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'Appetite for change'

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 11:00 a.m. October 23, 2015
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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Executive Summary
Individual. Nick Choat, entrepreneur Industry. Technology, management Key. Building trust is the best way to break down silos.

Technology executive Nick Choat knew something was up when he got a call from his good friend and old boss, Bud Albers, in spring 2008.

Albers had just been named chief technology officer at Disney Interactive Media Group, where he oversaw online infrastructure and data centers for the entertainment and media giant, based in Seattle. Albers recruited Choat to help with what was clearly a complicated turnaround mission.

“I remember going in there and he pulls out a huge stack and says 'I asked for a status report on all my projects,'” says Choat. “He takes the stack, hands it to me and says 'You tell me how well I'm doing.' You couldn't. It was indecipherable. There was no way possible to see how well his group was performing.”

Choat, who by then had held senior-level management positions at Boeing and Getty Images, embraced the challenge. He was at Disney for more than four years, and was promoted to oversee big data analytics and digital advertising. In 2014, seeking a career change, Choat went in a different direction: He opened two Sport Clips Haircuts locations, one in south Sarasota and one in Bradenton. Georgetown, Texas-based Sport Clips is a national franchise company.

Choat's career is chock-full of other interesting experiences. He was part of a team at Boeing that worked on what was one of the company's largest-ever software projects, a redo of each aircraft's internal programming. At Getty Images he led product rollouts worldwide, including in Japan.

Sport Clips, says Choat, is a different pace, but not necessarily slower. He doesn't cut hair, but he oversees just about everything else in both stores. Choat brings his customer service-first mindset to Sports Clips. “It's not just a good haircut,” he says, “it's how you feel when you leave.”

Choat recently sat down with the Business Observer to talk about his career, challenges and lessons learned. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation.

What stands out from your time at Disney?
Disney is one of those unique employment opportunities. Everybody who works there has some personal connection with the business. It's rare. I worked for Boeing. I respected what they did, but I didn't have a passion for jets. But at Disney, everyone has a passion for something, whether it's the parks, ABC or ESPN. There's something for everyone. And that shows, that feeling of pride in working for something that's personally meaningful.

What was one lesson you learned from helping to execute a turnaround of a technology department at Disney?
Disney's products are world-class because it's a creative organization, but it's not that efficient many times. And Disney is consciously designed as silos, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

But the one thing I learned that was effective to help break the silos is to establish trusting relationships. If I were going to work with ESPN for the first time, for example, I wouldn't go in and talk about projects. I would go in and say, 'Tell me about your business.' If you treat it as the relationship is more important than whatever the project is, you develop a degree of trust. If you come in at arms length, and an 'I'm the corporate guy, and I'm here to help' attitude, it doesn't work. That's how I would typically melt the tension.

After melting the tension, what steps did you take to turn things around?
It was the art of rolling out just enough process at a time. When that process was effective, I would roll another. If I came to these guys and said here's the book of all theses new things you have to do, they would chew me up and spit me out, and rightfully so.

There's an appetite for change. You have to understand what that appetite is. If you feed it too much, it's not going to work. If you don't feed it enough, you're not taking advantage of the opportunities.

Within the technology department, what specific obstacles did you face and how did you address them?
Technology people many times aren't the most socially adept. Helping them and coaching them to understand that it's just as important to listen to what your customer is telling you, was a big part of my job. I remember we were working on a methodology for handling software development, and I had a really good program manager, who spent a lot of time creating this wonderful piece of work. I asked her: 'Who in your stakeholder group has reviewed this?' And she said no one. I said we had to start this over. It's not that the product was bad. It was actually really good work. But you have to be able to take that step back and engage the folks who really matter.

Also, technology people, I love them to death, but they are pretty independent-minded. That's a strength. You want that kind of thinking. But to put them together where they could work successfully as a team is kind of a subtle art form.

What lessons from your career have you used at Sports Clips?
The absolute obsession with guest satisfaction. Here my wife and I constantly scrutinize feedback. We get it regularly. We get several dozen comments a week. We solicit it, we want it. And there's real learning in that, whether we've done something wonderful or something we need to improve on. If you ignore that, you can't grow your business. That kind of obsession should apply to all businesses.

You spent five years as a business consultant at Ernst & Young. What did you take away from your tenure there?
At the strategic level, a big lesson I learned there was objectivity. Regardless of how much personal ownership you have with anything, you need to be able to step back and look at a situation objectively. It's hard because there are always personal filters. Even today, as an example how to carry that forward, right now I'm looking at a marketing initiative I put in place. It's my initiative, my idea. And it's just tanking. You have to be able to stand back and say no.

How do you manage conflict?
Set aside any political motivations because you deal with that differently. If you have two really smart people who are at odds, chances are both are correct but from a different perspective. So if you could bring them together in a safe environment where they can both get it out in the open, get it out of email, 99% of the time it will work itself out. Because they are smart people, they just aren't the best at communicating their perspective.

What are the characteristics of a great leader?
Here's a story on how I came to this conclusion. I was asked to speak about leadership at Disney to a Korean contingent that came to the University of Washington when I was a guest lecturer there. I could put my personal spin on it, but being objective, I wanted to represent one of the key factors of what I saw in Disney, leadership.

So I went through every annual report since Bob Iger had been CEO, and I saw one thing crystal clear. His vision was stated in five very clear statements, year over year, and it barely changed. Not four, not six. Even today, if you see him on TV, he may not give all five of them, but he will give some of those very consistently. And every employee in the company can see themselves in one or more of those five statements.

The ability to understand that kind of clarity and provide that kind of focus around the vision for the company is critical. The media industry isn't just five things. It's thousands of things. But if you want to be successful, you have to have focus.

New to town
Nick Choat, who grew up in rural east Tennessee, and his wife, Michelle Choat Sellars, an Idaho native, moved to Sarasota after they played the classic Florida discovery game.

First they rented a car, starting in Stuart. They drove down the east coast, through Palm Beach. Then the couple drove over the Alligator Alley, past Naples, and kept on going. Like many others before them, they found a place on the Gulf Coast they loved.

“Driving into Sarasota we were just like, 'wow,'” says Choat. “There's something here. I just had an instant image of classic Florida coast.”


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