On the rise Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

Upon first take, Jose Royo seems too cool to be a self-described geek.

Born in Spain, Royo has simply merged a hint of his native accent into the natural hip of Southern California style.

But he’s also the first to admit his natural draw to the nuts and bolts of technology — his first job was modeling IBM’s first generation of PCs at a trade show in Madrid at age 14 — and its constant adaptations. As such, he’s found a home as CEO for Ascent Media Corp., the world’s largest provider of integrated global services for the creation, management and distribution of media content.

In a world where the technology used to print this magazine is just about obsolete by the time you pick it up, Ascent Media is facing shorter deadlines and expectations to have work done in mere hours.

“We used to have months to do certain activities,” Royo says. “We now only have, in some instances, hours, days and, at most, weeks.”

That means Royo spends every day trying to keep his 3,500 employees spread across the world nimble enough to jump on the next technology while still putting out today’s product.

“You sort of stop and wonder and say, ‘OK, this is what we do today. Given these changes, the business models that are emerging, the global nature of the industry and the technology changes that we’re all experiencing, how can we be relevant and continue to have the business with the high profile?’” he says.

So Royo uses some of his cool to overcome his geekiness. He constantly touches base with his employees at all levels and cuts out the jargon, describing for them very clearly where the company needs to go and how they can help. As he mixes in new technology experts with his existing staff, he works to quell egos and keep everyone focused on Ascent Media’s success.

Here is how Royo keeps a $672.3 million company ahead of the curve.

Touch base with employees

To keep his company adaptable, Royo starts at the bottom, laying out his vision and then touching base with ground-level employees to talk industry trends.

“That’s the first step to that process: Laying out that broad vision and then engaging with people to collect their knowledge,” Royo says. “The process of including people and collecting their input is important in being able to get their support.”

Royo isn’t best buds with 3,500 employees, but he starts the engagement process with quarterly trips to every facility and keeps in contact with every region’s senior manager via weekly meetings.

“It gives you a better feel of what’s going on in each individual facility and the services they provide but also the opportunity for people to feel like they may know you to sort of provide input and feedback,” Royo says.

And when Royo makes his visits, he takes time to visit with different levels of employees in a no-agenda setting just to see what topics are on their minds.

“I ask the head of a given facility to choose 10 or 15 employees, and I go and have breakfast or lunch with them with no particular agenda,” he says. “It’s just, I’m here to listen and learn, and so what do you want to talk about — and those tend to be very productive. And there’s a cultural aspect to it, in London what it usually means is take a bunch of people to the pub.”

Of course, four visits a year and a few pints isn’t enough for you to say you’re a man or a woman of the people. You need multiple touch points, including some that regularly engage employees on current issues. When Royo first came aboard at Ascent Media, one of the first things he did was create a blog on the company’s intranet. He posts a few times a week, and his goal is to mix it with corporate updates and down-to-earth things meant to stir up ideas.

“The postings can be specific. For example, we had an employee who was critically injured in the MTA train accident, and I gave people updates on how things were going after going to visit him at the hospital,” Royo says. “Or they can be very strategic. (In October 2008), in the face of all these economic challenges, I wrote a long note about what I think the implications are for Ascent, where we are in terms of our financial position and asking people to think out of the box.”

Similarly, Royo says you have to constantly maintain your e-mail. He knows that you get inundated with more e-mails than you can fully respond to in a day. He does, too. In fact, he estimates he gets nearly 400 a day.

“Everybody is very busy, and we all need to make sure we carve out some time to actually do some work,” he says. “Sometimes late at night, after I put the kids to bed, I spend some quality time going through and making sure I’m being responsive.”

To be clear, Royo is not telling you to stop your life to answer every e-mail. Being responsive means getting to the issues of the e-mails effectively. When he gets 25 e-mails about the same thing, he knows there is an opportunity to show he’s on top of it by responding through a public outlet.

“There are times when you’re getting a lot of issues about something, and that’s when the blog or some of the e-mail communication becomes important and/or setting up a specific meeting to address these concerns that have been raised by a number of people,” he says. “And then there are a lot of things you need to learn how to delegate, so hit forward, send it to somebody, and tell them, ‘Can you run with this one?’”

