Leadership profile: Scott Frank

The president of AT&T IP on why finding out what makes people tick is key to motivating them – especially at crunch time

scott frank-IAM

Coaching youth teams might seem like a sideways approach to stellar IP leadership, but Scott Frank, CEO of AT&T Intellectual Property, credits his experience in the former with giving him fresh perspective on the latter. “You can’t fire a kid from the team,” he points out bluntly. “With youth sports, you get a group of kids, great athletes and terrible athletes, kids that listen and kids that don’t. You get a few months to get the most out of them and it’s not only about winning games, but also about everybody having a nice experience so they want to come back next year.” While every captain – in both the sporting and business worlds – might secretly wish that they could work only with the elite, this is at best unrealistic and at worst allows leaders to blame their people rather than taking personal responsibility. “The secret of winning a lot of games is actually in working with the worst players and really building them up,” maintains Frank.

This attitude to coaxing the best out of people has served him well when it comes to year end at AT&T. “That’s when a lot of deals need to be closed, stress levels go up, it gets a little crazy,” he admits. However, far from using this as an excuse to shelve his duties, Franks finds it the perfect time to prove himself. “In that hectic period I do my best to give my team support, making them feel good about themselves, letting them do their jobs.” Talking to Frank it becomes clear that he relishes the challenge to step up while staying cool under pressure so that his people stay calm and focused, too. “Leading when things are going well is easy,” he acknowledges.

AT&T Intellectual Property is responsible for protecting, developing and monetising AT&T’s substantial portfolio – more than 10,000 patents and close to 10,000 trademarks. The division boasts between 60 and 70 people working on a full-time basis from various offices in the United States. It is a profit centre for the business, with Frank reporting to the chief technology officer. “The fact that I don’t report to the general counsel (legal) sets us apart from IP units in most other companies,” Frank says, insisting that the structure helps him and his colleagues to participate in conversations regarding AT&T’s business and research strategy. “The leaders of the different technology organisations at AT&T don’t see me as a lawyer, I am part of them and that helps us to work together. The fact that our monetisation of intellectual property brings significant profits to the company also helps to enhance our standing, of course.”

This high profile can make Frank’s work more intense than it might otherwise be. Year end can be tricky enough, with his division going full throttle to meet their numbers, as set out in AT&T Intellectual Property’s business plan. “But from time to time we get the request to do something extra to help out the corporation and that can add some extra stress to the game.” Yet even despite the extra workload, this sounds like grist to the mill of someone who relishes a tough challenge – especially something fresh that gives him the opportunity to see how different people react.

“Something that motivates one team member can actually demotivate another one,” he muses. “If you want to motivate somebody, you really have to figure out what they are about. Some people get motivated by money, some by recognition, some by just finishing a very challenging job successfully. Something that I think does not motivate people is the fear of being fired if they fail, I think that just tenses people up.” Getting the best out of people the Frank way is all about inspiration and positive reinforcement and most of all – recognition. While the company does this through handing out many awards, Frank believes that adding in a personal touch goes a long way. “I am a big believer in sending personal, handwritten notes to people. You want to make people feel that they are more than just an employee; after all, we are all human beings trying to have a good life.”

To foster constructive team work, Frank stresses the importance of trust. “We have people with different professional skills and personalities. If you want to make them work as a team, you have to recognise it’s about people, it’s about relationships and it’s ultimately about trust.” He admits that how to build up trust in the relationship between team members is something that his and his colleagues spend a lot of time discussing. “We call it the T4 effort: top tier trust team. We talk, for example, about how to communicate in a way that builds trust and doesn’t destroy it. If you feel that you have been wronged by somebody else, don’t put that in an email, try to talk with the other person face to face.”

Scott is also a big proponent of people getting to know one another at a more personal level. To that end the business organises events where people can talk outside of business, about their personal experiences and interests. “Then suddenly the person you have to work with, possibly under very difficult conditions, is not just that patent developer, but now it’s the person who rides a motorcycle or plays in a band,” he enthuses. “Driving personal relations is huge for improving collaboration among team members.”

Year end at A&T keeps cropping up as a tough time, but it does at least work as part of a cycle. “Stress levels are down, everybody has had their holidays, it feels almost like spring, like rebirth. Everybody is relaxed and enjoying things.” Yet while this change of pace is welcomed, it is also an opportunity for reflection and learning from what might have gone wrong. “We all make mistakes, myself included,” Frank says. “Leading a team is not about beating people up for their mistakes, but about asking ‘how can we fix the mistake, what can we learn from it and how can we hopefully avoid that mistake in the future’. That’s the best way to learn collectively and to prepare future leaders, frankly.”

Intellectual Property Alliance: first Georgia, then the United States, then the world

Scott Frank has been based in Atlanta, Georgia for decades and is passionate about the state – but 15 years ago, his future there looked far from assured. In 2005, Dallas-based US telecom operator SBC acquired AT&T and assumed its own name. The following year, the new AT&T took over Atlanta-based operator BellSouth. Back then, Frank had already built up quite the reputation as a savvy IP leader at BellSouth – as a result he was asked to head AT&T’s IP department, staying in Atlanta with his team.

Frank’s attachment to Georgia and his IP prowess make it clear why he was one of the founders of the Georgia Intellectual Property Alliance (IPA), an organisation over which he still presides. Launched in 2018, the Georgia IPA is built around three pillars. First, is education and awareness. “Everybody should have an appreciation of intellectual property and understand how it can work for them,” asserts Frank. The second pillar is the need to foster a collaborative IP ecosystem. “There are too many people with great ideas that can’t protect them and can’t go to the market place properly,” he laments. “If you have a great idea, you should be able to work through the IP system effectively and efficiently to protect it and get it in the hands of the people that have a use for it, as fast as possible. The third and final – but by no means least – pillar is diversity and inclusion. “Anybody, whatever their background, who wants a career in intellectual property, we want to help them. And any good ideas, wherever they come from, we want them to rise to the top.”

Several other states have started to copy the model and there are now IP alliances in Illinois and North Carolina, among others, at various stages of formation. “Earlier this year, we have formed the US IPA which acts as an umbrella organisation,” Frank reports. “We are trying to build in the rest of the United States what we started in Georgia.”

“In Georgia, I was fortunate enough to work with a group of people that said ‘we want to help people, we just want to give back to society, we are not doing this for money, we do it just because we believe it is the right thing to do.’ That’s exactly my own position.”

Given the success of the model, just how far do his ambitions reach? “A global IP alliance is something that we are very much looking at,” Frank laughs. “The day we filed the trademark application for the Georgia IPA, we also filed the one for the US IPA and for the Global IPA. So we have that trademark protected and hopefully we will have that organisation up and running in the foreseeable future, because we really want to help the entire world.”

What subjects did you study as part of your academiceducation?

Engineering, law and business administration.

If you could acquire in one day all the knowledge of any degree of your choice in order to become even better at your job and be a better leader, which degree would youchoose?

Definitely psychology. Each person is unique and I enjoy connecting in different ways with different people. At the same time, it is one of the hardest things to do. If you want to be a great leader, climbing mountains with your team, you have got to be able to really connect with people. I have tried my best, learning it on the fly, but I would have loved to have more psychology training, it would be a great degree to have.

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