In his final hours, Christophe de Margerie was doing what was expected of any modern chief executive officer: representing the company in the globe’s farthest-flung destinations.
The CEO of French energy giant Total SA died earlier this week when his jet crashed on a snowy Moscow runway. De Margerie, 63, was returning to Paris after speaking against sanctions at an investment council led by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. His audience: 50 other CEOs, many also far from home.
De Margerie was part of the airborne army of executives who work to squeeze in one more deal or meeting from Moscow to New York to Shanghai. While accidents are rare, the corporate and commercial jets that put the world in their reach also add to their already packed workloads.
“Today’s global CEOs are often on the road 20 days a month, an amount that’s hard to imagine let alone do,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management. “It’s like expecting physicians to work 50-hour shifts in the emergency room. Who can operate at the top of their game with this level of grueling travel?”
CEOs typically get around in a style rarely experienced by most travelers—be it in a corporate jet or first or business class on commercial airlines. Paychecks that reach into the tens of millions of dollars a year more than compensate for the inconveniences of even the most demanding schedules.
De Margerie and three crew members were killed when their jet struck a snow plow at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. In a speech hours earlier, De Margerie said U.S. and European Union sanctions on Russia were “unfair and unproductive.” The country provides about 9 percent of Total’s daily oil output.
Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, says he essentially has been homeless for five years while jetting across the Atlantic to push the combination between Italy’s Fiat and Detroit icon Chrysler.
“Having a home with the lifestyle that I have is a contradiction,” Marchionne, who often shuttles between Detroit and Fiat headquarters in Turin several times a week, said in a Sept. 30 interview. This month he flew from Michigan back to Italy on a Friday night and returned to the U.S. two days later to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
Marchionne declares he’s “done” once his current corporate plan, which runs to 2018, is implemented, giving him time to finally pursue interests like theoretical physics.
“I like to be able to think, and that’s not always possible in this job,” the former philosophy student said.
Sometimes, medical issues or a sense of self-preservation intervene. A fatigued Ton Buechner took a month off in September on the advice of his doctor just six months after taking the helm of Amsterdam-based Akzo Nobel NV, the world’s largest paintmaker. Johann Rupert, chairman of Cie. Financiere Richemont SA, the Swiss luxury goods maker that owns Cartier, returned from a one-year sabbatical last month.
“It’s ironic that someone in the watch business isn’t in control of his time,” Rupert said in May 2013 when he announced his plan, which included learning to fly-fish.
Max Schireson turned over his CEO job at closely held database company MongoDB Inc. last month, saying he was tired of traveling between Palo Alto, California, and New York on a pace to fly 300,000 miles this year.
“During that travel, I have missed a lot of family fun, perhaps more importantly, I was not with my kids when our puppy was hit by a car or when my son had (minor and successful, and of course unexpected) emergency surgery,” Schireson wrote on his blog in August.
As tough as it is, CEOs have to keep traveling so they can regularly meet employees and customers worldwide, said Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
“The best way any CEO can explain his or her company’s strategy, values and the jobs people need to perform is to be in the room, in front of a lot of employees or other constituents. Nothing works as well as that personal presence, despite the personal toll that can take.”
Martin Sorrell, boss of the world’s largest advertising company, spends a third of his time in London, a third in New York and the rest at some of WPP Plc’s 111 offices worldwide. He has little use for executives who complain about the travel.
“Listen, I wouldn’t do it unless I enjoyed it,” Sorrell said in an interview.
Sorrell flies first class on commercial airlines and has kept a heavy travel schedule since the mid-1970s. Being on the road frequently means Sorrell is part of a small networked community whose members often bump into each other.
“I was just in Moscow yesterday and I saw clients going in and out of the city,” Sorrell said. “Today I gave a lunchtime presentation and one of the partners said he was just on the plane from New York with me.”
Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier Communications Corp., says she too has conducted unexpected business during flights while crisscrossing the U.S. for her Stamford, Connecticut-based telecommunications company.
“I’ve met great job applicants and vendors while traveling and made a few good deals for Frontier along the way.”
Like other travel warriors, Wilderotter has devised ways to make the demands less grueling.
“During long flights, I get up hourly, and stretch and hydrate, and if I’m going east to west, I take a power nap,” Wilderotter said.
Globetrotting CEOs and their senior executives need to develop survival strategies or they will quickly burn out, said Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic Inc. who’s a director at Exxon Mobil Corp. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. He says he worries about his son Jeff, who runs a division of Novartis AG and uses meditation and exercise to cope with frequent commercial flights between the U.S., Europe and Asia.
“When you’re running a global business there is really no choice,” said Bill George, who didn’t have to travel so extensively himself when he ran Medtronic. “It was a different, less global age then.”
–With assistance from Alex Webb in Munich, Thomas Mulier in Geneva and Thomas Black in Dallas.