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7 Core Leadership Principles that Withstand Both Distance and Time

Five years ago, I returned to my native Israel with my wife and our three daughters for lifestyle and cultural reasons. Since then, I’ve continued leading Waltham, Massachusetts-based ZoomInfo, while spending the majority of my time 5,500 miles away.  Moving seven time zones from my company’s headquarters has taught me valuable leadership lessons that would serve any executive well. Here, I share them with you.

GettyImages-73970377-compressorRather than being less involved, I’ve had to work harder to hone my leadership style because the challenges are magnified and mistakes are costlier when you don’t interact with your team informally on a daily basis. Compounding the difficulty, I observe the Israeli work week of Sunday to Thursday, sharing only four workdays with my team.

Yet our company has enjoyed healthy profits and record growth, making the Inc. 5000 list last year. How is this possible?

“If people understand what you want to accomplish and what they need to do to make it happen, they will take it and run with it.”

Managing ZoomInfo from afar, I’ve been forced to deeply analyze my management style and develop a set of leadership principles that make good sense for any company. Some of my learnings run counter to common beliefs and practices. Here they are.

1. The big-picture view is overrated; the everyday details have a greater impact. Most companies waste their time being consumed with strategies, with competitors, with things they have little control over. They don’t pay enough attention to the little things that can quickly turn into big problems. Ironically, instead of taking a lofty perspective from across the miles, I put a premium on the small details as the only way to get better.

2. Make continuous improvement everyone’s responsibility. All team members, from the most junior person on up, are responsible for their own continuous improvement. I call on myself and everyone else to constantly ask themselves: How can I do it better, faster and cheaper, with better results? We all measure our performance all the time, to see if we’re moving in the right direction or need to fine-tune.

3. Let go of some control. Despite what you might think, I’ve learned that the CEO does not need to control everything. You’re only as good as your team, so I’ve learned to empower everyone—from the receptionist to senior executives—to find new and better ways to do things.

4. Foster responsibility and empowerment. Most people want to succeed and excel, so if they understand what you want to accomplish and what they need to do to make it happen, they will take it and run with it. I like to say that everyone, in a sense, is their own CEO. Foster responsibility and empowerment, and you’ll see creativity, innovation and a culture of improvement flourish.

5. Communicate your vision, values and goals personally and frequently. I meet with each of my direct reports at least one to two hours a week (by video if I’m not in Waltham); talk with other staff members; make myself available for questions; and hold meetings with the entire 150-person team whenever I’m in town.

6. Make profitability your company’s No. 1 goal. Making money has several advantages beyond nurturing rapid growth. First, it provides freedom to make mistakes—a necessity for corporate and personal development. The cushion of profitability enabled my company to weather some senior-level hiring errors I made in earlier days.

Second, it provides every employee with the opportunity to understand and track how he or she contributes—either by bringing in revenue or cutting costs. Profitability is a great motivator when, as at my company, profit sharing offers everyone a piece of the pie every quarter.

7. Don’t fly solo when interviewing new hires. Teamwork gets the best results. Matching people to jobs is the toughest task for any business. I rely on my people’s judgment and go beyond the structured interview. I include other people in the interviewing process—employees from the department for which we’re hiring, as well as from other departments—and take their opinions very seriously. I also ask team members for their impressions based on casual encounters at the coffee machine or other informal places.

Based on both good and bad hiring decisions, I’ve learned not to be too swayed by deep domain expertise. I favor promoting from within, which helps the company minimize hiring risks and, importantly, contributes to a healthy culture of growth. To build a company with career-growth opportunities, I personally mentor and have other leaders mentor more junior employees, enabling them to advance to leadership roles.

Realizing there’s no substitute for direct interaction, I always interview final candidates for direct-reporting positions in the same room, after holding screening interviews by video.

While the leadership philosophy I’ve developed is indispensable for my virtual situation, these principles will go a long way toward making any business successful—whether the CEO lives time zones away, is a road warrior, or spends most of the time on-site.  

Yonatan Stern is the founder, CEO and chief scientist of ZoomInfo. A serial entrepreneur, he also founded Bizo (acquired by LinkedIn), CardScan and Rosh Intelligent System. He can be reached at [email protected].



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