Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive at Nissan and Renault, is renowned for racking up 300,000 air miles each year and having such a compact schedule that it’s set 15 months in advance. Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Records, has overseen nearly 400 ventures during his entrepreneurial career.
This kind of entrepreneurial multitasking isn’t always easy to get right. Steve Jobs felt enormous pressure running both Apple and Pixar, claiming it was the “worst time” in his life. Elon Musk, the chief executive for Tesla and SpaceX, has been upfront about the lack of freedom and how he’s taken just two weeks off in 12 years.
I’m not quite that busy. But I do oversee six online eyewear companies in five countries, with almost 1,000 employees between them. Regardless of the scale of your venture, here are some common approaches to better managing work — and life — when leading multiple businesses.
Give teams a long leash.
There’s simply no way one can micromanage multiple companies in different countries. Finding the right people to lead operations and make decisions locally — and focusing your energies on larger strategic considerations — is absolutely critical.
Branson is a poster-child for this. The Virgin Group founder advocates the importance of having enough “hands to catch every ball.” At Clearly and our other companies, we make it a priority to recruit motivated, ambitious executives whose judgement we trust implicitly. Because of this, the CEO role becomes more steward or guide — providing support and guidance, but letting the various management teams plan and execute initiatives.
For example, our general managers make sure the product and customer service experience at our optical companies is constantly improving. Meanwhile, I’m there to guide efforts to better position each company in the market, to map out pricing strategy and to offer guidance on growth and innovation.
Build an ace horizontal team.
Once you have the right leadership in place, you can realize even greater efficiencies by implementing horizontal teams, composed of ace executives from across the various businesses. The goal is to improve collaboration and share resources and best practices.
For example, we have a global CFO who provides financial guidance and support to our directors across different companies, helping to streamline processes and reduce costs. Ultimately, this extra layer isn’t meant to interfere with the independence of individual businesses, but rather to support them and provide a competitive edge. We’ve also put together a global R&D team to do the same with innovation and technology, and an M&A squad that identifies partnership opportunities for the group.
Cross-pollinate and pool resources.
In business, cross-pollination is the transfer of knowledge from one company to another. Taking what you learn from one market and applying it in another context can dramatically reduce the learning curve. In the optical sector, for instance, the profile of a contact lens customer is remarkably consistent from country to country. Our various companies use this kind of incremental insider know-how to grow in a very competitive industry.
When your businesses are in similar sectors, you can also benefit from synergies — opportunities to pool or share resources to improve efficiency. Group purchasing of raw materials keeps costs down. Sharing R&D and technologies accelerates innovation. New products that result can be leveraged throughout all the enterprises. Disney’s media conglomerate, for instance, is the perfect distribution vehicle for Pixar’s films, and in turn, Disney is able to make toys from the movies to produce hundreds of millions in additional revenues.
Go the distance for face time.
With all the videoconferencing technology available today, is it really the best use of a CEO’s time to fly halfway around the world for an in-person meeting? Absolutely.
When you’re responsible for a family of companies spanning the globe, encompassing vastly different geographies and cultures, it’s critical to be able to visit each enterprise and experience them in their own unique ecosystems. And there’s simply no substitute for in-person, face-to-face time. Subtleties of office culture, the dynamics between executives, unspoken rules and latent problems — none of that can be conveyed on a conference call, no matter how good the connection or how long you talk.
But being present isn’t always easy, even when you’re in the same room. Just like bilingual speakers who flip between languages, serial CEOs must find ways to flip the mental switch from one culture and one company to another. In my case, when shuttling from Clearly headquarters in Vancouver to EyeBuyDirect in Shanghai, I have a single trans-Atlantic flight to make that transition. But by the time I’m on the ground in China, I’m wearing a different hat entirely and am absorbed in a different company culture and customer universe.
Prioritize down time.
Nobody who has done it can pretend that being responsible for multiple international companies is easy. To stay sane and avoid burning out, it’s essential to rely on a personal support system. In my case, that starts with my wife, Katia, who has been a source of unwavering support since before I founded EyeBuyDirect in 2005. Three kids and a several companies later, she’s still holding it all together.
The other thing that sustains me is my faith. We observe the Sabbath. That means, from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, being completely disconnected from technology. No phones, computers or email. You don’t have to be religious, of course, to have this kind of experience. Deliberately setting aside downtime — and sticking with it — can reap dividends for even the busiest of CEOs. Invariably, one emerges re-energized and focused.
Running a global network of companies is not without challenges but it has special rewards. One metaphor that comes to mind, in fact, is parenting. Each business, or child, has its own idiosyncrasies and each requires attention to flourish. In the end, the key is to love them all. Maintaining that energy and focus — amid whirlwind travel schedules and shifting business demands — is the hard part.