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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published October 18, 2012

4 Ways to Supercharge a Business Trip 

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A version of this article first appeared in Inc.com

If you’re a leader, traveling comes with the gig: whether it’s visiting clients, prospecting new business, attending workshops and conferences, or just plain looking for inspiration elsewhere, it’s hard to lead from inside your office. 

In fact, life on the road can become such an ingrained part of the week-to-week rhythm of business that for many leaders, it becomes something close to a chore – a mind-numbing routine of airport terminals, endless security queues and hotel rooms so similar it’s hard at times to remember which city you’re in.

If it’s got to the point that for you, the best part of business travel is arriving back home, here are four ways to rejuvenate the activity and turn your travel time into an opportunity to develop as a leader:

1. Can the cab, coach a colleague.

More years ago than I care to remember I got a call from a senior partner in the accounting firm I had recently joined (he’d been part of the interview panel that hired me) – Would I bring my car ’round and drive him to the airport?

In the 40-minute journey to drop him off for his flight, we had a conversation that turned into an invaluable five-year mentoring relationship. I later discovered that this was something he did with many employees, not just me, and it became a practice I’ve used successfully to this day.

Try it for yourself – take the time at the start and end of a trip to grab time with someone you wouldn’t ordinarily have more than a corridor discussion with – believe me, they’ll get more from it than you can imagine.

2. Learn the art of context.

Most business trips these days consist of irritatingly inconvenient stops and starts – the security lines, the airport to hotel transfers, the waiting in the terminal lounge.

As a consequence, we often finish a day of traveling with a vague sense of dissatisfaction that apart from getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, we didn’t actually achieve anything. But here’s the thing: all those stops and starts are entirely predictable.

We know that every trip will have the security line wait, the hotel transfer, the kicking around the boarding gate or lounge area – so it’s eminently possible to plan ahead to use that time wisely.

When I’m traveling, I keep to hand a folder of stuff that I know I can work on at short notice and for short periods of time, and I have my phone pre-programmed with calls I know can be cleared quickly in a spare moment or two. My iPad has a screen of icons with apps and websites that I can access profitably for periods of five to ten minutes at a time. 

Those stops and starts will always be with us – instead of letting them frustrate you, travel prepared to take advantage of them.

3. Focus on input, not output. 

The biggest travel trap I see business leaders fall into is to end up doing precisely what they would be doing if they were back at the office: output, output, output.

How often have you strolled down the aisle of an airplane and watched people pecking away at email, completing excel spreadsheets, honing powerpoint presentations? And all this in far from ideal conditions – stale air, sleep deprived, in cramped conditions, fighting for elbow room, with no access to the tools and resources you would have back in the office.

Next time you travel, try setting the time aside for input: read something you’ve been promising yourself you’d get to. Consume some reports, yes – but those you know you should read, but haven’t had time. Watch a movie, for goodness sake – even better, have the foresight to bring your own, and make it something challenging and inspiring.

Output always gets done in the end – so make room for input.

4. Add time, subtract stress, grow as a leader.

I used to pride myself on the efficiency of my traveling – I’d get in, do whatever I was there to do, and get out. My flights would be scheduled to arrive just in time for me to shower and change (maybe not even that), go to whatever meetings I had scheduled, then head back to the airport for the flight home, or to to wherever I was scheduled to be next.

And guess what? In the decades during which I scheduled my trips like that, I learned much as a manager, and precisely nothing as a leader. Yes, I’d get the sale, or schmooze the client, or learn best practices about x or y, but I never made the time to step back and see what only a slower, less pressured itinerary would allow.

Since I changed my approach to allow downtime on most of the trips I take, I can look back at some outstanding experiences where I learned much and developed as a leader: an outstanding dinner with a colleague or friend, a long, unhurried walk-and-talk with a peer or mentor I wouldn’t otherwise get time with, or just a time of reflection in a foreign city, prodded by the strangeness of the culture and language into a different perception of a problem or challenge.

Make time, embrace the unusual, move out of your comfort zone and grow as a leader.

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