Anne Sweeney's announcement this week that she will step down as head of Disney's media networks, including ABC-TV, could help set up important moves on a corporate chess board as Disney prepares for bigger and more dramatic changes.
Iger agreed last summer to stay on as CEO through June 2016, 15 months longer than initially planned. That has extended the day of reckoning for choosing his successor, who many think will be either Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo or Thomas Staggs, who runs the theme park division.
Sweeney was not considered a top contender, but her departure could now give Iger an opportunity to test another executive in the TV division, where Iger himself earned his stripes. At a company like Disney, with 175,000 employees and $45 billion in yearly revenue, the board would typically consider outside candidates as well — as it did in 1984 when it hired Michael Eisner.
"What you have to do in a situation like this is think the unthinkable," said veteran executive recruiter Stephen Unger, who has conducted a search for a Disney board member on behalf of the company. "Every option is on the table."
One name that has surfaced recently is Sheryl Sandberg, the powerhouse Facebook executive who joined the Disney board in 2010. Considered a rock star among professional women, Sandberg is probably best known for her 2013 bestseller, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead."
Sandberg, 44, has the kind of resume that might be useful at Disney, especially as social media and the Internet become increasingly important as entertainment portals. Before joining Facebook as chief operating officer, the Harvard graduate was a top executive at Google. She also has Washington experience — serving as chief of staff to former Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers — a valuable asset for a company with a big media portfolio.
People close to Sandberg dismiss media reports that she is a contender, although neither Facebook nor Sandberg is responding publicly to the speculation.
Whoever gets the job, Iger will be a tough act to follow. Since he took the reins of the Burbank entertainment giant in October 2005, the value of Disney's stock has more than tripled. Iger orchestrated Disney's multibillion-dollar acquisitions of Pixar Animation Studios in 2006, Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and Lucasfilm (with its "Star Wars" franchise) in 2012 — three deals that transformed the company and established robust content pipelines for years to come.
What's more, Disney's core animation film division is riding high once again, with last year's "Frozen" on track to become the biggest-grossing animated film in history. The film has taken in more than $1 billion and is still playing in theaters four months after its release.
And there's more to come. Two of Iger's highest-profile projects are scheduled to debut six months before his planned departure. The Shanghai Disney Resort, a nearly $4-billion theme park project that Iger has been working on for more than 15 years, is slated to open by Dec. 31, 2015. That same month, the first Star Wars film in a decade is expected to hit theaters.
The contract extension ensured that Iger, 63, would be the CEO during those highly anticipated milestones.
Disney first announced in 2011 that Iger's tenure would end in 2015, keeping with Disney's penchant for long-range planning.
But more time isn't necessarily a good thing when it comes to a succession race, as evidenced by the contentious bake-off at Warner Bros. last year. In that case, three executives openly jockeyed for more than two years for the top job, triggering instability and competition. Within three months after Kevin Tsujihara took over as studio chief last March, rivals Jeff Robinov and Bruce Rosenblum left the company.
At Disney, succession is a fine art. Each year, senior executives must identify who would be the best candidates to replace them should such a move become necessary.
If Disney were to use the TV job as a means to provide more executive seasoning, it wouldn't be the first time.