Disney's advocate for excellence

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 September, 2010, 12:00am

Appointed last year as vice-president of park operations at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, Noble Coker has an extensive brief. He is responsible for attractions, guest services, merchandise, facility services, security, safety, fire and health services. Coker's career began with the group more than 13 years ago as an IT programmer and then a project manager with Walt Disney Imagineering in the United States. He moved up to be director of system planning at The Walt Disney Company, and was instrumental in developing and implementing a strategic planning process. Later, he was responsible for consolidating and rationalising company-wide IT projects. A move to Hong Kong Disneyland came in June 2002 as director of IT, leading the planning and organisational push prior to opening the theme park. Coker's academic credentials include a bachelor's degree in finance from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the University of Southern California. He talks to Jan Chan.

Which part of your job has presented the most challenges?

One of the really hard things is learning to adapt the service practices of our home market to a culture that has very different expectations. That has been a pretty significant challenge, and another part of it is convincing people that this can actually be done.

What have you had to change? Our usual approach is to be aggressively friendly, and we found that lots of guests in Hong Kong were kind of taking a step back. Some felt that was too much. Initially, our cast members were confused about how to approach people, so we had to find a way to identify those who wanted more attention and those who didn't. Therefore, we launched the 'star guest' programme and gave badges to guests who wanted more interaction. This helped to address cultural constraints, and it came from listening to and learning from both guests and cast.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I would say I'm a passionate advocate for excellence. To be effective, it is important to realise that you work for your people. If my team is successful, then I will be too. My role as a leader is to make sure I'm giving them the support and resources necessary to do the best job possible. You've also got to love what you do. You must believe in it and have the passion to excel.

What does it take to be a successful senior executive? The first point is you never take yes for an answer. Typically, when you have people on your team who agree with you, it makes life very easy, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're getting all the right answers. You need to challenge your team and yourself, so if everybody is saying 'yes', rephrase the questions or turn things around to make sure you have some debate. To get the broadest view of any issue, it is vital to hear the contrary perspective. You also have to realise that listening and questioning is more important than telling people what to do.

Which personal qualities are you still trying to improve?

I would say patience. That's what my team continually reminds me to work on, and my wife and children as well, so it is clearly not just job-related. I recognise this as something I have to improve on and, to address it, I ask people I trust to remind me whenever they see signs of failure in this area. For me, being reminded is absolutely critical. Other people can often see where there are problems, while you may have a blind spot and ignore your own weaknesses.

What advice do you give to young people in Hong Kong?

When young people ask me how to move their career forward faster, I tell them about the 'three-step rule'. Anyone can plan for a next job and even the one after that, but few people think about their third job from now. That's because it is hard to think that far out about where you want to be. But if you can, then instead of chasing money, you start to look for experience, and that is what will ultimately help you to be more successful.

Staying in touch

Coker still tries to walk around the park every day to keep in touch with staff and visitors

He suggests young people should not just chase after money, but go after the right experiences

He believes in learning from superiors, peers and subordinates