The Road Not Taken
Traveling CEOs lose much that is irrecoverable: spontaneous interaction with employees, the chance to create a company culture, a sense of the true state of their organizations. Maybe it's just not worth it
Scott Harmon remembers the last time he came face-to-face with his personal dragon. It was 1998, and the cofounder and CEO of Austin-based software start-up Motive Communications was sitting in a plane, 30,000 feet over California. On the air phone, one of his vice-presidents was asking for permission to hire a new manager whom Harmon had never met.
Enter the dragon: Harmon's near-paralyzing fear that something momentous was happening back at his company, and he wasn't there to control it. "It was one of those Faustian bargains," he recalls. "We'd been looking for someone for this position for two months. If we didn't put down an immediate offer, the candidate would go elsewhere. It was now or never." Reluctantly, the CEO gave the green light.
When Harmon got back to Texas, he took the new hire out to lunch. As the meal progressed his spirits sank: the manager's vision of the job was nowhere near his own. "We're not in sync," he remembers thinking wretchedly.
That incident crystallized for Harmon the toll his absences were taking both on his company and on his peace of mind. Motive had been adding employees at a rate of two to four a month. But with Harmon on the road five days a month or more, he couldn't attend all the interviews. "I get very anxious if someone's being made an offer while I'm gone," he says. "On something as crucial as hiring, you need to be in the room, picking up subtle cues--how people stand, how they look, how they smell." Harmon eventually squared things with his new manager, but he also made some changes. Today he gives his staff at least two weeks' notice before his trips, which makes it easier to schedule interviews for him.
Harmon isn't the only one forced to play absentee CEO more than he'd like. In fact, businesspeople at all levels are spending more and more time away from their companies: according to the 1998/1999 Official Airline Guide's Survey of Business Travelers, nearly 44 million people traveled for business in 1998, up 14% from 1994. The average business trip lasts 2.5 days, estimates Rosenbluth International, a travel-management company based in Philadelphia.
And yes, much of that travel is important. CEOs on the road can raise their companies' profile, win lucrative accounts, and awe investors. But they can also lose touch with employees and fall prey to the gnawing fear that they're simply not on top of things. Robert Goodman calls these anxieties "dragons" and says they flourish among traveling business leaders. Goodman, who runs CEO Resource, an investment- and management-consulting company in Austin, believes that such fears are greatest for CEOs of small companies "without a COO or general manager to take care of running the daily business of the enterprise."
Edward M. Hallowell will vouch for the existence of dragons. The psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School says that while his CEO patients exude confidence to the outside world, they often confide to him their insecurities and sense of isolation. To have maximum impact on their companies, leaders know, they must give employees plenty of face time. That's tough when their faces--along with the rest of their bodies--are hundreds of miles away.
What's hard for the shepherd is hard for the flock as well. "When the leader isn't around, people start second-guessing things because they don't know what's going on," says Christena Nippert-Eng, a professor of sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who researches work issues. "They get a symbolic message that their contributions aren't really that important."
Frequent CEO travel takes a toll at every stage of a business's development, but most seriously in its formative years. "The company needs the CEO most in its developmental years, when the culture is forming," says Harmon, who likens a start-up's need for a strong leader's presence to a young child's need for his or her parent.
No one knows more about corporate culture than Allan A. Kennedy, who popularized it in a 1982 book he coauthored with Terrence E. Deal, Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life (Perseus Press). He argues that CEOs who travel too much miss opportunities to influence their companies through the small yet symbolically important encounters that "become part of the binding cultural mythology of the organization."
Harmon offers his own example of myth-building events. During the blistering Austin summer of 1998, the company's air-conditioning system broke. Repairmen filed in, failed to fix the problem, and filed out again. Exasperated, Harmon and another of the company's founders finally followed a repairman up to the roof and stood by until the cooling system was fixed. The incident has become a company legend. "People learned that you do whatever it takes to make things happen--even if it means chasing the air-conditioning guy up the ladder," Harmon says.