It’s a bit of a shame to only start talking about people who inspire you and have had such an influence on your life when they have already passed away, but I guess that’s just the way things go. The saying, you don’t really know what you have, until it is gone, really holds up I suppose.
Earlier this year my favorite author died, sir Terry Pratchett.
Saturday my favorite CEO died, mister Satoru Iwata of Nintendo.
It’s weird right? To talk about your favorite CEO? Oftentimes we talk about our favorite author, our favorite musician, our favorite actor, but not about our favorite CEO. Of course, this has to do with the fact that CEOs tend to be less visible to the general public than authors, musicians, etcetera.
Not mister Iwata. Every few months for the last few years he appeared in an online video in which Nintendo announced what we, the fans, the gamers, may expect from them in the coming days, weeks, months and years. This he did with a touch of humor. His stock phrase “directly to you” – accompanied by his typical hand gesture – has become a recurring theme in Nintendo Directs (what the videos are called) and a fan favorite.
Iwata also appeared in the interviews he took with developers that created games for Nintendo platforms and which appeared on Nintendo’s website (i.e. the Iwata Asks Series) and he often gave interviews himself to game media. But of course, Satoru Iwata was not only my favorite CEO because he was visible. No, there’s many other reasons why he deserves that title.
For one, he taught me that CEOs do not have to be money grubbing a*****. They choose to be money grubbing a*****. Mr. Iwata never chose to be such a CEO. When Nintendo suffered its first loss since 1981 in 2012, he did not decide to restructure the company (which generally means “fire a lot of people”), no, he took a substantial pay cut, and humbly declared that the fault was his and that he would make things better. Which he did. The company today is as profitable as ever. If things went wrong, it was him who carried the weight. When costs needed to be cut, he looked at himself first (and the other high rank workers in the company) and not at the people who work for him on the floor.
Also, Satoru Iwata was a CEO who knew the ins and outs of what his company was selling. He worked “on the floor” himself. He started out as a game developer, a programmer, at HAL Laboratory (a Nintendo subsidiary). He knew what it meant to create videogames. He knew what he was asking his people to do. He was also a very good programmer. He saved the cult classic Earthbound, which would never have released if it wasn’t for him reworking all of the code. He gave us Balloon Fight and helped on many, many Kirby games.
Maybe the best way to describe Satoru Iwata as a CEO and as a person would be to let him speak for himself:
On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.
Rest in peace Mister Iwata, and know that you have taught me that a company can have a heart when the heart of its president is big enough for two.