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A High flyer

Ask yourself, could you achieve the task without travelling?

a kite surferWith the continuing merger and acquisition process leading to increasing globalisation in the pharmaceutical industry, most managers are finding that not only do they have multi-location, multi-national responsibilities, but many of those working for them also have an international aspect to their roles.

International travel has never been so easy and, with many corporations now encouraging their employees to use low-cost airlines, it would also appear that flying has never been so cheap. However, before you plan your next international journey, it might be worth spending a few minutes and asking yourself, `is my journey really needed?'

Are you adding value to your corporation through your next visit, or simply adding cost? Are you suffering from the `Superhero Syndrome'?

The need to be seen
Over the past 12 years, I have spent thousands of hours in conversation with international travellers, helping them to develop skills and techniques for working more effectively in an international role.

Frequently, discussions centre on the high levels of travel multi-country workers experience and we explore their reasons for travel and why it makes sense to spend time away from the office. Typically, good reasons for travel include:

  • Building a client/customer/colleague relationship: all business transactions rely on a level of mutual understanding and there is no faster way to build these than through face-to-face interaction

  • Complex issues/negotiations: as good as technology is today, there are times when you need the immediacy of being there to make the most of the meeting; this complexity often includes cultural issues

  • High possibility of conflict: the issues need to be resolved - and the ability to adapt quickly to the changing circumstances is critical to success.

One reason heard all too often is, I need to be seen. Quite right, if you spend your time in the activities described above. However, if you fly out to a different country, arrive at the office and promptly spend a large percentage of your time there reading email and talking on the phone, you might as well have stayed at home.

Another example is the activity review. We find that many managers organising regional and global meetings focus around activity reviews - an efficient way for them to gather all the information they need in their area of responsibility.

From the participants'/travellers' perspective, these can often feel like a waste of time, with their only relevance being their personal contribution. This is not a good use of the total resource and is often a symptom of managers failing to consider the change of operating environment in which they now work, from a local perspective - everyone and everything I need is nearby - to a regional/global perspective - with many team members located remotely from each other.

Non-travel options
If you have carefully evaluated all of your travel commitments and concluded that you can reduce them, the next important step is to understand what choices you have. Below are top tips from people who have managed to cut down on their international travel:

Set rigid parameters and keep to them: even the busiest of regular travellers have some control over their travel schedules; after all, they can plan vacations and are normally at home for public holidays. Decide what the critical events are in your life (birthdays, anniversaries, etc) and book them into your agenda as if they were business meetings.

Protect your weekends by planning your business meetings to start later on the first working day, to allow you time to travel there in the morning.

Break the habit of: `today's Wednesday, therefore I must be in Helsinki'. Habitual travellers create a dependency culture with their colleagues and clients. In addition to this, you become a driving factor for activity, as clients and colleagues become reactive to your presence. While high levels of face-to-face time are critical in the early stages of building relationships, the frequency can be reduced as the relationship matures. Plan this reduction into your travel schedule and related communication with remote colleagues.

Analyse your diary and set yourself a target: am I travelling for the right reasons? Would it be possible to use an alternative technology for this task?

Delegate: in the past 12 years, the single biggest factor driving high levels of travel is a lack of effective delegation. Reasons for this include (but are not confined to): unclear roles/responsibility, insufficient trust, vague purpose, conflicting local priorities and a lack of formal responsibility for the subordinate.

In addition, there is the most damaging of reasons, which has been termed the `Superhero Syndrome'. This afflicts those managers who feel that nothing happens unless they are present, and who get a perverse sense of purpose from their frequent and regular levels of travel.

Use technology: the key question to ask yourself here is, `what is the purpose of my travel?' If the task does not require the interactivity of a face-to-face encounter, you can look at a technical alternative. There are a host of technologies available to facilitate remote communication, including some exciting new developments in video-conferencing. It is still worrying that when asked why people do not use a technology, the response is, `I don't know how the system works'!

Challenge the habit: are you adding value to the business through your travel, or simply adding cost? Be careful - a Gold frequent flyer card is not a badge of honour!

Do not forget the home `community': there are often few pressures within a company to reduce your travel, with the exception of any periodic bans. Therefore, it can be important sometimes to listen carefully to the needs of your community at home to ensure that you create a balance in your travel that is right for them and you, as well as the organisation.

Finally, I bring to mind a metaphor that was said to me by a frequent traveller, who once commented that his life reminded him frequently of a juggler constantly juggling three balls. Two of them were made from glass and were very fragile, while the third was made from rubber. On them were written the words `health', `family' and `work'.

While at no time could he take his mind off the task of juggling the three balls, if he was going to drop one of them there really would be only one choice.

So when you next consider travelling abroad for business, remember to ask yourself, `is this journey absolutely essential?'

The author
Phil Stockbridge is VP of Global Integration, a company focused on increasing the speed of international business. For further information, visit

2nd September 2008


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