Michael Eisner on Teamwork (Irony Intended)

Working Together:
Why Great Partnerships Succeed
By Michael D. Eisner with Aaron Cohen
HarperBusiness, 304 pp, $25.99

The first clue that Michael Eisner is irony-deaf appears on the cover of his new book. Above the pious title—Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed—Eisner's name appears in huge letters, leaving scant room for that of his collaborator, Aaron Cohen, in tiny type below. Here's a tip, guys: If you're going to write a book extolling the benefits of partnership, get the optics right. An innocent reader might jump to the conclusion that Eisner's ego is so large it overwhelms everything around it.

A well-informed reader might agree. There was, for instance, that $250 million breach-of-contract lawsuit with former protégé Jeffrey Katzenberg, who accused Eisner of bilking him in 1994. Then there was the infatuation with superagent Michael Ovitz, whom Eisner dumped a mere 14 months after hiring him. There was also the dispute with Steve Jobs over Walt Disney's (DIS) distribution deal with Pixar. According to James B. Stewart's definitive account of the Eisner era, Disney War, the author of Working Together referred to those former collaborators, respectively, as "the little midget," a "psychopath," and a "Shiite Muslim." A feud with Roy Disney ultimately resulted in Eisner's departure from the company in 2005.

What's a bloodbath, or four, to a Hollywood mogul? For all his bleak history with partners, Eisner was indisputably half of the duo that reinvigorated Disney in the late 1980s. According to Eisner, the decade he spent working alongside Frank Wells—who died in a 1994 helicopter accident—was a wonderful partnership. Inspired by that experience, Eisner interviewed members of other successful working relationships to find out exactly what makes them click, clearly gunning for heartwarming tales of people working side by side, sharing risks and building empires. Yet what he discovers is the messy reality of alpha males and their butting egos, which he attempts to gloss over with all the Mickey Mouse enthusiasm he can muster. As with many of the box-office stinkers Eisner green-lighted after Wells died (Treasure Planet is surely selling in a 99 cents DVD bin near you), this look into partnership badly needed an editor. While Eisner seems genuinely interested in talking up the benefits of working together, he appears blissfully clueless of the ways in which his own anecdotes undermine his thesis.

Consider Eisner's account of a key meeting in 1984, when he was the president of Paramount Pictures (VIA). The entertainment lawyer Stanley Gold proposed a deal in which Eisner and Wells, the former president of Warner Bros. (TWX), would become co-chief executive officers of Disney. Eisner rejected the offer on the spot, demanding that he alone be named CEO over the older and more experienced Wells.

For reasons known only to him, Wells acquiesced and became Eisner's second-in-command. While some might see this as an example of running from the elephant ego in the room, to Eisner it's the beauty of teamwork. When it comes to complimenting his partner of a decade, Eisner's praise is, shall we say, nuanced. He recounts how, on their first day together at Disney, Wells was under the naive impression they might share the office where Walt himself once worked. Having none of that, Eisner made his desire for privacy perfectly clear, and his No. 2 obediently jumped up and took the office next door.

It's at this point—about 10 pages in—that it becomes clear what Eisner extols as partnership is actually something quite different. The book applauds Wells' ability to support any idea Eisner threw out and cites a sycophantic, five-page, handwritten note Wells gave the author in 1989 as an example of their compatibility. Writing to both Eisner and his wife, Wells—also speaking on behalf of his own wife—explained his need to "acknowledge...our feelings about you both and what you've done for Disney and, derivatively, for our family." What prompts an executive to write his "partner" such a letter after five years of working together every day? It's a question that Eisner never answers, but it may explain how Wells held on to his job for so long.

Of the 10 partnerships Eisner examines, two feature partners who have been dead for more than a decade (Wells and Ian Schrager's former Studio 54 running mate, Steve Rubell). Two more partnerships are defunct because people have retired. One partnership, that of Bill and Melinda Gates, is actually a marriage. Of the five partnerships that qualify as living, breathing business relationships, at least two aren't partnerships in the traditional sense. Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger have swapped thoughts for decades on potential investments, though they don't live in the same city, much less share an office. Same goes for producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard. These examples suggest successful partnerships are as much about distance as they are about intimacy, a theme Eisner is perhaps saving for the sequel.

The clearest lesson of this book is that the most successful business relationships rely on one partner deliberately subjugating himself or herself, as Munger did with Buffett, as New York Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer did with manager Joe Torre, and, of course, as Wells did with Eisner. The author hints at this sober conclusion but prefers to dwell on sweeter observations that would fit into any Disney log line. Partners, he asserts, must trust one another, keep their egos in check, and share a sense of morality. Eisner slips into the realm of the absurd when he proposes that more successful partnerships might be an antidote to the virus of executive greed that led, he boldly asserts, to the recent financial crisis.

For anyone who remembers the hundreds of millions in stock options that Eisner garnered during his tenure at Disney, when he was one of the highest-paid executives in the world, this insight is the most hilarious punch line of all. Particularly, it so happens, as Eisner is said to be a candidate to take over the Tribune Co. If Wells were alive, let's hope he'd lean forward and suggest gently to Eisner that he's making a fool of himself. Though all evidence indicates that their beautiful partnership would never have survived if Wells did anything of the kind.

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