'This Is Not Work, But Top Sport'

Wim Elfrink runs his work life like a marathon: Warming up early, moving to a rhythm and digging in until the finish

Published: May 18, 2009

I am the Chief Globalisation Officer at Cisco. It’s a new role in the company. And I see myself as a path finder. For me, it was very important to walk the talk. You cannot sit in California and dream or talk about it. That’s how we decided to set up our second headquarters in India.
This is not just about India. If we learn how to do this, we can do something similar in China, America, Russia, and so on. Our goal is to create a company for speed and scale. For speed, talent and innovation is needed. For scale, you need a global organisation that works 24 hours a day. So working round the clock is now a part of my lifestyle.

I am 12.5 hours away from the U.S. If you look at my agenda, once or twice a week, I am in conference calls with the U.S. when everybody else in Bangalore is sleeping. I make it a point to sit in on these calls because I have to make a point — we spent a few hundred million dollars building this campus. It’s the role of the business leaders to think about what this campus should do, because we are building this place for the next 10 years.

When I am here, I work during the night, early in the morning and late in the evening with some time to rest in between. I start early, have breakfast with the family, and then come to campus. We always say don’t commute to compute. Work from home. All the facilities are there. We come here to meet people, customers and attend employee meetings.

I start my day at 5.00 a.m. I work out five days a week, I swim, I run, I exercise. I am rich, so I have all these facilities at home. If I am in a hotel, I use the gym. By 5.30-5.45 a.m. I sit down to answer voice mails. I have around 40 voice mails waiting for me every morning. I prefer this to emails. It allows me to hear the emotion in people’s voices. Everybody knows I reply within 24 hours — seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Fighting Fit
Image: Leonard Aarons for Forbes India
Fighting Fit
I am responsible for a $7-billion Cisco services business worldwide. I attend to all emergencies in the morning and get rid of everything that needed my attention while I was asleep. I make a few customer calls. This takes about an hour. Then I sit down for breakfast with the family. After that I take some more calls from home.

After that, I come to campus where I eat lunch at the cafeteria. I never eat alone in my room. I sit around and talk to some folks — with customers, visitors or my co-workers. I like to be available to people. It’s important they see me.

I go back home at around 4.00-4.30 p.m. This is my time with the family, I sit with my boys and then around 7.00-7.30 p.m. I start again. That’s the time U.S. is waking up. I then work till 10.00-10.30 p.m. On some days I start at 10.00 p.m. and work till 2.00 a.m. These are board meetings, planned much in advance.

I have three, four people in my team here who do nothing but plan my schedule. I have a Chief of Staff who oversees all my appointments and sets them up three to six months in advance. If I start doing this ad hoc, I will be dead. If there are always emergencies and escalations, I’d much rather work for the fire department. I see a lot of Indian CEOs who work completely ad hoc.

My life is planning. Otherwise I have no life. So I am very demanding of my personal staff, in East and West. The two teams work together. Once a week, I go over the calendar with them. They are all professionals and when they make a decision that I need to do something, I know it’s important, that they are not wasting my time.

I also say hey, this is not relevant now. Give me a couple of weeks to look at this. In my job, you have to focus on what and now; not so much on how. What is the plan for the next three years, what my priority is; not how we do it? I have a lot of people around me for that. It’s not just virtualisation of assets; it is also virtualisation of teams around the world. This is not work, it is top sport.

I am never in the same time zone for more than three to five days at a time. If you are not physically healthy you can’t do it. That is why I run. I am a marathon runner and have done 42 marathons in my life. At home, I keep my medals on my personal wall of fame.

I read a lot. I love movies. We have a big movie theater in the house. I travel with my Apple box, which gives me access to my iTunes wherever I am in the world. I have access to all my records, I have 30,000 of them. I love gardening. I sleep four to five hours in a day, but I never feel fatigued. I don’t catch up on my sleep on Sundays or days off. I don’t come home to relax from work. It is also the relationship I have with my wife. During breakfast and dinner, I don’t answer my cell phone. I have blocked hours when I don’t answer my phone. I will get to it two hours later.

Sometimes, I think I should br­eak out of the routine and planning. I am 57 now and friends tell me I should retire. But in these times, there is a chance that you live till you are 100. So I imagine I have another 43 years to go.

My oldest son is 22 years old. But he has a mental age of three. He was four when we learnt of his condition. It was a big crisis for us. But then I said this is what it is. What is the plan? What am I going to do with my life, how am I going to handle it? Now we have a foundation for supporting such children. My wife Kate runs it. I always say it is confrontation and perspective. If you have a crisis, absorb it, live it, go through it and then ask what’s next? A lot of people stay with it, either in denial or ask why did it happen to me? I don’t. I see the glass half full.

(This story appears in the 05 June, 2009 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • surajarora

    I think all sucessful enterpreneurs are disciplined ,focussed,and work for 24x7 hrs and on the top of it ,are always very positive in approach and as you rightly said "you don't keep a dog and bark too" keep it up. God will always bless you and give strength to face the odds too. Always trying to follow the leaders like you regards suraj arora

    on Jun 30, 2009
  • Rs.Mani

    Seeing it postive, is half the job done - Rs.Mani - Fullner.com

    on May 28, 2009
  • Nilima

    Wonderful ! Need to start implementing at least a few points from his life :)

    on May 23, 2009
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