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Team spirit Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

Don Brown co-founded Interactive Intelligence Inc. with the mentality of a street fighter who had to scrap for everything. The message was nothing would come easy for his employees and that they would need to outwork and outhustle the competition each and every day in order to succeed.

“A company has to have a personality,” says Brown, the company’s chairman, president and CEO. “We typically compete against much bigger companies. To some extent, I think that makes it easier. It can be you against the big guys. You’re always the underdog, and you’re always having to explain why you are better. It’s a little bit easier to create that sense of togetherness and camaraderie in that environment.”

Interactive was created to help clients increase productivity by aligning their communication systems through technology.

“We’ll call into their organization as if we are a prospective customer looking to do business with them to understand what the view is from the outside,” Brown says. “We’ll also go into their contact centers where they are actually interacting with their customers and we’ll sit down and listen to calls and interview their contact center agents. ... If we have a good feel for the difficulties they are having in servicing their customers, we can identify opportunities to help them solve those problems.”

That tenacity has enabled Brown’s company to grow quickly, leaping from $62.9 million in 2005 revenue to $109.9 million in 2007 revenue. Brown knew he needed to find a way to maintain that energy and spirit in the long term if the 650-employee company was to keep growing in the years ahead.

“A company is always started by people who feel strongly about something,” Brown says. “In the early days, when that company has a handful of people, that personality comes through very loud and clear because it’s the founder. It’s those people and their personalities who are reflected in the organization. What tends to happen is that gets lost along the way.”

A strong personality gives employees an identity and something to grasp onto with their job.

“It allows employees to become more emotionally invested in the company,” Brown says. “If you can identify and articulate the personality of the company, it makes it easier for potential employees to match themselves. ... You tend to attract people who have the right sort of mindset. It does allow them to identify more strongly with the company and with the leadership and the mission. That sort of emotional identification tends to help people care more. When they care more, they work harder and they do a better job.”

Here’s how Brown got his employees to care, and keep caring, about their work.

Don’t assume anything

You might think that employees pick up on the culture and personality of a new job very easily and are able see it as clearly as you do. As Interactive began to grow, Brown quickly realized that this wasn’t always the case.

“It wasn’t going to happen automatically,” Brown says. “We needed to take steps to ensure that new people coming in understood the history of the company and understood the worldview that our company has.”

One of the most important messages Brown wanted to get across was that despite the aggressive nature of its work, the company has a human side.

“We’re not automatons and they’re not just cells on a spreadsheet,” he says.

Brown tries not to send out a lot of companywide communiques to avoid the impression that he is speaking from the throne in his ivory tower.

“I try not to lapse into corporate speak,” Brown says. “I try to sound like a human being and to act like the human being that I am. Talk in a conversational way to people. I use language that may be borderline colorful that I use when I’m talking to my buddies playing poker so that it doesn’t come across as this distant, bland imaginary person.”

You need to be perceived as a real person who is in touch with what is happening in your company, good or bad.

“There is a real person at the helm of this company who sometimes feels joy, sometimes feels bad and sometimes feels pain,” Brown says. “Don’t try to mask that out of some overly developed sense of political correctness. ... We’ve tried not to manufacture our personality but maintain the personality we started with.”

New employees learn about your leadership style through the way you talk to them. In so doing, they also learn about your company and what their job responsibilities will be.

“Emphasize what the job is,” Brown says. “We lay out quarterly goals and very high-level goals of the company and then try to break those down into various departments and teams. Everybody is very clear about what we’re trying to do at any given moment and what our mission is and they don’t lose sight of the work.”

The communication about job duties and expectations does not end when an employee is hired.

“The sort of information and expectations that you lay out when they go through their orientation process needs to continue after they come on board,” Brown says. “Make sure that your messages are reinforced at every step along the way by their managers and by the sorts of communication the company puts out.”

Encourage collaboration

When you create a company, it’s easy to think that you have an answer for every problem. In addition to being untrue, Brown says carrying that belief can chip away at the sense of ownership that helps employees feel excited about what they do.