Mix in new people

Fifteen years ago, nobody knew what a Web programmer was. Today, some companies have entire departments of them. The point? As business evolves, new skill sets are regularly needed. In a hyper-paced industry like Royo’s, he’s not afraid to bring in new people.

“In some instances, we need what I call new DNA,” he says. “You need people who have a different set of skills and experience, so bring on board some of that new DNA that is going to enable you to think outside of the box from where the company and the business has been in the past.”

Of course, bringing in people to help you adapt and change your business comes with the very real threat of internal fallout. The more new hires you bring in, the more you can hear your veteran employees crying, ‘Who the heck are these people?’ The solution to that is making sure those people understand the purpose of any new employees.

“The first thing is education,” Royo says. “Make sure people understand why you brought some of that new DNA into the company so they’re not threatened and you don’t introduce some sort of old versus new.”

At Ascent Media, for example, Royo includes current department employees in the interview process for new additions. He also gets managers on board by having them do an honest assessment of their department so they can realize the skill gaps that exist.

“There’s an ideation process, as we call it, of asking, ‘What is it that we need to do this new direction?’” Royo says. “And we ask, ‘Do we have the skills in-house to execute that?’ Once you reach the decision on what the plan is going forward vis-À-vis any new opportunity, do you really have the skills? You need to be intellectually honest to execute, and out of that, usually, you identify some gaps. And by involving people through that ideation process and then filling in those gaps, it feels as if this is an organic sort of transformation or change versus a radical turn off the switch and then turn on a different switch.”

During that process, Royo says people begin to understand what role the new DNA will play in helping them evolve their jobs, creating an atmosphere where people are more willing to blend their departments with old and new ideas.

“It gives us this opportunity to create this blended environment where people can see some of these new skills and gives them an opportunity to reskill themselves and see a career path beyond where they are today,” he says.

And after making that effort to help blend the new and old, he says you have license to be very direct with those people that still don’t adjust. He recommends telling them very clearly that after the adjustment period is over, there is no room for people refusing to catch up.

“Then there are instances where some people are resistant to change, and if you attempt to address those issues through training and additional education and they’re still not responding, then you just have to have blunt conversations about what that means in terms of the creative path of that individual,” he says.

Simplify the details

It would take too much space to fully explain all the services Ascent Media has, but one point of note is that its digital distribution, which handles, among other things, everything done by Sony Pictures, distributes about 50 terabytes a week.

That can lead to simple employee questions like, what’s a terabyte?

And even those who didn’t Google terabyte to learn that it’s equal to 1,000 gigabytes might not fully understand what role digital files play in the future of the industry. This problem is not unique to Royo and Ascent Media. Whenever your company is doing something new or making a change, people are often fuzzy on the details of what tomorrow’s business tools and ideas mean to them.

“Simplicity helps a lot, so it’s about how you articulate a vision that is clear and astute so everybody knows that this is what we aspire to be,” he says. “Be clear about what the vision is, collaborate through the definition of that vision, and then be clear on what the execution components are going to be and who’s going to be doing what so there is a common sense of purpose.”

Royo uses the example of sharing the vision with his financial people.

“The first thing that we try to do is make sure our finance people are subject matter experts, meaning you want finance people who are not just running numbers but who understand the business, so as we engage through these discussions, it’s not, ‘Well, all of that is Greek to me,’” he says.

How do you make the elaborate easy to understand? Take out the part that makes it elaborate — new technology specifics, high-end financial terms, anything that an outsider wouldn’t understand, and make it about how this is pushing the overall business goal.

“It’s not about technology, really,” Royo says. “It’s about business, and how do we have a healthy business going forward. So you try to extract out all the acronyms and the lingo about the technology and say, ‘OK, this is the service the customer needs; these are the key components and requirements that come into being able to provide that service.’ Strip all the technology sort of noise out of that equation and make sure that the business explanation and the business model that is put around any financial decision is laid down to that simple vision. So you force people to distill their ideas away from the pure technology and into the service definition and businesses that we’re trying to service.”

HOW TO REACH: Ascent Media Corp., (310) 434-7000 or www.ascentmedia.com