Survival of the Fittest

August 19th, 2013 by Rich Christiansen

I’ve never been a big fan of Charles Darwin and his theories on natural selection. (Although, theoretically, I know it’s true.) In the back of my mind I have always felt that I would likely have been the bird that got tossed out of the nest, the animal that got eaten, or in my case, the business that never got selected for the big dance. Most of my career has been spent assembling teams of bad news bears that manage to pull off the upset and I take great pride in this.

The past week I’ve been deep in the Amazon jungle, eight hours up the Tambopata River which is a major contributor to the Amazon River. While here I’ve seen the law of natural selection up close and personal. One of the major sights was the big macaws, those brightly colored tropical birds. All around were birds of brilliant blue contrasted with vibrant yellows, reds, and greens all combined into magical combination of colors.

While I was at the Tambopata Research Center I was dismayed to discover that while each pair of these macaws mate for life they only lay three to four eggs at a time and they do not allow all the chicks to live. The first chick to hatch is fed by the parents and then sometimes, but not always, a second chick is allowed to live. The parents will then stop feeding the others, let them die, and toss the dead baby birds out of the nest.

This became an obsession with me. I asked our guide two, three, four, five times trying to get out the details, “Is there not some way to allow these chicks to live?” Finally in exasperation our local guide, a bit put out, said, “Rich. You’ve got to get it. They don’t have enough resources. If they attempted to feed all four of those hungry little mouths the whole family would die. It’s a matter of survival.”

I took a step back and realized he was right. Often times in my attempt to defy the laws of natural selection I have put my business in jeopardy. In reflection I’ve come up with three specific things that I can and will do better at in the future regarding this law. This is not even a principle. This is a law. In other words, this is not negotiable.

     1.    If someone is not contributing let them go. If I have a team member, despite the situation, that is not contributing I will release them. While the principle is the same this is not as violent as throwing them out of the nest to their most certain death and it ensures the survival of the entire team.
     2.    Select the strongest at the beginning. My tendency to select those in need is not necessarily the best way to survive and succeed in business. There has to be a combination of talent and desire.
     3.    Don’t advance too quickly. One of the mistakes I have made numerous times through my career is to take bright, capable young individuals and give them too much special treatment and responsibility until they think they actually rule the roost and are better and more important than they really are. There’s a timing to grow up that you cannot rush. There’s an integral timing to maturity and life lessons and that needs to evolve. I am going to be more deliberate and careful in the future not to rush that process.

Now I want to put context on this. I still believe we can be socially responsible entrepreneurs while still competing with, outwitting, and outmaneuvering the big businesses by being moral, fair, and very generous. However we have to be careful not to deplete our resources or get so emotionally involved and attached that we end up destroying our businesses.

After having now visited the Amazon jungle I have arrived at the conclusion that Darwin largely got it right. However we have the choice to help and lift people who are struggling and allow them to thrive and succeed on their own. I contend that the bad news bears and the underdog can and still win in the long run.

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