Intellectual Ventures President Adriane Brown on Global Impact, Benefits of Being Uncomfortable, and “Positive Change Through People”

5/12/10Follow @gthuang

Adriane Brown was the CEO of Honeywell Transportation Systems, based in the Los Angeles area, when she got a call from a headhunter last year. The next thing she knew, she was talking with Intellectual Ventures, the Bellevue, WA, company focused on the business of invention. One thing led to another, and Brown is now the president and chief operating officer at Intellectual Ventures, helping run the daily operations of the 600-strong firm led by co-founder and CEO Nathan Myhrvold.

Brown admits she was an outsider to the company, and new to its whole concept of supporting inventors, and investing in both new and existing inventions and patents. In fact, her outside perspective is probably one of her strengths. Brown says that when she first looked into Intellectual Ventures as a place to work, she thought, “This company has done something unique and could have a huge impact on the world.”

In her new role, Brown has responsibilities in “all of the key functions across the company,” she told me recently. She has about 10 direct reports, and the biggest adjustment for her has probably been the transition to a smaller, private company. But that transition seems to be going fine. “I just love this job. It is exactly as advertised,” Brown says. “It is a neat addition to my career.”

Brown’s experience is both broad and deep. She spent 19 years at Corning (NYSE: GLW), the materials and manufacturing giant, where she rose from the rank of shift supervisor to vice president and general manager of environmental products, and became an expert in the automotive industry. She then moved to AlliedSignal, which acquired Honeywell (NYSE: HON) in 1999 (the merged company is called Honeywell). There, she distinguished herself in the aerospace sector, becoming president and chief executive of Honeywell Transportation Systems, a $5 billion business unit. Before all of that, Brown studied environmental health at Old Dominion University (where she later received an honorary doctorate in humane letters) and got a master’s degree in management at the MIT Sloan School of Management as a Sloan Fellow.

I recently had a chance to speak with Brown and hear about her first 100 days on the job. She started on January 1, and this was, to my knowledge, her first media interview since joining. We didn’t have time to drill down into new details of the company’s strategy, but I got the sense that she is both a process person and a people person, and that she brings a unique worldview to Intellectual Ventures’ leadership. Here are some condensed and edited highlights from our conversation:

Xconomy: You talked about having impact on the world. Can you give some examples of how your background fits with Intellectual Ventures’ broad vision?

Adriane Brown: My undergraduate degree was in environmental health. Over time, as I spent a number of years at Corning, I rose to lead the catalytic converter business. While it was the automotive industry, we were incorporating a technology that makes a difference in the world. When I traveled to Third World countries, the first thing I noticed was the pollution.

After Corning, I was looking to be uncomfortable. I find it exciting to step into a situation where you can’t predict what’s going to happen. When I joined AlliedSignal, I knew I would be put under pressure. From AlliedSignal to Honeywell, I spent five years in the aerospace industry. It was very different from the electronics and automotive industry at Corning. I dealt with brand new experiences.

X: How does that translate to your goals at Intellectual Ventures (IV)?

AB: In terms of big-impact businesses, I was really drawn to IV. When I received my offer letter from Nathan [Myhrvold] and the founders, it included a list of goals for 2010. I was very pleased, but I admit I didn’t take it on its face. I needed context. So I made an additional trip to Bellevue to talk to the founders about the objectives—what was it I really needed to do. After that, I met with the senior leaders of the company and had the same discussion with them, to make sure I was clear on what was important. I was thrilled that when I started on January 1, I had a 100-day plan in place. Part of that was to begin to deploy our focus and alignment. To make sure we have the people, the process, and the communications to deliver on a fantastic 2010.

My goals break down into four areas, which tie into where IV is and its whole evolution. “People” was one category—to continue to mature our processes and capabilities to make this a fantastic place to be for our employees. Second, I wanted to strengthen our teamwork—to bring all of the might of IV to the marketplace. Third was communications and brand—to make sure we’re communicating proactively. And fourth, with each of our leaders, we have defined [metrics for evaluating performance]. So it’s people, teamwork, communications, and results.

X: What are your observations of Intellectual Ventures, coming from the outside, and what changes will you make?

AB: As an outsider, one of the things I had to reconcile was to make sure I didn’t bring large-cap processes to a company the size and scope of IV. Bring the essence, but leaner-cleaner. One thing was to define the ongoing processes and meetings we have, and pull together with them what I call my “management operating system.” For me, I’d want more of that than what a company like IV does. I look at how to grow at scale, and allow for more planning. I look at it in the short term, and also look at it on a longer-term scale.

Another observation is that I wasn’t used to as much e-mail! I get a lot of e-mail, but I’ve made the adjustment. E-mail is the preferred method of communication.

X: Talk about your leadership and management philosophy.

AB: Fundamental in who I am as a leader is a person who believes in possibility. I expect the team to trust themselves, and to push through when they don’t get the outcomes they want. You have to get out of your comfort zone. I am a pusher. I expect a lot from my team. It’s not about giving people tough goals they can’t accomplish. I believe in positive change through people.

X: What’s an example of this from your experience?

AB: When I was in the aerospace industry, the first business unit I took on was dealing with industry down cycles. We were cutting some resources because we were not able to meet our commitments. One thing that was falling short was applied research. The common thinking was we had to drop research. I told people I believed in research. It turned out there was a government grant [available], and we partnered with the University of Notre Dame. We were able to outsource our applied research as part of this grant; we gave them a loaned executive who ran this department. It would have been easier to cut the budget and keep moving forward. But I found that when one way doesn’t work, go find another way.

X: What are your typical days at Intellectual Ventures like?

AB: I’m in lots of meetings. It’s part of my management operating system to make sure I have one-on-one time with all my direct reports. Sometimes it involves some coaching and directing. It always involves lots of alignment. That means when they walk out of my office, let’s make sure I can count on the actions we’ve talked about. This week, we have an executive leadership team meeting. Later this week, we have a founders meeting and a founders board meeting. I’ll spend some time this week talking to investors. Since I’ve come on board, I’ve had 15 to 20 town hall meetings with employees, sharing my overview of the [company] goals—what are the expectations, ensuring they are enrolled and engaged. So what you’re hearing is, communication is a key piece of what I spend my day on.

My role is company-wide. The first and most important role is the performance of the company. In 2010, my focus is heavily internally weighted. But the founders, employees, investors, and inventors—all these people are in my sphere of wanting to be engaged with.

X: So how do you prioritize? And since Intellectual Ventures has many different businesses, what is your main focus—where do you go from here?

AB: It all comes down to the goals we commit ourselves to. I have the capacity to walk and chew gum. I love the multi-facets of IV. I can sit in the lab and be part of an “invention session,” and [shift] to talking about a particular licensing program. The whole process and whole thinking about the dynamics of our company is fantastic to me. I also navigate in the more mundane process development [areas]. I get great satisfaction in solving both big problems and small problems.

We have profound customer value. I look forward to the coming of scale where we’ve been able to demonstrate time and time again that we are an organization that will make technology more accessible, more profound, and more efficient for our customers. I am thrilled to see for myself that we can help companies find a much more efficient path to their future technologies. And have inventors continue to invent because there is value that continues to be realized through technology companies.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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