One of the best ways to promote an environment of energy and employee ownership is to avoid creating a strict hierarchy of leadership in your company.

“A top-level manager never talks to a bottom-level employee, certainly never talks to an employee in another department, without the knowledge and consent of that employee’s manager,” Brown says. “There are some organizations that are just amazingly rigid about that sort of thing. It does create a mind-set that information has to flow only in certain directions and in a very regimented fashion.”

That type of inflexibility can stifle the kind of free collaboration that can take place if those barriers do not exist. In the instance of Interactive, where Brown wants his employees to think of solutions that his customers haven’t thought of, such freedom of speech is critical.

“It’s fairly common in the high-tech industry for there to be ad hoc discussions that may involve people from lots of different organizations and lots of different points in management hierarchy, and you don’t get hung up in the titles and hierarchy as much,” Brown says.

There needs to be a structure in order for a company to function properly. But the key is to make it more about organizational structure and less about pecking order.

“You have to have a structure so you can group people, but you don’t have to treat it as a value chain,” Brown says.

Make sure the managers you bring in have strong interpersonal skills, in addition to being adept at whatever department they are leading, to promote the collaboration even further.

“You can get in trouble very quickly if you hire people as managers who just want to supervise other people and who really don’t have the technical skills themselves and aren’t contributing members but are just managers,” Brown says.

“That way, they are able to maintain the respect of their teams. They are also better able to assess the output of their team members. That way, we can identify problems and identify people who are performing at a high level and make sure they are recognized and rewarded.”

Show enthusiasm

When you were a child in school and you brought home a report card with all A’s, you couldn’t wait to show your parents what you had done. As an adult, you should still take pride in what you do and want to share the good things you’ve achieved with others.

Leaders need to talk to employees about the end result of their work and the benefits that it provides to customers.

Make sure that the mission the company is biting off is exciting enough to have that sort of emotional attachment,” Brown says “Set the sights high enough and be ambitious enough that people go, ‘Wow, this is something really cool, and something I’m proud to be part of.’”

Reaching that point requires that you look in-depth at the problem you are trying to solve and take what Brown calls, “A step beyond what others have done in the past.”

“Whether we’re a shipping company or a retailer or a service company, here is what makes us different,” Brown says. “Here’s what we’re trying to do that others aren’t. Here is why we’re better. It’s something that stretches us. Yes, it’s ambitious, but it’s something you can be proud of.”

Brown believes the reason Interactive rises above the competition is through its tenacity in learning about not only its customers but the customers of its customers. Employees speak to these customers to learn more about the needs of Interactive’s clients.

“The biggest thing I try to impart to our people is that we don’t just ask customers what they want and then build it,” Brown says. “Our job is to apply our technology vision and combine that with knowledge of what customers need to build something beyond what they would even think of asking for.

“It’s a message I constantly have to preach to our product management people and others who fall into the trap of wanting to do surveys and build what customers are asking for. That causes you to be driving by looking in the rearview mirror. It keeps you from being really innovative.”

You’ll stand a much better chance of getting your employees to buy in to innovation and to believe in your spirit if you avoid the use of mission statements and simply make it a part of your everyday dialogue with them.

“In the technology industry, where you have highly educated and creative people, it’s somewhat demeaning to them to think that their involvement with the corporation gets reduced to memorizing some phrase that somebody put together,” Brown says.

“It’s much more important that they internalize. It gets back to emotional attachment. They are really committed to the effort that goes beyond some catch-phrase they can regurgitate. It’s much more important they convey a sense of excitement and pride in what they do and what we do rather than they be able to articulate it in some consistent manner.”

By making the job more of an experience than a test, you’ll stand a better chance at getting your employees to buy in to your vision.

“It has to become a part of the fabric of their lives,” Brown says. “There is a social network and there is more to a job than just doing the work. The relationships with other people, that is a critical part of it.”

HOW TO REACH: Interactive Intelligence Inc., (317) 872-3000 or www.inin.com