Many years ago I found myself sitting next to Ram Charan at a dinner following an intense workshop we did with him during the day. For those not familiar with his work, Ram is perhaps the world’s most renowned business consultant and a favorite of CEOs around the globe. Being a little naive, I asked Ram where he lived and he politely told me he didn’t live anywhere. He said he worked almost every day of the year, except when he would take a few days to visit his family in India. He lived in hotels, didn’t own a car, owned only the clothes he travelled with and billed out almost every day of the year to a client. Needless to say, I was a little shocked. Take a look at this article written in 2007 that describes his unique life. The author calls it a strange existence and I couldn’t agree more.
I thought of Ram when I saw this Harvard Business Review blog that talks about the value of business travel vs. other options. I doubt if Ram paid much attention, but for the rest of us it is worth some consideration. The blog talks about the real costs of travel that include the opportunity costs, or those things not done because of the travel. It says we should question the ROI of every trip. The piece raises some obvious concepts but is perhaps a little too simplistic for many of our situations.
My favorite commercial of all time, well other than some of the Super Bowl ones, was the United Airlines commercial where the business owner was passing out airline tickets to his workers. Remember when we used to have airline tickets? Business was down and his number one customer just fired his company. He said it was time to get to know the customers once again and he had arranged trips for his people to immediately get out of the office. He was going to personally visit the “old friend” who just took away the business. It was a powerful reminder of how face time is needed with customers.
Travel is one of the biggest issues facing business people today. Those that travel too little are afraid they are being viewed as lazy and not focussed on the customers. Those who travel too much are worried that they are out of touch with home office politics and are viewed as lazy for not getting their office work done. Bosses today seem to push for more office time so presentations and in-house work can get done, while business pressures seem to demand more time out of the office. Everyone is advocating for more customer focus and face time but want this to magically happen without travel. It is a tough issue.
The key is to take the time to develop a formal plan for travel. This should be an active rather than a passive process. How many days a year should be in the office and how many outside? How can customer work be done most effectively using both travel and telephone work throughout the year. Which company meetings are necessary and which could be handled over the phone? Could meetings be shortened? Does it strike you that many meetings have agendas that are stretched out to fit a fixed time as opposed to having just enough time scheduled for what is absolutely necessary to accomplish? Time is precious and the ideal amount of travel must be determined based on your individual circumstances and business needs. Take back control of your schedule. I would suggest though that Ram might be taking it a little to the extreme.