By Lou Hoffman
Evolving wisdom holds that the physical location of the CEO doesn’t matter anymore.
With the advent of videoconferencing, emails, texting, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of digital communications, the CEO is always just a click away. Some CEOs don’t even keep a proper office, preferring to parachute into locations around the world and pull up a temp desk.
So as not to use cuss words, I’ll just say “baloney” to this notion.
The location of the CEO absolutely matters. It shapes the CEO’s context for the organization. Through sheer osmosis, the CEO gains a deeper knowledge of the local market. It’s human nature to gravitate toward what one knows best.
Sure, many CEOs of global companies spend an inordinate amount of time on the road. And yes, there’s nothing like meeting face-to-face to nurture relationships and tackle the tasks at hand.
Still, it’s not the same as living there.
I didn’t truly understand how my own organization “felt” from outside the HQ until I lived in the UK for a couple years. For example, I assumed our supporting infrastructure — we’re a global pr agency — treated every geography with an equal priority. Not so fast. I discovered our centralized IT function was too American-centric. It’s one thing to hear about the issue. It’s another to actually experience the limitation by working from a base outside the headquarters.
This particular experience ended up being the catalyst to retool our IT function; our IT head now sits in Hong Kong.
While it’s not practical to live in every country, stints of one month or so in various locations again allow the CEO to experience the organization like staff members in those same locations. By virtue of staying more than few days, you go from being a visitor to being part of the team. You learn the interpersonal dynamics and what matters to people. The longer runway also allows for jumping into the natural work flow, perfect for teaching moments going both directions.
Look, every CEO battles the natural gravitation toward the market where he or she lives. Location does shape one’s point of view.
But by living in other geographies – even on short-term stints – the CEO gains a much deeper understanding of the global operation and ultimately develops what I think of as global empathy.
More than any other quality, it’s “global empathy” that allows for a true global perspective.