By Stephanie Lovitt
With the invention of smartphones, corporate wikis, and videoconferencing it seems as though technology may replace the need for business travel. Yes, we are capable of digital interaction, but that does not mean it should become a substitute for personal interaction? Regardless of what we may like to think, the ability to schmooze, humor, or reveal our character has become increasingly surrendered to the electronic waves of email and video chatting.
Paul Calello, Credit Suisse’s investment banking chief, comments on the importance of personal interaction in an increasingly globalized society: “…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.”
While some of us may like to think that inventions such as video chatting have made business travel unnecessary, the executives on top beg to disagree. Muhtar Kent, president and CEO-designate of Coca-Cola thought that “10 or 15 years ago when the concept of videoconferencing first came out [it was] really going to take the place of travel.” However, like other executives, he has realized the growing importance of business travel and now spends about 150 days a year in the corporate jet. Kent considers travel to be one of the most useful tools in business because you never know who you may meet or where you will meet them.
Kent remembers years ago when he was eagerly anticipating opening a bottling plant in Albania only to discover that he would be rejected by the young government. A friend encouraged Kent to visit a doctor who was extremely knowledgeable in local politics and three years later, the doctor became Albania’s first elected President and just two short years after that he cut the ribbon at the opening of Coke’s first bottling plant in the country.
Like Kent, the CEO of WhittmanHart Consulting, Mark Sullivan, has also realized the importance of being physically present for his employees. As a result, he travels up to 300,000 miles annually and doesn’t plan to quit anytime soon. So why exactly is being a road warrior so important? Because employees “need a chance to swing at you, to air concerns. If it’s urgent, you’ve got to be physically there,” says Sullivan.
As most of us realize, jobs are no longer local anymore, they are global which means that our understanding must also adopt a global shift. Globally expanding outposts has become synonymous with expanding the scope of jobs so much so that being accessible in voice messages, e-mail blasts, and memos just won’t suffice anymore. Most jobs today entail some sort of travel component. Most of us assume the secret to succeeding on top is to be physically accessible day or night. The necessity of face time is greater now than ever. But what happens when executives start to feel the pull to be in two, three, or even four places at once? Where’s the balance? Or yet, is there even balance?
At what point does travel become too excessive? Is it when you start traveling 31 hours roundtrip to have lunch with a client for 3 hours like Valerie E. Germain, a managing partner at Heidrick & Struggles does? Is it when you make as many as three 12-hour plane rides in three days like Calello does? Yes, it is important to be accessible to the client or future client, but what about your family? If you’re traveling 150 out of the 365 days of the year, sure you may be accessible to the client and other executives, but at the same time you are completely unreachable by your family. It seems that the key to succeeding in the international market is finding the proper balance. But the first step to even finding this balance is realizing that it exists. So maybe there doesn’t really have to be a battle between the road-warrior and Smartphone after all; perhaps these two enemies were really each other’s solutions all along.