Don Brown Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

Don Brown believes that the most important thing a business leader can do is to stay real: Stay real with your customers, your employees and your managers. When you have bad news, deliver it quickly and in full, says the founder, chairman, president and CEO of Interactive Intelligence Inc. If you dance around the topic, speculation will take root instead, and the situation will fester. Likewise, broadcast good news just as quickly, as few things motivate people like the knowledge that their work is producing wins. Brown says your authenticity as a leader comes down to your willingness to communicate openly and frequently. That approach has helped Brown grow Interactive Intelligence from a start-up software solutions firm in 1994 to an $83 million, 600-employee company in 2006. Smart Business spoke with Brown about how your attitude and willingness to communicate can help your company grow.

Keep it real when communicating. The key has been to dispense with the corporate bullshit. I’m a very plain-spoken person, and whether it’s been bad times when we’ve had to lay people off following the whole dot-com bubble burst or great times when things are going well, the key has been to not lapse into the corporate-speak, the content-free sort of stuff you hear that comes across as being completely phony and impersonal.

More than anything, I try to be genuine, to the point of possibly being overly frank. But I think people appreciate that, particularly in smaller organizations. They don’t want their managers and leaders talking to them like they’re at IBM. They want people to stay real and shoot straight with them.

You do that by forcing yourself to open up to people and telling them how you feel. A few years back, I was out of town at a customer site and got some bad financial news. We were going to have to do a layoff. So I sat down and typed a very heartfelt e-mail on my BlackBerry and sent it to the whole company.

I was very honest about the way I felt, especially going through a downsizing, knowing how emotionally devastating it is, and to just let people know that their company and their leaders aren’t these heartless robots who do these things just looking at spreadsheets and don’t understand the impact on people’s lives.

People appreciate that, even though you had to do tough things, there’s at least a human being behind those decisions.

Make time for communication. You make the time to communicate by prioritizing it, by considering it to be as important as anything else you’re doing. It comes down to reminding yourself what is important. We can never forget that the only reason we are in existence is because we create a product that makes our customers happy, and everything else is secondary to that.

Financial reports, sales meetings, none of the rest of it would happen or have any meaning if we weren’t creating innovative products.

Turn negatives into positives. The main thing is to just be accepting of defeat and mistakes, and by that, I mean to just shake it off and not take it personally.

Realize that everybody makes mistakes, everybody does dumb things, and the best thing you can do is learn from them and realize that mistakes present something of an opportunity for growth. Entrepreneurs often have to be thick-skinned people, or maybe just blindly optimistic. Even in the bad times, they’re looking for a silver lining.

I don’t know exactly how you develop that thick skin, but it comes down to almost a naive view of the world, that if you work hard enough, everything will turn out fine in the end. It helps you get through the bad times if you have this inner sense that good times are just around the corner.

It makes you less prone to giving up and enables you to just keep on churning through, even when things look bleak as they sometimes are going to.

A lot of times, it also comes down to viewing everything as a learning exercise. Admitting to yourself that you’re not the smartest person in the world, and that you have things that you can learn, and that even the people you hold up as exemplars, they’ve all taken their knocks and made their mistakes, but they’ve learned from it and never given up.

Get excited about where you’re heading.

The biggest thing that has served me well is being able to impart a genuine excitement over what we are doing. For a company founded on the concept of innovation, the person at the top really has to be able to communicate excitement over the achievements that have been made and the plan that has been laid out for the future.

Just being able to celebrate, periodically, the minor victories along the way, it helps enormously when you suffer the inevitable defeats. You find reasons to be happy and to be excited and to share those moments with the people most responsible for those contributions, which pumps them up.

Share with your team a sense of excitement about the future. People like to know that what they are doing matters. To have the chief executive get excited over not just stellar profits for a quarter but about a new feature that has been added to a product or a new ad campaign or a sale in a new country, I think it really makes people feel like they matter. That’s the biggest thing when you are building a company, when you’re dealing with a lot of intelligent, creative people who can go any number of places and do different things. They’re looking for a way to make a difference with their lives. That’s maybe the most important role of a chief executive: to be something of a cheerleader and let people know that what they’re doing matters.

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