The culture of “staying in your lane” deprives people of the opportunity to reach their full potential.
As a business leader, David Brownlee avoids playing it safe by charging his team members to push themselves to greater heights in their work.
His leadership style of innovation yields results that were once thought to be impossible. In this episode of the Process Breakdown Podcast, the host, Chad Franzen, engages his guest, David Brownlee, about building a culture of innovation for success.
[5:14] David sheds light on the bifurcated way of thinking about the COO in terms of analytics and people.
[7:21] How does the culture of staying in your lane get established in an organization?
[9:02] David gives insights into the culture he adopts to bring out the highest potential in people.
[10:48] David talks about the impact of documentation in motivating employees to reach their full potential.
[11:46] In breaking the culture of staying in your lane, is it more difficult to convince upper management or employees?
[12:48] David recounts an innovative project that he was proud of executing at BRPH.
[17:58] You can connect with David via email at email@example.com for more information about his services.
David adopted a hands-on leadership style that enables him to interact with the team to get the best results. He has held top management positions, including director of operations and managing director.
Announcer: Welcome to The Process Breakdown Podcast, where we talk about streamlining and scaling operations of your company, getting rid of bottlenecks, and giving your employees all the information they need to be successful at their jobs. Now, let’s get started with the show.
Chad Franzen: Chad Franson here, co-host of The Process Breakdown Podcast, where we talk about streamlining and scaling operations of your company, getting rid of bottlenecks, and giving your staff everything they need to be successful at their jobs. Past guests include David Allen of Getting Things Done and Michael Gerber of The E-Myth, and many more.
Chad Franzen: This episode is brought to you by SweetProcess. Have you had team members ask you the same questions over and over again and it’s the 10th time you’ve spent explaining it? There’s a better way and a better solution. SweetProcess is a software that makes it drop-dead easy to train and onboard new staff and save time with existing staff. Not only do universities, banks, hospitals, and software companies use them, but first responder and government agencies use them in life-or-death situations to run their operations. Use SweetProcess to document all the repetitive tasks that eat up your precious time so you can focus on growing your team and empowering them to do their best work. Sign up for a 14-day free trial, no credit card required. Go to sweetprocess.com. That’s sweet like candy, S-W-E-E-Tprocess.com.
Chad Franzen: David Brownlee’s first leadership experience started as a Boy Scout troop leader during high school in Oklahoma. He’s been drawn to helping people reach beyond what they thought their potential was ever since. He counts his greatest work achievements to be the personal growth of those he works with. He was recently Chief Operating Officer and Principal at BRPH Architecture and Engineering, and is now a consultant in the architecture and engineering industry. David, thank you so much for joining me today. How are you?
David Brownlee: I’m, Chad. Thank you for having me on here and it’s great to meet you.
Chad Franzen: Tell me what you’re up to these days.
David Brownlee: Since I’ve started consulting and I’ve added on to where I initially or where I left off from my previous firm, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help people build a culture of innovation in their companies and help them help their staff achieve their maximum potential.
Chad Franzen: What do you mean by a culture of innovation?
David Brownlee: Well, that’s an interesting question. If you look back at design school, you’re taught that innovation is the spark of genius. You’re taught that something like a Mozart symphony almost is something that almost no one can do and it occurs overnight, but the reality is innovation is something that anybody can assist with and achieve and is not the rarefied air of genius people.
Chad Franzen: How does one go about bringing out innovation in people? Especially, you know, if somebody has a specific skillset, maybe they considered to be an expert in some sort of field, and then you say, "You know, I want you to do this instead," or, "Think beyond what you already thought you could do." How do you bring that out of people?
David Brownlee: Well, that’s an interesting question as well. The method I used recently, I was handed a video program that was being shot in the company and we had interviewed people and asked them about their life. When I inherited, I said, "Let’s revise it/ Let’s get people talking about innovation." People were very reluctant initially. They felt like, "I’m not qualified. I don’t have innovations to offer." We had to prompt them and teach them more about what innovation was and how it could be achieved. Over time, that video program really blossomed and produced some tremendous innovations for the company.
Chad Franzen: Okay, in your last responsibilities at BRPH, on the website it says, "Think of something so unique, so extraordinary, something never tried anywhere before in the world. This is where BRPH thrives." Is that kind of a culture of innovation that you’re kind of talking about?
David Brownlee: It is, it is. That firm sprung out of NASA in the ’60s and you can imagine the race to space. There was then a decline, and now with all of the commercial satellite launches, that has really been revised and that culture of innovation, companies are seeking out BRPH for intellectual property help with developing and maintaining.
