Managing January 17, 2008
By Tom Lowry and Frederik Balfour, with Dean Foust, Jena McGregor, and Michelle Conlin
Some road warriors fly commercial. Others take the corporate jet. Some pack their own bags. Others keep complete wardrobes in major cities. Some work through the entire plane ride. Others sleep. But if there is one thing these globetrotters agree on, it's that there is no substitute for face time—with the Abu Dhabi moneyman who holds the key to the future; with the underling who is AWOL on e-mail; with the spouse and kids, who have been a little sullen and exasperated of late.
Schmoozing, humoring, hammering the table—all must be done in person. "I don't want to sound like a whirling dervish," says Paul Calello, Credit Suisse's (CS) investment banking chief. "But in a global world you have to get in front of your employees, spend time with your clients, and show commitment when it comes to joint ventures, mergers, and alliances. The key is thoughtful travel—traveling when necessary."
Yes, many predicted the end of face time. But, paradoxically, the great work diaspora unleashed by technology is making physical connection all the more important. As companies open more outposts in more emerging markets, the need to gather intensifies. That's why executives increasingly feel the inhuman pull of having to be in two, three, four places at one time. The road warrior's art is all about finessing the strategic calculation of where to be when; of what bets to make with one's time. How do road warriors do this? By knowing cultures, organizations, and who has the power. Their jobs may be global, but their understanding must be local. It's not just companies' operations that have gotten bigger. So have these jobs.
Not so long ago it seemed as though technology might make business travel, if not obsolete, then a whole lot rarer. We're not talking about teleporting—just simple things like smartphones, corporate wikis, and videoconferencing. Coca-Cola's (KO) president and CEO-designate, Muhtar Kent, has been flying around the globe for Coke since the late 1970s. "I thought 10 or 15 years ago when the concept of videoconferencing first came out that it's really going to take the place of travel," he recalls. Of course that didn't happen, and he now spends about 150 days a year in the corporate jet.
Kent considers travel key to meeting new people who might one day prove useful. Several years ago, he was eager to open a bottling plant in Albania but frustrated that Coke couldn't get the approvals it needed from the rudderless young government. A friend urged Kent to visit a doctor who was well-versed in local politics. He found the man's patients sitting on tangerine boxes because there were no chairs in the waiting room. "I'm interested in investing in your country," Kent recalls saying during the chat. Three years later, the doctor was Albania's first elected President, and 24 months after that Coke opened its first bottling plant in the country. The doctor-turned-President, Sali Berisha, cut the ribbon.
Kent has never forgotten the lesson. More recently, Coke was hoping to win the rights to the Vitaminwater brand from Glacéau, the U.S. beverage maker known for its so-called enhanced waters. Kent knew one of the company's minority owners was Ratan Tata of Tata Group. He'd never met Tata. So during a business trip to India, Kent requested a dinner with him—no agenda, just to get to know each other, he said. Oh, and by the way, was it O.K. to bring along a Glacéau executive? It was. "And 72 days later, we closed the deal."
Meeting the right people is all very well, but road warriors who haven't done their homework on the local potentate can run into big problems. Few understand this better than Bill Roedy, the chief of MTV Networks International. His job requires getting often risqué programming into as many countries as he can without offending local sensibilities. A history enthusiast, Roedy is pretty good at figuring out the local scene.
Yet he found himself with a rare case of butterflies in mid-September as his flight from London was set to touch down in the Saudi Arabian city of Jiddah. Roedy was in town to persuade the mayor of Mecca to give his blessing to MTV Arabia, the network's biggest global launch, which had the potential to reach 200 million Arabs across the region. "Presidents and sheiks don't normally watch MTV, so we have to help them overcome stereotypical views they have," says Roedy. "Nobody was more important than the mayor of Mecca, the religious center of Islam. We had to get it right."
Despite a hectic schedule that included trips to Budapest (to launch MTV Hungary), Prague (to attend a sales meeting), and New York (to discuss 2008 budgets), Roedy carved out as much time in Saudi Arabia as he could. While there he attended recording sessions with the Arab rappers Jeddah Legends, where he learned that their lyrics tended to be about family and religion—themes that he would draw on during his meeting with the mayor of Mecca.
Finally the day arrived, and Roedy found himself providing assurances to a barrage of questions: Will there be opportunities to educate young people? (Yes.) Will there be a regular call to prayer? (Yes.) And, of course, there will be no skin, right, Mr. Roedy? (Correct.) To help seal the deal, Roedy attended an elaborate dinner in tents by the Red Sea. Ten days later, back at his London base, Roedy learned MTV Arabia could launch as scheduled in November. "Those meetings were crucial," he says.
Mark Sullivan, CEO of WhittmanHart Consulting, which advises clients about information management, flies up to 300,000 miles a year and knows well the strain constant travel can put on a family. "My profession is riddled with failed marriages, broken families, and people who get swept up with the lifestyle," he says. Sullivan remains a road warrior for one reason: face time with his employees. About a year ago the firm's popular founder died. Sullivan, then president, knew voice messages, e-mail blasts, and memos wouldn't do. So he and two board members hopped on a plane and in two weeks traveled to nine offices around the U.S. to console bereft employees. "They needed a chance to swing away at you, to air concerns," says Sullivan. "If it's urgent, you've got to be physically there."
Ministering to clients, of course, is always urgent. Few know that better than Valerie E. Germain, a managing partner at global headhunting shop Heidrick & Struggles (HSII). Her job is recruiting executives for some of the world's biggest financial behemoths. Her clients often don't care if the person she is searching for hails from Hong Kong, Zürich, or London. The Thursday before Christmas, a client called to say he needed to meet with her for a few hours. In person. "They were like, Can you get to the side of a mountain in the Alps by Saturday at 6:00?' And the answer is Yes.' You travel round-trip for 31 hours to spend three hours with a client. If one wants to be global, you have to be willing to do that."
Recently, Germain was in London, only to find the candidate she wanted was in Zürich and wouldn't be back all week. Thinking he'd be perfect, she told him she'd meet him for dinner in five hours, rearranging seven scheduled interviews. "It's a risk-reward bet," says Germain. "You've got to figure out, do you risk pissing off seven other people for someone you think is the right candidate?" She bet right: The candidate took the job.
Even Masters of the Universe have little choice when called. In late November, Credit Suisse's Calello was in S?o Paulo, Brazil, attending a party celebrating an investment in a local wealth management company. As his fellow revelers partied on into the night, the investment banking chief was on a red-eye to Manhattan—his third 12-hour plane ride in as many days. Calello had to be in New York because he and his executives had a meet-and-greet breakfast with a guy named Barack Obama.