Sweet science Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
Anton Zajac is far from a stereotypical business executive. With a background in theoretical physics, you’re more likely to hear a comparison between fractals and organizational structure than you are to hear management clich├ęs from the CEO of ESET LLC, a San Diego-based computer security software company.

With a leadership style he says was influenced largely by his experience in academia, Zajac stresses communication and collaboration to come to decisions.

“I use my scientific background to present different ideas and draw analogies,” says Zajac, ESET’s CEO. “Research, discussions and models are the basic tools to solve problems and reach consensus, and I use some of these tools in management and leadership.”

As Zajac is quick to point out, the history of ESET shows that the company has been doing something right. More than doubling its previous year’s sales, ESET posted revenue of nearly $40 million in 2006.

Zajac spoke to Smart Business about avoiding the dangers of rapid growth through communication and delegation.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

I like to believe my style is swift, nimble and relentless, just like our products. I started my career as a university researcher and an assistant professor, and the academic environment is traditionally very open-minded and liberal. Research and discussions and models are the basic tools to solve problems and reach consensus, and I use some of these tools in management and leadership.

Nimble and relentless means one has to be able to find new solutions to the problems that he is facing on a daily basis. One of my favorite quotes is by the commander Hannibal when he was leading his troops through the Alps. He said, ‘We will find a way, and if not, we will make one.’ Being nimble and relentless is to constantly search for new solutions and quickly adjust the strategy of the company to achieve the goals of the dynamic marketplace we are facing. Dynamic changes require relentless involvement of the entire company team.

Q: How do you keep everyone on the same page?

I challenge the members of my executive team to be brutally frank and open in our discussions. Many problems result from lack of communication or fear to communicate. I want my managers to apply the same principle to their teams. I want them to request very open and frank discussions with their team members and replicate that cultural element to all of the departments.

As you grow, the communication of what the company culture is and the core values we adhere to is increasingly difficult. When a company has six employees you could talk to everybody on a daily basis. But today, I need to make sure that all of our managers are on the same page as far as the values they share and apply in their communication with their teams.

To use an analogy, a company itself needs to have a fractal structure. Fractals are geometric objects that appear similar at all levels of magnification, and our team, regardless of the scale or geographical location, should appear the same. Each department should apply the same principles, values and culture in its execution of its daily tasks.

Q: What is the danger of growing too fast?

A company is a complex system. The success of that system depends on the success of all its parts. If marketing generates 10,000 leads a month and sales can only handle a fraction of those leads, we would be wasting our resources. If sales could handle all the leads, but support could not provide immediate response to our clients, we would fail again.

One of the dangers of growing too fast is that there is a system breakdown. The executive team needs to understand that they are not isolated. A company has a purpose, and we are all elements of this bigger system, which needs to work together to achieve the purpose. We can’t look to only be successful in our own departments without looking at other departments.

Q: What changes must a leader make as his company grows?

A leader’s responsibilities change in many ways. The smaller the company, the more direct control a CEO has. As the company grows, he needs to learn to delegate and surround himself with very capable leaders. He is no longer managing all of the aspects of the company operations. I was lucky to put together an excellent team of leaders.

Giving up some control is extremely difficult for a leader because you need to have absolute trust in those who will execute the company’s plans. The managers have an impact on the whole team. Without complete trust, which you only gain after time, you’re always a little bit in limbo.

Sometimes it is a matter of risk-taking, but it is inevitable otherwise that the quality of a leader’s life would suffer and that eventually the company would suffer.

HOW TO REACH: ESET LLC, (619) 876-5400 or www.eset.com