Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Disney's advocate for excellence

Appointed last year as vice-president of park operations for Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, Noble Coker has an extensive brief. He is responsible for attractions and guest services, merchandise, facility services and security, as well as safety, fire and health services.

Coker began his career with the group, more than 12 years ago, as an IT programmer and then a project manager with Walt Disney Imagineering in the United States. From there, he moved up to be director of system planning for The Walt Disney Company, and was instrumental in developing and implementing a strategic planning process and, later, consolidating and rationalising company-wide IT projects.

A move to Hong Kong Disneyland came in June 2002 as director of information technology, leading the planning and organisational push prior to opening the 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 in particular 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 for them, while others seemed to know what to expect. 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 the 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 own leadership style?
In short, 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 are successful, then I will be too. Therefore, my role as a leader is to make sure I’m giving them the support and resources necessary to do the best job possible. In addition, you’ve got to love what you do. You must really believe in it and have the passion to excel, rather than coming in with the attitude that work is a chore and that you just want to get through the day.

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 so that some people have to say no. To get the broadest view of any particular 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. That allows you to find out why things are the way they are and prevents you making incorrect assumptions based on incomplete information. People think that being a boss is about having all the answers, but in fact it is knowing how to ask all the right questions.

How do you want the company to develop in the next few years?  
The first thing is for us to become part of the fabric of Hong Kong. I recently read an article about children submitting pictures of what Hong Kong meant to them. One of the pictures was a young girl together with her mother and Mickey Mouse. I got very excited about that because it was one of the first examples I’ve seen that people are starting to think of Hong Kong Disneyland as real part of their city. It’s going to take time, but I think we are making small steps and we are getting there.

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 and, to address it, I ask people I trust and rely on 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 overlook or ignore your own weaknesses.

What advice do you give to the young people in Hong Kong?
I would tell them that it’s OK to be different. If everybody is always thinking alike and doing the same thing, a company ends up being good, but not great. When young people come to me and ask how to move their career forward or get promoted faster, I tell them about “three-step rule”. Basically, anyone can plan for a next job and even the one after that, but very few people think about their third job from now. That’s because it is really hard to think that far out about where you want to be and what you want to do. 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
  • Hopes to create life-long memories and a lasting sense of excitement for 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