Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Neil: Most people may not know that I like to use physical outlets such as renovating houses, gardening and cooking to relax and strategize in my own time. I appreciate working with materials and have a passion for rehabbing homes – it’s therapeutic. I grew up in Australia with furry friends by my side – from an unruly, long-legged Corgi to a loving black Lab and a loyal, protective German Shepherd. I attribute most of my leadership skills and success to my dogs. I went to the University of Technology in Sydney and majored in engineering. I started working for Brinker International and was introduced to the restaurant sector and moved on to Pizza Hut and Gloria Jean’s Coffees. While I learned about retail and franchising, I also learned about myself and how to become a successful leader. I met my wife while at Brinker in 1994, and it was my favorite job because that’s where we met and she’s been so important to my career. I married an American and she helped me understand the American culture when we moved to the United States. I also enjoy kayaking, traveling, going to the beach and spending time at home with my wife.
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Neil: In the early stages of my career, working with entrepreneurs trained me to never run a business without a plan. When starting your own business, ensure you are well capitalized and have a team you can trust around you. Bring the best talent you can find around you and work hard at always developing them. The dog care sector is young and with a new team the learning curve is huge. Be conscious – people will make mistakes. Create synergy with power of the planning process. Transparency is key – understand what everyone else is doing so the organization as a whole can deliver on its plan.
My proudest moment as an entrepreneur was working for Gloria Jean’s Coffee – having spent 12 years being instrumental in growing that business. It grew bigger than Starbucks and was more prevalent in Australia at that time – we even opened next to Starbucks in many markets. We built the brand against all odds.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Neil: A powerful mixture of personal humility and incredible will with an ambition that’s driven by a cause. It’s important to network with other successful CEO’s and surround yourself with people who are brave, honest and more knowledgeable than you in their field of expertise. I believe in hiring the right people to specialize in certain fields, develop their strengths and trust them to get the job done.
I also believe that Millennials – the primary pet owning generation, owning or living with 35 percent of pets – will come out ahead in leadership and career development. Growing up with a dog teaches you at an early age to take responsibility for a relationship – understanding that all relationships are a two-way bond.
Plus, Millennials want to end up in an honest environment and brave workforce – where people may be opinionated or entitled but are free to speak their minds. I feel that this freedom has created a much more honest group of people. I believe in a brave culture – where people can voice their opinion and have their say. I want employees to feel safe enough to fight for their opinion and be passionate about their goals and what they believe; or admit their mistakes and move forward with finding a solution. For example, you shouldn’t hold a grudge if your pup chews up your favorite pair of shoes – mistakes and accidents happen and it’s how you adjust or find solutions that translates to strong leadership tactics.
My advice: Stay loyal to the pack – and don’t throw people under the bus. Treat each other with respect along the journey. Have a planning process to define clear expectations and make it a collaborative effort with your team – encourage programs focused around synergy. The U.S. business culture is self- driven – putting processes in place to motivate and inspire will take you to the next level.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Neil: My three best tips are as follows: First, get the right people on your team. Second, create a culture of commitment. Third, reward action. And I know you didn’t ask for a fourth but get a dog!
Taking care of a dog teaches you responsibility and ultimately comes down to developing these five key attributes that translate very well to leadership:
Consistency- In order to assist a dog in becoming a great canine citizen, you must offer a consistent environment with plenty of direction and love. The same idea applies in business. All teams, individuals and franchise systems thrive in an environment that provides consistent direction built around a shared and transparent plan. Working in this manner will ensure all members are on the same page and working together with respect for the same goals.
Tenacity – Never giving up! Similar to training for a dog, it’s important to never give up, even when it gets complicated or frustrating. Problems or issues in business happen unexpectedly all the time, it’s how you work through those issues to arrive at a solution that is most important.
Discipline – Both humans and dogs make mistakes all the time, it’s a fact of life. Referencing positive reinforcement to help correct behaviors is a much healthier approach than negative tactics. Empower your team to try new things and even when a mistake happens, reinforce with appreciation for trying something new. Creating an environment like this will keep the team disciplined and determined to achieve the set goals.
Listening / Understanding – One of a dogs most loved traits is their ability to listen and understand your feelings. Every great leader should challenge themselves to spend more time listening and being present in each moment to better understand people’s emotions and their currency.
Caring – Dogs don’t care about how much you know, but they definitely know how much you care. Humans are exactly the same. Having a dog requires taking on the responsibility to care for someone other than yourself – which also develops empathy and sympathy, both great traits that successful leaders share.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Neil: There is no such thing as work-life-balance, so define your work-life-integration parameters as early as you can. I don’t think any CEO has the ability to create the balance. One person’s balance is another person’s nightmare. If you love what you do – integration is what you must do.
I was influenced by Steven Covey and spent some time with him – I respect his ability to take strategic situations and make them simple and executable. I’ve always been an old soul – even as a young kid – and learned how to calm down in stressful situations. “This too shall pass” is one of my favorite mantras – we all get stressed about things and we just have to remember that there is a way to manage and get through everything.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Neil: One thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward is be committed to developing their team to the limits of their capabilities. I want to motivate and inspire people to be the best version of themselves. Define the person’s character. Get to know your employees on a personal level. Have a management team that cares rather than focuses on financials. Create a culture where people go to bed at night thinking about how they can make things better at work the next morning.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Neil: My favorite hobby is renovating homes. It has taught me that things are rarely as they seem on face value and there is nothing that can’t be fixed with a little ingenuity. It gives me an escape while doing something productive at the same time. I tend to do static thinking while engaging in house renovations and it allows me to be both creative and strategic. It’s something that I appreciate doing with my wife and we love doing it together. You should always make time for the things you enjoy.
Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Neil: Business is like a game of soccer, really easy until people get involved. Surround yourself with the best team. I live by the following quote, “Starve your distractions and feed your focus.” We’re living in a world that is incredibly distracting with loads of information at our fingertips. It’s really easy to get distracted by the non-important and ignore the job you have to get done – but you have to push through and put your whole self into focusing on the goals at hand. Our Dogtopia vision or as we call it, our Noble Cause, is: “To enhance the joy of dog parenthood and enable dogs to positively change our world.” Our philosophy or manifesto is, “We love life unconditionally like a dog. We stay loyal to our pack. We chase the absolute highest standards of safety. We play to our full potential. We treat every day like it’s the most exciting day ever.” I think everybody can live that in whatever profession they seek.