Chad Franzen: You were the COO there at BRPH. We talked before we started recording about kind of the bifurcated way of thinking about the COO in terms of analytics and people. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
David Brownlee: Yeah. That’s… You know, I really break it into two pieces. There’s the analytical side producing information that people can consume, putting that information in as simple a way as possible to explain the message, and here’s a lot of nuance to that. You can read your audience and see if the information is too much, if it’s not being processed properly, and you can spend a tremendous amount of time getting that information correct. I’d say that’s half the job.
David Brownlee: The other half of the job is, you know, at that firm there’s 320 people and people can get pigeonholed, people can get told to stay in their lane, those type things. I think that that really stifles innovation. so you get to a, "Fine. I’ll do what I did yesterday. I’ll continue to do what I did yesterday." To me, that other half of bringing that out of people and breaking them out of the shell, breaking down the culture of stay in your lane is the other piece and is really, I guess, the art. The first part’s the science, this part’s the art of the COO role.
Chad Franzen: Do you have a method in terms of breaking down that culture of stay in your lane?
David Brownlee: I do. It’s a bit disruptive, but you have to put the information in people’s hands, but you have to promote them and you have to protect them from the forces that could say, "Stay in your lane." You show them success. You promote people when they have success and you promote them in even if their innovation was a failure. You make it a safe place to innovate. Not all innovations work. Some do, some don’t, and it takes a while to break that. It takes a long time, really honestly, to change a culture.
Chad Franzen: What do you think… How does a culture of stay in your lane get established? It’s just kind of playing it safe, making sure that nothing goes wrong? Is that how that happens?
David Brownlee: Well, yes. There is an engineering aspect to don’t fail. You’re trained in engineering, "Don’t fail." You’re trained in the architectural side to be creative. Those two have to come together, but the cultural stay in your lane, I think oftentimes can be people’s way of controlling people. Maybe it is the status quo. "This has always worked. Stay there. Do that. I’ll tell you what to do." You have to really fight that in any firm you’ve ever been in. That culture can start taking over.
Chad Franzen: If you are… Let’s say you don’t have maybe the expertise of somebody you’re working with and you’re encouraging them to go beyond what they’re used to doing, how difficult is that for you to do? You know, I’ve seen movies like Steve Jobs, who wasn’t an expert in all of these things. Telling these people who had been doing design, "Don’t be scared. You can do this. I know you can do this." Yeah, well, like what do you do?
David Brownlee: That… In reality, every single person that I’m trying to direct has far more knowledge in their subject that I have. I’ll never have that kind of knowledge, but you as the COO become the conductor. You couldn’t play all of the instruments, but you can get the people to play the instruments well and play them together, and playing them together is the next piece of that is you have to build a culture that supports this innovation and doesn’t become jealous, I guess, when someone else has a good innovation.
Chad Franzen: What kind of coaching do you do to bring out the highest potential?
David Brownlee: I’m a one-on-one person. I would meet.. Let’s take the project managers, for instance. I meet every month with every project manager and I open up every project. Now, some are winners, some are losers. Some lose a lot of money, some make money, some have issues with the client, those type things. I build a trust relationship. I’m not there to tell you, "You’ve done this wrong." I’m there to look for solutions. I’m there to look for how to go for forward and build that trust, and that they’re willing to tell me ahead of time when things are starting to turn bad. We can work as a team to head off this trouble and service our client better.
Chad Franzen: If you have multiple employees, like you said you had 300, a staff of 300, how do you kind of do that with that philosophy, then?
David Brownlee: You can’t touch everybody. You can be respectful to everybody and be a servant leader to everybody, but it is set up somewhat like the military where you have disciplines. There was a structural discipline, an architectural discipline, a electrical. You have leaders of those, and then you have leaders when you’re broken into markets to maybe be aerospace or hospitality. You have to build those relationships. Then, finally, you have to build the relationships of trust with the project manager. You break the 300 down to about 30 or 50 people and work from there.
Chad Franzen: In terms of documentation, is it important to have documentation if you’re encouraging people to go beyond what was already set up?
David Brownlee: Yes, you have to. You have… I call it daylighting. You have to go through what’s happened and you have to put it on in front of everybody and discuss it. Now, again, not in a confrontational way, but you have to document what happened, what we said we were going to do. Have we done it? If we have not done it, how are we going to correct and get back on course? Yes, I think the documentation of it… We kept notes every month. We reviewed the notes and we made certain we were on track. In doing so, greatly enhanced the performance on the projects. The errors and omissions were very low and the projects were profitable.
Chad Franzen: In terms of breaking down a culture of staying in your lane at a company. is it more challenging to convince upper management to change the culture or to convince employees to change the culture?
