Long-distance leadership brings surprising insights

Five years ago, for quality-of-life and cultural reasons, I returned with my wife and our three daughters to my native Israel while still continuing to lead ZoomInfo — a company I had founded, with headquarters in Waltham, Mass.

If the decision sounds risky, that’s because, as much as I would love to say otherwise, at the time, it felt like it was. No matter how much executive leadership and I prepared, I understood relocating 5,500 miles and seven time zones away from the team would introduce both expected and unexpected challenges. Not to mention, as an added twist, I adopted the Israeli workweek of Sunday to Thursday.

Nevertheless, after spending more than two decades as a serial entrepreneur, I’ve learned a few lessons, including that the term “agility” isn’t restricted to product development or roadmaps. And, in the end, not only did ZoomInfo earn Inc. 5000 recognition and achieve record year-over-year growth in both revenue and profitability in 2015, but on a personal level, the move forced me to re-examine and fine-tune my leadership style.

As more business leaders consider working away from company headquarters, I’d like to share the lessons learned from making my successful transition.

Some of these takeaways may surprise you. I suppose conventional wisdom tends to take a back seat when you’re a 12-hour flight away from your company’s home base.

Don’t try to do or control everything yourself; empowerment works better. Hire talented, results-oriented team members; share your vision, values and goals repeatedly. What happens next, though, is the tough part: empowerment. Step aside and empower your people to innovate in their own ways. Encourage responsibility. In effect, let everyone be his or her own CEO.

For virtual communications, take advantage of high-quality video conferencing technologies to simulate in-the-same-room meetings. Whether you’re on- or off-site, make yourself available to answer questions. And if you aren’t located with your team, visit as often as possible and hold all-team meetings when you’re in town.

2. Don’t give yourself too big a role in hiring; make it a team effort. Choosing the best job candidates is the most difficult task for any business. Depend on your people’s judgment of candidates throughout the interview process. Beyond interviews, request impressions from informal interactions, such as conversations in the reception area or at the coffee machine.

I also lean toward promoting from within, which helps minimize hiring risks and fosters a healthy culture of growth.

3. Don’t put off showing a profit while your company grows; you can do both simultaneously. Make profitability your No. 1 goal from the start, and increase your profit margins through incremental improvements.

Besides supporting rapid growth, making money allows freedom to make mistakes. Importantly, it also offers a great opportunity to give every employee a direct stake in your company’s success. Help your people understand and track their individual contributions to revenue growth or cost reduction. I’ve found quarterly profit sharing to be a very effective motivator.

4. Don’t subscribe to the mantra of embracing risk; rather, avoid or mitigate it. Just because your company is successful doesn’t mean you have a license to take unnecessary risks. Risk-taking is overrated and costly.

Granted, every business decision, in essence, comes with some level of risk. The good news? Watching this process unfold from your remote location requires more thorough, in-depth explanation and buy-in.

Stakeholders should understand (and agree) on every part of the equation: the upside, the downside, and the probability of each outcome. In terms of evaluating choice, there’s no getting around this process. And once you’ve established how the entire scope, value add, and ROI projections of a decision are transparently communicated, you’ll find the upshot is more effective business practices and organizational synergy.

Leadership is tough. Every situation comes with unique circumstances, but adhering to these principles has been essential for me, given my distant location. They also make good sense for the continuous improvement and success of any business.