It’s anyone’s guess who will be Disney CEO in 2016

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Basketball has March Madness, Washington has the upcoming 2014 midterms, and Hollywood’s biggest guessing game is who will succeed Walt Disney Co. Chair and CEO Robert Iger in 2016.

Right now, it is anyone’s guess, since Disney media leader Anne Sweeney announced this week that she is stepping down, reports Daniel Miller and Meg James of the Los Angeles Times.   

Iger says he is staying on until June 2016, more than a year than originally planned, which only prolongs the search for a successor — with the top names on the list either Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo or theme park division head Thomas Staggs.

Sweeney’s departure could give the group another opportunity to road test a possible contender in the Disney television division, using the media position to season a new leader, the same place Iger served prior to becoming CEO.

Another possible name is Sheryl Sandberg, the 44-year-old Facebook billionaire executive who has been on the Disney board since 2010. The highly regarded Sandberg is publically known for her 2013 bestseller, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

Few people involved are commenting on that possibility, though.

Iger will be a hard act to follow, according to the Times. Since taking charge in 2005, Disney stock has tripled, and Iger was instrumental in Disney’s multi-billion dollar acquisitions of Pixar in 2006, Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and the “Star Wars” franchise through the 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm — moves that will keep the House that Mickey Mouse built viable for decades.

Also during Iger’s tenure, Disney’s billion-dollar megahit “Frozen” is also the current high point for the company’s animation division, and the almost $4-billion Shanghai Disney Resort theme park project, 15-years in the making, is set to open by Dec. 31, 2015.

Announcing a succession plan for the 63-year-old Iger in 2015, now extended another 15 months may carry Disney’s fondness for long-range planning, but it is not good for a succession race.

At Disney, succession becomes an art form. For example, senior executives are required to determine the best candidates for their replacement, should the need arise.

In January 2010, Rasulo and Staggs exchanged jobs, which some observers saw as a way to extend the executives’ experience by seeing how they performed in different roles.

Rasulo was also previously Euro Disney chair and CEO. He had a large role in revitalizing Disneyland Paris, which opened to criticism in 1992 and a large amount of debt. Rasulo is a regular partner in quarterly earnings calls, providing details of Disney’s financial performance and is a frequent speaker at company conferences and summits.

Staggs, as the leader of the parks group, has seen his department successfully double the size of its cruise fleet, as well as the $1 billion launch if MyMagic+ for efficient movement of visitors through the park’s attractions. MyMagic+ is a band provided to guests that acts as combination hotel room key/theme park ticket and also be used to make purchases.

Disney introduced MyMagic+ at Disney World Orlando last year, with a wider roll-out planned in 2014.  

Even though Disney boasts a strong candidate bench, external hires are not out of the question. Another of Iger’s successes was the decision to bring aboard Alan Horn as studio chief after a long tenure at rival Warner Bros. 

Of course, all this predicates on the scheduled vacating of Iger’s two positions on June 30, 2016, the end of his current contract. When the Disney board extended his agreement, the independent lead director claimed it was because of Iger’s “outstanding leadership” and a “unique ability to drive creative and financial success” at the Burbank-based entertainment giant.

Disney could just as well extend the contract again — it’s anyone’s guess.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.