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Wearing Multiple Hats: What Would Darwin Do?

October 5th, 2015   |   by Frank Addante

founderblog-leaderPeople often ask me to define my management style. It’s interesting because I would say I wear many hats, but the word that comes to mind is “adaptive.” Whether you are a Founder, CEO, Chairman, or senior executive… you not only have to wear a number of different hats, but you have to become adaptable about constantly changing from one role to the other. As Founder, I’m the chief evangelist – I started the company and I own that vision. As a CEO, I’m responsible for the management and operations of the business. As Chairman of the Board, I’m responsible for the governing body of the company and act as a liaison between the board and senior management.

Navigating these three roles has been an adaptive process. In the very beginning, it was a lot easier to inhabit the Founder and CEO roles at the same time. Later, when I become focused on scaling the company, I had to put on the CEO/operator hat more frequently. When the company grew and honed in on innovation and reinvention, I had to simultaneously be the Founder with the vision, while still embodying the role of the CEO focused on scaling the vision. Eighteen months ago my role changed again when I went from running a private company to a public company. Then the Chairman role also became a very, very important and critical function.

In the early days of Rubicon Project, I recall sitting around a desk with everyone in the company. I’d be writing code, we’d be spec’ing ideas out on napkins, and I personally would sign all the checks in the company. As Rubicon Project grew, that became more difficult, so I hired team members to do what I used to do myself. But I’m mindful to this day to not take that too far. It’s easy for any institution to slip into an ivory tower system of managing, which is why I still make a point of spending hours sitting around a table with my team, brainstorming and sketching out ideas on napkins and whiteboards. This helps me remain adaptable… I feel that the best CEOs are constantly learning and getting better as their teams concurrently learn and improve.

Ups and downs are a business’ version of having a pulse – if they don’t happen, then you’re not a viable company and you’re definitely not innovating. There have been cycles where we have grown really fast and cycles where we have had to hunker down and get efficient again. A team member of mine often makes a comparison between adaptability in business and the “science” of surfing. Position is everything in the ocean, but if the waves change or the weather changes, you must too change and adjust your position. Similarly, I’m from Chicago, and we have a saying, “If you don’t like the weather in Chicago, just wait 15 minutes.” The same is true for running a company. If I were to give one piece of advice to other CEOs and Founders, it would be: Don’t get too comfortable doing what you’re doing now. The only constant in life is change, and the same is true of business. You must adapt.

Part of the challenge is not just wearing different hats, but accounting for the switch that occurs when you are changing hats…a phenomenon that I refer to as “switching costs”. In the span of a couple of hours as a CEO I may have to quickly move from a small, detail-oriented meeting about financial forecasting, to a high-level, strategic meeting about the future of the company, then to a public appearance presenting to potential investors and influencers. I call the process of shifting gears and adapting “switching costs” because there’s a cost to switching gears constantly. CEOs and leaders must learn to conserve energy as well as train their minds to pivot methodically and readjust.

When speaking about the evolution of species, Charles Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” This is not just relevant to the evolution of a species, it’s relevant to the evolution of a company. Darwin had it right, and survival of the fittest in the age of automation is not necessarily about who is the biggest or has the most resources. Instead, the future will belong to those who can foresee and then quickly adapt to signals of change.