By Tony Samson
ONE CORPORATE RITUAL that is enshrined in the calendar of a CEO is the accommodation of a useless meeting. The appointment is done months in advance, as it usually involves travel and an accompanying jet lag. This unnecessary activity of doing the rounds is nonetheless accommodated even by the busiest CEO, including the top guy in the Palace, when he is in town.
The courtesy call has no stated agenda except the meeting taking place. Nothing formal is expected to be discussed, debated, or even mentioned. There is no presentation to be made and at the end of the meeting, there are no recall notes to be submitted. There is no expectation of a follow-up for new business or a difficult negotiation in the horizon.
The courtesy meeting is an end by itself. No practical alternative is offered to the physical visit — can’t we just e-mail “hi” to each other?
All sorts of changes trigger off a courtesy call.
A new chief executive is installed. Major service-providers doing business with the company (and the old chief who was ousted or retired), including international banks and suppliers who are nervous about getting paid, want to see the newly designated chief and evaluate how to move forward with him and who the new players are in the inevitable reorganization. Often, the secretary is the same.
Courtesy visits follow a certain routine.
An appointment is booked three months in advance coinciding with a foreign visitor’s travel plans, usually taking place when it is the dead of winter in his home country. The visitor (usually with a small entourage which may include a stunning Executive Assistant, also known as a “traveling companion,” and introduced as the head of artificial intelligence) appears as scheduled. Calling cards are exchanged. Coffee is served. And interesting topics are discussed such as traffic congestion in Manila and Bangkok (so as not to be too offensive), weather conditions in the visitor’s home country (We have early snowstorms at this time), and an exchange of views on international news, keeping out of insulting the esteemed leader of the visitor’s and host’s countries — do you think oil will settle back to the forties range?
After fifteen minutes, the visitor thanks his host and pleads the need to flee for his next courtesy call. No info is given on the next stop, as it may be the competition. A corporate gift, something useless like a coffee table book on museum art, is left behind. Assurances of future business are made on both sides — is there a washroom nearby?
Then, there is the obligatory photo op to record the non-event and put a tick mark on this CEO visited by the tourist.
Lower-level politicians and bureaucrats handle courtesy calls differently. Meeting people (especially suppliers) are an integral part of their duties and responsibilities. They are the very stuff of politics — a lot of small talk going nowhere, some beating around the bush, and the studious avoidance of contentious subjects like unreceipted fees. (Talk to my Executive Assistant if you need anything.)
When visiting politicians, there is no need to exchange calling cards. The visitor knows who his host is and no contact details are required except if the card is used later for avoiding traffic tickets, although that one needs a handwritten note at the back. If the visitor is forgotten, no damage is done. Favor-seekers do not expect to be remembered anyway. They usually do a good job of later reminding their host who they are, what they need, and the amount of encouragement they can provide.
The visit ends routinely again with picture-taking. If the host is important enough, such a picture is framed and hung in the office — until the photographed host’s term ends and a new picture needs to be posted on the company’s web page, after a new courtesy call is completed.
Courtesy calls are an opportunity to simply converse without watching one’s words and how they may be misinterpreted. If more formal negotiations are required, these can be scheduled for other occasions, maybe dinner with appetizing tapas and loud music in the background to avoid being recorded.
Discourteous calls from either side can sometimes follow and turn out to be more profitable.
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda