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7 Questions with Ned Coten
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7 Questions with Ned Coten
Name: Ned Coten
Current title: Chief Executive Officer
Current organisation: EngageRM
Ned Coten is the CEO of EngageRM, a sports technology and CRM scaleup with a widespread client base across Australia and the US. He is the President of Basketball Australia and sits on the Competitions Commission of basketball’s world body, FIBA. Ned Chairs the Advisory Board for The Contenders, one of Australia’s leading brand strategy agencies and owns and operates two successful self storage businesses. He has investments in Aged Care, Property and Technology, while continuing as an active mentor for aspiring business leaders.
Ned has extensive experience in leadership, sports management, consumer branding, sales and marketing. He is a former CEO of a number of Australia’s leading sports organisations and has operated multiple businesses as a CEO, Investor, Board Chair or Director over the past 30 years. Ned holds an MBA from the University of NSW and has written a book on branding and marketing for sport.
While attending the Australian Institute of Sport, Ned represented Australia at the 1983 World Junior Basketball Championships in Spain. He had a brief career in the National Basketball League and co-founded the Goldfields Giants in WA’s State Basketball League. He holds relationships across sport and business within Australia and globally and remains a passionate and committed volunteer, with continuous service throughout his life.
Ned has been happily married to Hilary since 1994 and has two adult sons. He resides in Melbourne, Australia.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
The most difficult thing for me has been finding the correct balance between having enough information and ensuring that we make timely decisions in order to move the business forward.
In the past three years, through my voluntary work as President and Chair of Basketball Australia, I have been placed in incredibly difficult and stressful situations where I've had to make important decisions very quickly with very limited information. Interestingly, this has given me significant experience and confidence in being able to make similar decisions in the future.
I now worry less about the impacts of the decision and more about getting quickly to a point where I can make an informed decision. What I've learned is the important thing is to have a point of view and then be able to back that up with strong strategy and arguments. I'm not always right, but we then have a starting point which will allow others to provide feedback and move towards a final goal.
Early in my career, I found it extremely difficult to make decisions that were confronting or politically difficult, particularly where I knew that others would be upset or angry. I often avoided these circumstances to the point where the problem became overwhelming and ultimately a lot worse than it could have been if I'd acted early.
As a direct result of this and through the influence of many people around me, I've now learned that it's best to make a fast decision on difficult things, implement that decision and then get on with it. You can't do this without compassion and I still find it difficult, however, it's critical that hard discussions occur early and transparently to get the best outcome.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
When I left high school, I was fortunate to have a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport, where I was able to further my basketball career significantly. At the same time, I undertook study and ultimately earned a Bachelor of Education degree to become a teacher.
Interestingly, because of my sport connections, I only taught for six months and moved into sports management. This was not a planned outcome but rather a consequence of the circumstances that I was in. From that point onwards, I always tried to ensure that I was adding as much value as possible. I would go over and above and always try to ensure that problems were solved and that I looked at every circumstance as if I owned the enterprise.
During this time, I also undertook a number of small private and entrepreneurial ventures which taught me how to manage difficult situations and juggle lots of competing priorities. This included running basketball camps, buying and selling property, and running a very small and basic consulting business.
When I look back, I realize that putting myself in these challenging situations made me aware of the difficulties that managers and owners of enterprises have, and I think this has always served me well. I slowly moved my way up the ladder until I became the CEO of a National Basketball League team in Perth, Australia and went on to other similar roles. After 12 years I got to the point where I didn't want to work in sport anymore but didn't really have a range of other options.
Through my sporting connections, I was introduced to someone who owned a brand strategy business. He took me on, and I worked firstly as an employee and then we went into business together in a brand strategy consultancy which became quite successful. I ultimately sold my shares back to him and then consulted privately for two years. During this time, I also made investments in self-storage and aged care which I continue to hold.
I consulted with a variety of businesses. In a number of cases I chaired Advisory Boards which I set up within those businesses to assist in their strategic growth and development. In a voluntary capacity, I'd also served on the boards of Basketball Victoria and then Basketball Australia. I ultimately became the President and Chair of the Board for Basketball Australia. I didn't feel I was ready for the role at the time, but I worked particularly hard and it's turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, confidence building and educational experiences of my professional career.
