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Leadership Opinion The Pandemic

Staying Put This Year Helped Me Stay Ahead

For more than two decades – twenty-two years in fact – I’ve been CEO of a number of global, high-tech companies.  Over that period, I estimate I have traveled more than five million miles.

•  That’s a mere 200 times around the earth

•  Or over 800 round-trips between New York and San Francisco

It’s certainly scary when you look at it that way!

I did this traveling – technically called schlepping –  for so long that my mind and body didn’t know any other life.  I would travel from Israel to the U.S. and Europe for key meetings, not-so-key meetings, and of course end-of-year financial announcements.   It’s not that I looked forward to the travel – far from it – but I did look forward to what happened after I got there.

The vibe, for me, was everything.  I loved to “manage by walking around,” creating an informal culture, popping into offices for the kind of spontaneous conversations where ideas spark and bubble.    I believed it to be important to show my commitment, and was also convinced that the only way to establish a genuine rapport with the team – and gauge the pulse of the company – was with casual but revealing communication with all levels of the team.  No dashboard can deliver on those insights.

Back when I was CEO of Syneron, a company that makes devices used by cosmetic surgeons, I implemented a routine I called “CEO in the City.”   I would let a sales rep know on Sunday evening that I would be in town on Monday morning.  I’d show up and I’d spend a day trailing her or him on all their meetings.  The amount I learned – about the business, about how my sales rep positioned the company, about the chemistry in the room – was invaluable.    At the end of the day, there would be a dinner, usually with her or his spouse.

For more than twenty years I thought that was the best way to run my life as a CEO.  I never would have changed my mind on my own.  It took the pandemic -and a forced lockdown – to prove me wrong. 

Since March, I haven’t been pulled out for a random search by TSA, set foot on a jetway, had a yogurt at the airport,  or struggled to find my Uber driver.  But guess what?  I’ve achieved an intimacy and connection with my far-flung teams that I never thought possible.   

I know Zoom has taken its hits lately, with complaints about Zoom fatigue. The New York Times summed it up with an article titled:  “Why Zoom is Terrible – There’s a reason video apps make you feel awkward and unfulfilled.”

But for me the  benefits far outweigh the negatives.  Here’s why I find Zooming and Facetiming on my laptop to be a better CEO solution than zooming around the planet:

• You can achieve intimacy if you allow a few minutes at the beginning of each call for a human exchange.   I avoid back-to-back Zoom calls precisely for that reason.  Those few moments at the start of each call go a long way to making people feel recognized and not just like faces on a screen.  Think of it as “managing by Zooming around.” In fact, watching the dog run by and listening to the kids fighting – seeing the way your team members actually live, outside of the artificiality of the office – is actually more intimate and revealing than being face-to-face in a sterile conference room.

• You can have more casual interactions remotely than you can on a condensed business trip.  As I said, I love managing by walking around, the classic “water cooler conversations.”  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my time at various business locations was so pressured I didn’t have the luxury of as many casual interactions as I wanted. It turns out, though, that Facetime is a fabulous tool to creating spontaneous interactions.  I love to surprise people with an unexpected Facetime call.   It’s fun to catch people and in the moment and share what’s on their minds,  and on mine.   (Yes, most people tend to answer when it’s the CEO, but I make it clear that no one is obligated to answer.)

• You can be more productive and more relaxed at the same time.  The amount of actual time travel steals from your life  – including “brain time” – is far more than we usually imagine.  It’s not just getting in the car, driving to the airport, going through security, waiting for the plane, flying – and then doing that all in reverse. What also is draining is the sheer amount of time it takes to think about traveling, to wrap your mind around the dislocation, to emotionally prepare for it.   I now use this time I’ve recaptured to think more broadly and creatively about my business.

The last point I want to make is that none of this would be been possible without the agility, resilience, and emotional openness  of my team at Perion, the digital advertising company I now lead as CEO.  Everyone here has been just extraordinary since the new world forced itself upon us last March. 

What’s more, I am firmly convinced that all the benefits I’ve gained from staying put have been shared by my team.  They’ve become even more productive, more contributory, and deeper original thinkers than before.

So when we go back to whatever awaits us – I’ve actually heard some people go beyond “The New Normal” and describe it as “The New Strange” – I can guarantee that I won’t be spending nearly as much time in the air, and in the office.

I’ve learned that being in one place can now take your business any place.

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