David Brownlee: Employees, I think, inherently know the right thing to do, but at the point at which you get told, "Get back in your lane," I think that that can stifle it, so I think that the upper management is probably the bigger trick is making a successful team that works together. I saw… I think… I know it was just recently on LinkedIn, the CEO for PepsiCo, he has done something similar. Now, I’ve built this innovation innovator of the year process. Well, I’m reading he’s doing the same thing in PepsiCo, so he’s really institutionalizing that need to innovate. Then, we probably don’t know a lot about PepsiCo, but we don’t think it’s that complicated yet. They have taken innovation as their key to their future.
Chad Franzen: You were at BRPH, was there something that you were involved in that you were kind of proud of that was particularly innovative?
David Brownlee: I would say yes. I would say that Innovator of the Year. We took all of the videos. We’d shoot these videos once a week and we would have them presented on Monday morning to the staff. You would… They were three minutes, two and a half minutes long and we had a company that would help us produce those. I would say that over time as the innovations started to really have more value to our clients, and then we went and… They culminated in the Innovator of the Year Award.
Chad Franzen: Oh, wow.
David Brownlee: Then, we brought the senior leadership in and we had selected the top innovations and you got to then present. You could be a… One of them was a… I think that person had a year and a half experience, maybe two presenting to the CEO of the company their innovation. It really gave them an opportunity to speak up to management and it gave management an opportunity to listen and see the potential. You really identified several new leaders in the company and some great ideas that help the clients.
Chad Franzen: Who are some of your mentors? What have been some of their best advice?
David Brownlee: I would say two mentors that really stand out in my mind, Henry Mann with my previous firm, Perkins and Will, was probably the best business man I’ve ever seen. He had direction. He knew where he wanted to be and he knew how to get people there. He could at identify a simple idea. If you think back to the year 2000, the green movement, environmentally-sensitive design, energy-conscious, those things are really taking hold again, and he was early on. We will not leave a building in our portfolio that leaves a disaster for humanity with chemicals and those type things.
David Brownlee: That was very bold. It was good to be under a leader like that that had such a direction. I would say an earlier leader was John Atkins at O’Brien Atkins had taught me how to work with a client and get what a client needs. Those two mentors really helped shape my career.
Chad Franzen: What made you… I mentioned in your intro your experience as a Boy Scout kind of working with people. What is it about kind of bringing the most out of people that you find so enjoyable?
David Brownlee: You know, when you see a person who doesn’t think something is possible, they start with, "I don’t think we can do that, David. I don’t think that’ll work. I’m not capable." You can get that person to the point where they come back later and said, "I can’t believe that that worked and we pulled this off." I said, "No, no we. You led this thing. You made this happen." You see that confidence grow in them and you see them change their leadership style and really get out in front of the team instead of behind the team and understand that their job is to make everyone that team successful, and that once they’ve done that, the client’s going to be successful. That gives me just tremendous satisfaction.
Chad Franzen: Yeah, I bet. Do you have any favorite books? Maybe… There’s a lot of books about building a culture of innovation. Do you have any books that you’ve found particularly valuable or enjoyable?
David Brownlee: I would say… I’m trying to remember the author, but there was a book called How to Fly a Horse that I read several years back, and that really sparked that idea that innovation is not for just the rarefied group, it’s for everybody. I really wish I had read that and had been required reading in college. That would have changed your perception that anyone can do this.
Chad Franzen: When you were in college and you were preparing for your career, did you have an added… I know already enjoyed coaching people and working with people. Did you already have an attitude of innovation?
David Brownlee: I don’t know that I did. I kept looking for how to bring value in the design, but I had not… I felt like you had to have this big idea and I didn’t really realize it’s one little step at a time. You can take another piece, another person’s idea, add to it and keep adding to it, and that innovation builds on all the steps ahead of it. I think that process on how to get there was missed in the education system.
Chad Franzen: I have one last question for you, but first, just let me know how people can connect with you or find out more about what you’re doing now.
David Brownlee: Well, if you’d like to reach out to me, probably email’s probably the best way right now, and my email is davidbrownlee, that’s B-R-O-W-N-L-E-E, and the number firstname.lastname@example.org is probably the best way to reach out to me.
Chad Franzen: Last question for you. What would you say to people who maybe have a self-imposed ceiling or somebody who’s who’s prone to staying in their lane? What would you say is something that they should remember or keep in mind or try?
David Brownlee: I would tell them if you’re in a situation where someone’s pressing down on you to respectfully try to go around and have the confidence that you can do it, but I would probably speak more to the leaders, that you need to identify these people that you don’t feel are getting to their potential. You need to sit down and understand why they’re not getting there. Each one’s going to be a different reason. It’s not all they can’t do it. Matter of fact, most of them can, but just how to help them get to that situation.
Chad Franzen: Okay. Well, that’s great advice. Thank you so much for your time, David. It was great to talk to you.
David Brownlee: Chad. I appreciate it. Thank you very much.
Chad Franzen: So long, everybody.
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