One of the things I've done throughout my career is meet people to get to know them and discuss opportunities. I think it's important to have open conversations with people and be open to the opportunities that come from them – you never know where it's going to lead. It was one of these such meetings that led to a more detailed conversation where I ultimately became an investor in, and the CEO of, EngageRM. This role was a perfect combination of my management and governance experience, my training as a teacher, work in technology and extensive experiences in sport and entertainment.
As my career has developed, I've gained the confidence to operate in new environments and I definitely would not have been able to hold this role if I hadn't had those difficult challenges earlier in my career.
As I look back, I often think that I should have been far more strategic and planned in the development of my career. However, I realise that that was just not my path. Hindsight is a great thing, but the real strength and enlightenment comes from making decisions as you learn. I've certainly done this and, while again in hindsight, I would have done some things differently, I'm pretty happy with how it's turned out.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I'm a morning person and I believe that getting a strong start early in the day is the most beneficial way for me personally.
I don't advocate that this is the case for everyone, but it certainly works well for me. I like to get out of bed at 4:45 a.m. and I use the first half hour of the day to do some exercise in my lounge room (push-ups, sit-ups, and planks) while unpacking the dishwasher, cleaning the kitchen, and making myself a cup of coffee while I'm resting between exercise.
This gives me an excellent start to the day and really clears my head. It's not always easy to get up at 4:45 particularly if I've had a late night, but invariably I find that my days turn out pretty well.
I then sit down on my computer and spend the first two hours on what I call ‘thinking work’. I try to avoid emails, overseas phone calls, and other activities during this time because it's when my mind is sharpest. Developing articles, writing reports, or thinking through difficult problems that I have to solve is what I do during this time.
A few years ago, I wrote a book on marketing and branding in sport that was quite time consuming and difficult. I got into the habit of spending the first two hours of every day writing on the book and I managed to finish it in six weeks. It's really amazing what you can do if you set aside a consistent block of time for one specific task and how quickly you can make things happen.
From that point onwards, I'll often have phone calls or meetings or again, put time aside to do specific tasks.
I also structure my week to ensure that I can get the most done. Mondays are completely free of meetings and phone calls so I can focus on writing and undertaking tasks that take an hour or more and really require total focus. As a result, I love Mondays - this is not always the case for everyone I've worked with! Doing this at the start of the week allows me to have a great start and ensure that I get under control early.
Tuesdays are normally back-to-back with meetings (I try to put all my meetings into 1-2 days per week). Wednesdays, a combination of meetings and client calls. Thursday, I again try to keep pretty much free and Friday is when we tend to have more strategic meetings such as Board meetings or similar activities.
I wouldn't say that I'm a workaholic although my activities - and my wife - often say that this is not the case.! However, I really enjoy my work and often I find myself wanting to stay in and work on a particular document or article instead of going out and socializing or watching tv – it's just the way I’m wired and I’ve been fortunate to find ‘my thing’.
Friday night is the one night of the week where I won't and don't do anything work-related. I'm happy to work on a Saturday night but never on a Friday night. I'm not sure why this is the case but just a habit I guess I've developed over a period of time. On Saturday mornings, I usually go to one of the storage facilities I've built up over the past 15 years. I really enjoy physical work and have developed extensive building skills over my career. It's my outlet from sitting in front of a computer all day.
To me, the secret of a successful working structure is to really understand what times of the day you work well and what your skill set is. It's also critical to really – really – understand yourself and what motivates you. Being honest with yourself about this is absolutely critical.
Another critical factor: I have been very fortunate to find an outstanding executive assistant who I work with very closely. Amazingly to me, she does all of the detail work that is required while I think about the more strategic or creative tasks. This gives me the freedom to do what I do well, while knowing that the details will be looked after. She has my total trust and is a highly skilled, motivated and intelligent person who I admire greatly. This combination has worked well, and we've developed an outstanding relationship over the past five years.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
Take control when it's required.
Over the past three years, I've been involved in a number of circumstances where there was a great deal of pressure and some confusion about what to do. In these cases there are widely varying views and rising angst from a variety of people about how the organisation should address a situation - and an obvious escalation of stress for all involved.
In the past, I would have been quite diplomatic and heard all the views, trying to appease everybody. I learned the hard way that this does not work. What is required is decisive action and someone to make the call on what has to be done.
In these sorts of situations, it's critical for someone to take control and it might as well be you!
