the book he only discusses a handful of Disney executives by name. And one of those who makes recurring flattering appearances is his head of corporate communications, Zenia Mucha.

She’s there advising him through key moments in his career, starting even before he was CEO. She’s “in the room” when dealing with a hostile takeover attempt by Comcast and subsequent attacks on the previous CEO. After Iger takes the helm, he relies on her during crises such as Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets and the heart-wrenching alligator attack that took the life of a toddler at Disney World.

As a PR nerd, I always want to know how super-pros like Mucha get that access. And fortunately for you and me, Iger tells us.

He wrote:

She’s tough, she'll tell me straight to my face when she thinks I’m making a mistake, and she always has the best interests of the company at heart.

As proof, he later confesses to a bit of a habit for telling reporters about small decisions he’s made, which makes him look like a micromanager. He quotes Mucha as telling him, “Bob, you know you did that, but the world doesn’t need to know, so shut up!”

Now that doesn’t mean we should all go and tell our CEOs to shut up. Mucha has been at Disney since the turn of the century, so she’s clearly built up this credibility over time. But Iger does show us the clear path to earning the type of respect Mucha enjoys – not to mention her $5 million annual salary, if that kind of thing matters to you.

You first prove to executives that you know and act on the company’s needs – not your own, and certainly not the media’s. And you prove that you’re not a “yes person” – that you’ll give them straight talk, every time.

Once, after a new CEO took over my organization, I dropped something off at his office. He stopped me and asked me about myself for a moment, and then he said, “When we’re in the middle of it, I want you to argue with me, okay?” A couple years later, during a big crisis, I took him up on that request, and he didn’t really like it in the moment. But I knew that he valued truth, and when I later left that job he told me, “The most important thing you have in your business is your integrity.”

If you’re working for someone who isn’t interested in that kind of straight talk, then your career is going to be constrained by that executive’s limitations. If you want to stand out to a star like Iger, now you know how.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2020

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