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Leading in an open environment

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In 1997, David Brain co-founded EPR Properties, a real estate investment trust that trades on the New York Stock Exchange. Its market capitalization is about $4 billion.

Brain, 58, is president and chief executive of EPR Properties. The company, based in Kansas City, Mo., develops entertainment-related properties in the United States and Canada, such as multiplex movie theatres.

EL: On your company’s website, you write, “I want everyone to feel free to disagree and to express fresh ideas. I’m more interested in seeking the truth than in being right.” Does that risk hurting your ability to lead?

Brain: I don’t think anybody expects a leader to have a monopoly on wisdom, truth and insight. It’s just not possible. When you hire smart people, you want the benefit of all that. You want that contribution and then let the best idea and approach win. Then it’s your job to marshal resources to make sure things move along the path toward that conclusion.

EL: How do you create free-flowing debate?

Brain: I have strong ideas but I like others to express their ideas. I like a battle of ideas because I think the best will win. I like people to think for themselves, act on their own and be able to justify that. So people spend more time doing and less time checking and asking permission. I try to talk about what I think is important and offer it that way. I don’t usually tell people, “Here are my conclusions.” I usually tell them, “Here are the ideas I feel strongly about.” And I try to give some rationale. That shows you’re thinking about it and invites them to think about it as well and offer their thoughts. Maybe they have a different conclusion. You can always learn something.

EL: A “battle of ideas” can get messy. How do you keep it on track?

Brain: It can get a little contentious. Some people maybe didn’t come from a consensus-building environment and if they think they have a chance to get in and monopolize, sometimes you have to referee. Otherwise, I think people do feel good about volunteering their ideas.

EL: Does this approach work?

Brain: We’re an investment fund and we invest in very select niche areas. Some of those niche areas are not ones that I came up with. So we’ve been able to extract value [from others’ ideas].

EL: How do you interview job candidates?

Brain: I like to see people who are purposeful and brisk in their demeanor. I often ask, “If you were to start a business right now, what would you do?” I like to see people have an idea centered around a need of someone else, not centered around their own fantasy.

EL: How do you motivate employees?

Brain: We hire self-motivated people who are intelligent self-starters. There are people who are put off by an open environment; they want a more directed environment and they’re more used to that. We always hire for broad ability and then train for aptitude in certain areas. It’s like I always say: Get a good athlete and you can teach ’em a sport.

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