It wasn’t going to be a popular trip. Or a convenient one. Faced with having to shutter a major manufacturing site in Europe, the CEO of a well-known healthcare brand committed to personally sharing news with the country’s head of government, who had been lobbying for its continued operation.
Despite having to be in Los Angeles just 36 hours later, the CEO took a commercial overnight flight from New York, made a connection to the city in which the official was visiting for a retreat with his cabinet and was back in flight a few hours later.
Although the prime minister was disappointed with the decision, the CEO’s choice to share the underlying economic data and path forward in person was persuasive. Plus, he did one more thing that too many of us overlook: He showed up. When we can reach anyone, anywhere at anytime with the push of a button, there might appear to be less of a need to hop on a plane or jump in the car. But presenting yourself in the flesh is actually more important than ever.
I’ve found the same to be true at every turn. Whether conquering six months worth of decisions during a 36-hour visit to Sydney; an 18,000-mile, nine-day journey to introduce a new executive to employees or meeting hometown media for lunch at a local diner, an in-person visit says you care enough to be there. That’s powerful.
Of course, this isn’t a case of joining the Navy to see the world. There’s real work to be done as all those miles accumulate. So where does someone normally anchored to a desk start off when hitting the road?
▶ Immerse yourself. A natural inclination when visiting a new site is to find some element of home, an aspect of familiarity that you can grasp. Don’t. Instead, immerse yourself in the business conducted at the location. Is it a manufacturing site? Walk the floor and learn the workflow. A back office operation? Listen in on customer calls or attend meetings outside your scope of responsibility. Understand what makes that particular site tick. Experience “everyday” retailers—grocery stores, convenience shops or neighborhood restaurants.
▶ Pop in. While scheduled meetings can have their advantages, they can also create artificial environments, as attendees have time to prepare (or in many cases over-prepare) for your arrival. Insist on time to pop in on associates, customers and partners for quick-hit conversations, making sure you retain some element of surprise to avoid being steered toward safe “plants.”
▶ Ask questions. You’re the new kid on the block during your time on the road, so those stupid questions are more than OK: They’re absolutely necessary. You’ll be given considerable latitude, especially if your questions come across as sincere and without an agenda.
▶ Address rumors. Keep an ear to the ground for rumors, and be ready to tackle them on the spot. This is even more crucial if you’re visiting other sites during times of company upheaval.
▶ Return and review. Six months after visiting a manufacturing site to help a team better communicate with engineers and machine operators, I returned to check on the progress. The supervisors assured me that dramatic progress had been made, producing binders of signatures from attendees scribbled during weekly plant communication sessions.
▶ Share your observations. Spread the wealth on your return home, finding ways to share observations, insights and ideas from other sites with your immediate and extended teams. I’ve found that bringing back an object—a unique product or some other physical item from a location—can be a great conversation starter to pull colleagues into a discussion.
During the course of my travels, one conversation stays with me to this day. Following an employee focus group in the Midwest, a grizzled 35-year veteran of the company approached me with his hand extended.
With a dead serious expression, he began to speak. “You took the time to come here,” he said. “You gathered us to listen to our thoughts and complaints. You promised to come back when you were here a few months ago and actually did. Hell, you even implemented some of our ideas. But it’s more than that. Showing up showed us you care, and now we do as well.”
My dad said that sometimes life is about showing up. I couldn’t agree more. PRN
Mike McDougall is president of McDougall Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @McDougallPR.