Someone said to me a long time ago that most people are walking around with their umbilical cords in their hand looking for somewhere to plug it in. Sadly, I've found this to be true. The most important thing in a stressful or difficult situation is - if you have the information and experience - to take control. This eases the pressure on others and ensures that for both yourself and them, there is certainty to the pathway forward.
The decisions that you make may not always be correct, but they will be far more beneficial than making no decision and people having confusion. In situations where there is pressure, the level of confusion and angst will often lead to poor decision making, frustration and misalignment across the business. By taking control, you ease this and ensure the best chance of getting to a good outcome.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
During the last 40 years, I have read literally hundreds and probably thousands of books on leadership, marketing, personal development, and many others. As I write this, I'm looking at my bookcase which has many of these books still there. The one that is the most earmarked and comes up time and time again is a book written around 20 years ago called The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch.
The premise of this book is that The 80/20 Principle or (The Pareto Principle) is alive and well. This principle says that 80% of the results in any situation will come from 20% of the inputs. I have found this to be true in absolutely every aspect of life and leadership.
For example, the reason carpet tiles were invented was because only 20% of the carpet is being used – most carpet is under desks, in corners and never gets touched, while high traffic areas wear out quickly. The reason a no0-claim bonus exists in insurance is because 80% of drivers never have a claim, while 20% have nearly all the accidents. You will find that you wear a few clothing items all the time while that ‘awesome jacket’ you bought three years ago has been worn once!. It is everywhere in life and business.
The 80/20 principle may sometimes be 95/5 or 99/1 - it doesn't matter. The important thing is that most activities and actions you undertake don't lead to anything meaningful. Therefore it's critically important to choose just a few things to do and really focus your time and energy on them. Most of us complain that we don't have enough time in the day but in fact, we waste most of our time because we don't focus on the critical things that we must do. We busy ourselves with activities that make us feel good but don't actually have an outcome.
This is a difficult lesson for all of us to learn - including myself. I have to admit that I'm not perfect, but I do think about this a lot. Choosing the right things to do is much much more important than doing things right. If you do the right things, you'll invariably find that you'll get better at them and the results will be far greater than being perfect at activating things that just don't mean anything.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
Our enterprise is not particularly large, but it is growing, and I have to say that this is one of the biggest challenges we have.
It's my very strong view that people should be treated in the same way that I expect to be treated. Everyone should be shown respect and dignity.
I'm a big believer in giving people the opportunity to go and prove themselves and that they be allowed to make mistakes along the way. Most mistakes are not catastrophic and don't matter. What they will do when backed up with appropriate mentorship is provide people with the confidence to be a strong leader.
In my own life, I've found that confidence is the number one factor for strong leadership. Most people actually have the experience and skills that they need to be strong leaders, but they just don't have the confidence to step up and make it happen.
This was something that held me back for many, many years. If we provide people with the confidence that they can do things and lead people and take the organisation in the right direction, they will grow into the role. Again, the 80/20 Principle applies - it won't work for everybody but invariably you'll find one or two incredible people that you should focus most of your time on. Then in turn get them to develop other leaders.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
One situation that I'll never forget occurred during my time as President of Basketball Australia. I found myself as the Head of Delegation for an official World Cup qualification game in another country.
There were many factors to this, but we had a number of situations before the actual game which meant that the local crowd and community did not hold us in the highest regard. At the start of the game, it was obvious that there were tensions on the court that could explode at any time. I was sitting courtside and became more and more concerned about what was happening.
Just after the half time break, my fears were realised and a full fight broke out on the court. The situation was highly volatile and could have had catastrophic outcomes. We finally managed to move off the court - which was a strategic exercise in itself - and were locked inside the change rooms for a period of two hours while the crowd dissipated.
We then were taken to what is known as a blind hotel (where no one but the driver of the bus knows where you are going) and we sent a small group back to our original hotel to get all of the gear. Understandably, all of the athletes and staff were shaken by this experience as was I.
We then had to arrange to leave the country in totally different circumstances. Leaning on my past experience, I knew it was critical that we acted decisively and ensured that at every step of the way the activities and actions were very very clear. I stayed up the whole night building a plan for the next two days as we left the country. This proved to be critical. We kept people informed at all times and they knew that they could come to me and ask questions at any time.
As I look back on this, it was a life-changing moment for me personally. It was a period where I was able to use all of my skills built up over a long period of time and put them into action. Again, the critical thing was the confidence to make this happen.