Is the C-suite practicing what they preach on business travel?

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4 min read

JOHANNESBURG – We’ve all felt that nagging resentment sink in as we squeeze into our economy middle-seat prison. You played by the rules—you followed the corporate travel policy, picked the absolute cheapest fares, and stayed at approved and affordable hotels. Meanwhile, you just watched the CEO casually stroll through the lounge toward their lie-flat business class oasis, unapologetically maxing out the expense account on the company’s dime.

It’s enough to make you wonder if there’s some unspoken double standard on travel policies favouring those at the top.

The realities of life on the road for executives 

Let’s face it: the typical senior leader logs way more travel miles than the rest of us. Harvard Business Review data shows the average CEO spends 8% of their time away on business trips and junkets.

With schedules that rocket them across multiple time zones, you could argue that certain travel perks and amenities are necessary. After crossing half the globe, would you want your CEO running on fumes and with a knot in their neck negotiating make-or-break deals?

When travel privilege gets out of hand

But that argument can only go so far before it becomes an excuse for excess. Having completely different rulebooks for the leadership ranks versus everyone else breeds resentment and undermines enforcement across the board.

As Bonnie Smith, GM of travel management firm FCM, puts it: “Senior leaders better be modelling the exact same travel behaviours they expect from employees. If they’re constantly breaking policy without justification, what message does that really send about whether compliance actually matters?”

Speaking of violations, Smith has seen plenty of travel policy transgressions by executives, including: 

  • Choosing non-approved hotels or accommodations outside of policy guidelines.
  • Opting for higher-class travel without valid business reasons or approval, exceeding budget limits.
  • Bypassing designated booking channels or failing to follow outlined procedures.
  • Overspending on client entertainment, meals or other expenses beyond set limits.

“These types of violations can snowball into major issues beyond just financials,” Smith warns. “We’re talking legal risks, reputational damage, tanking employee morale and more.” 

According to Smith, the solution is finding that tricky balance between defined policies and pragmatic flexibility. “You need clear but adaptable travel guidelines; then you empower travel managers to make smart judgment calls around justified exceptions regardless of someone’s role or level.”

For example, a sales director juggling red-eye flights, multi-city meetings, and a crucial presentation for a client? That’s likely a scenario where springing for business class could pay dividends through improved productivity and performance.

But that same hard-charging traveller wouldn’t automatically get a hall pass to fly business just for attending an internal town hall back at HQ. It’s about pragmatism and nuance over blanket rules.

Smith recommends configuring travel booking approval workflows that automate decisions based on factors like travel routing, dates, trip purpose and more. “This lets travel managers assess and greenlight atypical bookings consistently and efficiently without running it up the whole leadership chain,” she said. “It keeps things moving while ensuring fair, justifiable decisions.”

The data-backed case for flexibility 

Having robust travel data and reporting is key here, too. This lets leadership keep close tabs on where policy exceptions are happening and their business impacts. “If certain travel upgrades or amenities demonstrably improve employee productivity, client engagement, or retention, those can potentially be codified as accepted use cases in future policy iterations,” Smith noted.

“Conversely, if those premium experiences aren’t measurably moving the needle, it’s easy to reel them back in based on the data,” she added.

How the C-suite can lead by example 

Smith offers some top tips for how executive leaders can model good travel policy citizenship:

1) Live by the defined rules yourself. Only make policy exceptions you’d be perfectly comfortable defending publicly based on clear business justification.

2) Over-communicate about your travel decisions. Explain the ‘whys’ so people understand the rationale and see guardrails are consistently applied.

3) Use travel data and reporting to identify stress points, productivity bottlenecks, or compliance risks. Then, advocate for smarter solutions and appropriate policy tweaks. 

4) Recognise and praise employees who excel at balancing thoughtful policy compliance with maximising their productivity on the road. It nurtures that accountability culture. 

“At the end of the day, the C-suite needs to govern themselves by those same rigorous standards as the broader workforce,” Smith said. “But an intelligently designed travel programme empowers managers to make sensible, productivity-focused exceptions regardless of title or level.”

“Executive travel is an investment in your senior talent, so you need to optimise that investment by building in smart, justifiable flexibilities that account for travel realities,” she continues. “It’s about finding the sweet spot between enabling peak performance and just handing out all-you-can-travel passes.”

At the end of the day, Smith sums it up: “It’s about fostering a culture of accountability, fairness and respecting every single employee’s time and productivity. When senior leaders walk that talk through their travel behaviours and decision-making, it resonates in powerful ways. The payoffs? Stronger policy compliance, greater talent recruitment and retention, you name it.”