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Wim Elfrink: Global Culture Is Respect For Time Zones

A five hour flight from India covers 70 percent of world population, says Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s chief globalisation officer. Now, he wants to replicate the company’s India model of decentralisation in other emerging economies

Published: Oct 28, 2009 08:20:00 AM IST
Updated: Oct 28, 2009 12:58:09 PM IST

Name: Wim Elfrink
Chief globalisation officer, Cisco
Travel, running. Has completed 42 Marathons till date
Maniacal about planning. Has his schedules in sight at least six months ahead of time


Wim Elfrink, Cisco Chief Globalisation Officer
Image: Karim Sahib/ AFP for Forbes India
Wim Elfrink, Cisco Chief Globalisation Officer
The decision to relocate to India had two angles to it — an intellectual one and an emotional one. If you look at demographics, the US is aging and Europe is shrinking. China will have the same problem 10 years from now. But Africa, India and parts of the Middle East are still getting younger.
So a rebalance has to take place because all new kinds of drivers are coming in. Growth will come from emerging markets and not traditional consumer spends in the US.

The other part is that at Cisco, we have to look beyond the labour cost arbitrage. It is always about the need for access to new talent, growth and specifically innovation. Innovation is created by urbanisation, scale and affordability at different price points. So, while in the US it may be possible for a company to have $60 as average revenue per user (ARPU), in India it may only be $3.

You can choose to walk away from the business, but you can’t walk away forever. The mobile internet and the scale of affordable products will create new business models, new partners and new ecosystems. We have to be a part of it. These, I think were the intellectual reasons.

At an emotional level, travel is a passion. Four years ago, I came back from a trip to the Middle East, India, China and a few other countries in the Asia Pacific. I was charged and told my boss we need to do something different; that we need to create a new mindset and get out there. He looked at me, blinked, and asked, when are you going?

If you really want to think out of the box, you have to step out of the box. So I stepped out and said okay, let me take the title of Chief Globalisation Officer. The whole idea emerged when we said one of our five executive directors must break out, take worldwide responsibility, build our organisation in India, and make it our second head office.

We realised if you are in India and take a five hour flight, you can cover 70 percent of the world’s population. We said 20 percent of our top talent must go to India because for us it is all about access to talent, growth and innovation. So suddenly it became a story big enough internally to get change going.

The first bunch of people who came with me, were the adventurous type of people, risk taking boys. Now, after three years, it is not an experiment any more. It is ingrained in our culture. We are in a phase of full awareness now. In the incubation phase of the model, we worried about whether this thing would be sustainable. Now we’re asking how do we try to duplicate this model? What do we really want to do in China, in Mexico, in Brazil, Russia and other priority areas? Basically, what capabilities do you want to decentralise?

What is global culture? It is respect for different time zones. If my boss in the US organises a meeting on Friday afternoon, I have to step in and say no because for me it is a Saturday morning. In Saudi, weekends are on Thursday and Friday. In Dubai it is Friday and Saturday. