Dressing up for visitors

KAMAL KARANTH | Updated on February 26, 2020 Published on February 27, 2020

Pulling out all stops: Whether it is political leaders or global CEOs, we want to show only our best side   -  PTI

Do stage-managed trips for visiting CEOs serve any purpose?

“I feel diabetic after all these client meetings,” said our global CEO. He was in India for the first time to meet our top customers and complained that it seemed like a fixed match, as the clients only raved about our partnership. Tongue in cheek I asked, “If you had met clients who were unhappy with us, wouldn’t you have said we were doing a lousy job out here and perhaps even cut investments to India or, worse, put some of us on a performance improvement plan?”

I recalled this episode from one of my earlier career stints when I saw how India was dressed up to welcome President Trump and his entourage. Whether it is political leaders, global CEOs, clients or investors, we certainly want to show them our best side.

Beyond being great hosts, there is business to be done. So we really need to pull out all the stops to impress them. So, what are the ‘must-dos’ when we have global visitors, especially CEOs of large organisations visiting us? It starts with the office.

For starters, offices suddenly get a new coat of paint, faulty air-conditioners miraculously get fixed, toilets get an overhaul, messy files get hidden in cupboards.

And then, of course, there’s the way we dress on the D-day. Once, a Dutch visitor quipped, “I didn’t know you guys come to work daily in suits and stilettos,” leaving the host CEO red-faced. It was apparent that people were uncomfortably dressed that day, just to sync in with the visitor.

One large enterprise had a peculiar problem around their swank building. They had too many street food vendors just outside the office, offering tasty, economical fare to thousands of their employees.

But, as it messed up the entrance to the building, the management asked the hawkers to stay away for a day. When the hawkers told them to foot the bill for that day’s business loss, the management had to retreat as the amount was substantial. On the positive side, it got the company to reflect and replace their mediocre in-house caterer.

Scripted questions

Often, visiting CEOs participate in a town hall, meet a few key employees one-on-one and sit in on a few presentations from team leaders. And just like the POTUS’s staff vets each meeting, at the workplace too employees who will interface with the visitors, as also their power point presentations, are carefully scrutinised.

You might wonder what there is to hide in an enterprise, especially one that talks about transparency as a value system. But, remember, every organisation has things to hide.

It’s not uncommon for companies to hold town-halls where the ‘right’ questions are planted. Rebellious colleagues don’t get face-time with the visitors or presentation honours. Even dinner seats are fixed so that only people who will present the right image sit close to the visitor.

External drama

The first time we had a CEO visit us from the UK, our business head thought it would be a great idea to give him a flavour of Indian tradition. So, when he came to the Mumbai office, an elephant was arranged to garland him, and he was visibly thrilled. However, it caused a stir in the neighbourhood and soon a group of transgender folks arrived, demanding money. The hapless local business head had to shell out a considerable sum as tips.

During the same visit, the sales head asked me “He wants to meet a few competitors and give two press interviews. Whom should we call?” I replied, “Ensure you don’t call ‘A’. I am not sure what he will say.” So we called ‘B’, whom I knew, and briefed him before he met the boss. One of the press reporters refused to meet with him as, during the vetting, we cut off a couple of her uncomfortable questions. She subsequently stopped writing about our company.

Reality check

Once, I was visiting another city for a talk at a university, The flight landed early, and I had some time on my hands. So I went across to our local office to say hello to the local team. At 9.30 a.m, there was hardly anybody in the office. Empty desks and phones ringing off the hook greeted me. In a service industry where customer calls are of paramount importance, I saw a somewhat embarrassed branch head walking in sheepishly at 10 am. Most of his staff did not turn up until 10.30.

Just a week earlier, when I was there on a planned visit, it was a different picture. We had presented awards to top employees, and the local leaders had gushed about how committed their team was. When the customer satisfaction report came out a couple of months later, our worst fears came true. We were living in a bubble.

For most leaders visiting their branches, plants or offices, these trips are just boxes to be ticked. Although they are aware that a lot can be stage-managed, very few can avoid being taken on a guided tour. It’s unlikely the visitor would suspect that things are stage-managed, especially if they are visiting for the first time.

Not just the optics

It isn’t that visiting leaders don’t understand the reality. They have smart analysts, who would have briefed them. The numbers would have told them the story in any case.

It’s up to the visiting leaders to make their trip meaningful by going beyond what’s offered to them as a planned schedule. However, that’s easier said than done. The last thing you want to do is meet irate customers, unhappy suppliers/partners, disengaged employees and journalists you cannot handle in your first, or rare, visit to another country.

Let’s not forget that other than the learning and insights the leaders want to get, they also want to send out a message about how vital that location/team is. So, from that context, keeping an eye on the optics is not all bad. But if everything about the trip becomes only about the optics, then the purpose is defeated.

On the other hand, many might just follow Aristotle’s philosophy — “the aim of the wise is not to seek pleasure but to avoid pain.”

Kamal Karanth is co-founder of Xpheno,

a specialist staffing firm.

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Published on February 27, 2020
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