Posted by Mark Grainger 14 Jul 2015

What Nintendo's Satoru Iwata taught us about being a CEO

Satoru Iwata died earlier this week. Whilst the name might not be familiar the company that he has been at the helm of for the last thirteen years, Nintendo, is well-known across the world.

Nintendo have long been seen as innovators, bringing video gaming to the mainstream consciousness on more than one occasion through their pioneering creation of appealingly marketable mascots like Mario and Pokémon’s Pikachu and their push to make gaming family friendly with the Wii.

Iwata took the job of CEO at Nintendo in 2002, rising to the top of the company as only its fourth president in 136 years and the first to come from outside the founding Yamauchi family. The success of the Wii and its handheld contemporary, the DS, will surely be Iwata’s legacy but he can also teach us a lot about being a CEO.

Through his belief that games should be fun and accessible to all, Iwata’s Wii ushered in a triumphant purple patch for the venerable company, but he never got lost in the corporate world or forgot that his was a company founded on fun.

Iwata arguably embraced and spread the company’s culture more than anybody else, poking fun at himself and the other Nintendo higher-ups in presentations, recorded Q&A sessions and corporate events, dressing up for sometimes bizarre skits and spawning a number of affectionate memes.

Coming to gaming as a coder, Iwata worked with one of Nintendo’s partner studios before joining the Big N in his 40s. His love of games never left him as he climbed the ranks, telling the 2005 Game Developers Conference: “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.”

What else made Satoru Iwata such a fantastic CEO? Well, on top of his vision and knack for developing winning ideas (the huge-selling Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, Kirby and Super Smash Bros. series were developed under his gaze), Iwata was passionate about Nintendo and its place in the world of gaming as a family company. He spearheaded the move to casual gaming before mobile apps were so ubiquitous, and created the lower-spec, motion controlled, Wii at an affordable price, flying in the face of convention in a time when graphics and processor speeds were seen as all important. Above all, he wasn’t afraid to take risks and follow his intuition.

He also put the needs of the company and the team ahead of anything else, standing up to the board over the prospect of job cuts, choosing instead to take a 50% pay cut in his own salary. Iwata was quoted at the time as saying “I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world”. In the end, Nintendo lost no staff.

So, Satoru Iwata: an innovative but quiet maverick, a president who lived the company culture and a man who truly loved the product and industry he represented. What more could anyone ask for in a CEO?