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Overseas Partners; Splitting HR; Millennial Myths; Ventura Air Services
August 27, 2015

How a CEO Gave up Control — and Unleashed His Company’s Growth

Robert Herzog brought ZogSports to seven cities while getting his life back and giving to charities. Here’s how he did it.

Robert Herzog started his company, ZogSports, after a lucky break that saved his life. He hadn’t reached his office on the 96th floor of the World Trade Center when an airplane struck it in the Sept. 11 attacks. “There was a gaping hole in the building where my office was,” he says. None of the 297 people who were working that day at the insurance brokerage got out.

That experience in 2001 prompted Herzog to do some soul searching. It would have been easy to succumb to depression, but he saw he could also choose to focus on the good things in his life. One blessing had been the coed softball league where he’d met his wife, to whom he has now been married for 13 years.

ZogSports Launches

The league was fun, but, like most of its competitors, it was poorly organized. Herzog saw there was an opportunity to offer coed teams a better experience. After his close call on 9/11, he also felt a strong desire to make the world a better place. By 2002, while sitting on a Caribbean beach in St. Martin, he’d dreamed up ZogSports, a co-ed, charity-oriented social sports league in New York City. It organizes leagues where adults can play everything from dodgeball to soccer.

Fast forward to 2011 and the company had grown to three cities. Herzog knew ZogSports had the potential to expand beyond that but realized he had reached his personal limits as a leader. Although he had about 12 full-time employees at the time, he was still lost in the weeds. He found himself weighing in on nitpicky details like what field the company should use, even though he had general managers on staff to make decisions like that. “I needed to get out of their way,” he says.

Letting Go

After attending a talk at the Entrepreneurs’ Organization on what Gazelles now calls its Scaling Up system for growing a business, Herzog realized he needed to get out of his own way, too. He contacted Mark Green, a Gazelles certified international coach. He wanted help in putting the systems in place that would let him step back and lead. “I have a strong personality,” says Herzog. “I was looking for someone with an equally strong personality who would go toe to toe with me.” He hired Green in the summer of 2011.

The first step they took was to establish clear accountability in the business. That way, Herzog didn’t feel he needed to get involved in everything himself or have multiple people responsible for the same thing, as he did at the time. Even though Herzog had expertise in operations, his main job now became sales and marketing. He handed off responsibility for operations to his existing general managers for each location, depending on them to secure the best fields and make decisions on the formats of the games. “When I gave them more responsibility, they became empowered,” he says. “I unleashed the power of more than one person solving problems.”

Another key part of giving up control was putting the company’s core values front and center in decision making. This gave everybody a mental checklist against which they could make judgment calls on their own, independent of Herzog. That truly set him free. “The likelihood someone will make the same decision I would make is 95 percent,” he says. “The other five percent will make a better decision.”

More Talk Time

The most challenging part of Herzog’s work with Green was establishing clear meeting rhythms and establishing daily huddles — something Herzog and his senior team resisted. “We had been doing monthly meetings and felt we didn’t need them more often,” says Herzog. Green pushed him to try daily and weekly huddles and annual meetings, too, telling Herzog they were the one non-negotiable thing about the Scaling Up system.

At first the team fell into treating the daily and weekly meetings as status updates, but with Green’s help, ZogSports began getting things done there. The company now has a rotating leader to run the meetings every week, with a focus on meeting the company’s quantitative and qualitative goals for the quarter.

Herzog also does weekly, one-on-one coaching systems with his seven direct reports. “I am not responsible for creating an agenda,” says Herzog. “My direct report has an agenda.” He expects them to submit a written document in advance to share what they are most proud of, what they struggled with, what they didn’t fully get done and what was preventing them from achieving their goals — not just for the week but for the quarter and the year. He cancels meetings if the document doesn’t arrive on time.

“It sends a very strong message: You need to send this if you want my time,” says Herzog. “I read everyone’s document before the meeting and think about what questions I want to ask them. I am prepared.”

Rapid Expansion

Herzog’s new approach to leading the company has helped the company expand from New York City to six other locales: Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, several counties in New Jersey, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., with 30 full-time employees and 300 part-time field team members who run its events. Revenues are now just south of $10 million, and the company has given more than $2.7 million to charity. Herzog believes he could not have scaled the company to this size and run operations run as smoothly without the changes he made with Green’s help.

“The big thing he went head to head with me on was giving up control,” says Herzog. “The more responsibility I’ve given up, the happier I’ve gotten.”

Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish is founder of the world-renowned Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and chaired for fifteen years EO’s premiere CEO program, the “Birthing of Giants” and WEO’s “Advanced Business” executive program both held at MIT. Founder and CEO of Gazelles, a global executive education and coaching company with over 150 coaching partners on six continents, Verne has spent the past three decades helping companies scale-up. The “Growth Guy” syndicated columnist, he’s also the Venture columnist for FORTUNE magazine. He’s the author of Scaling Up (Rockefeller Habits 2.0); Mastering the Rockefeller Habits; and along with the editors of Fortune, authored The Greatest Business Decisions of All Times," for which Jim Collins wrote the foreword. Verne also chairs FORTUNE Magazine’s annual Leadership and Growth Summits and serves on several boards including chairman of The Riordan Clinic and the newly launched Geoversity. He is an investor in many scale-ups. A father of four, he enjoys piano, tennis, and magic as a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.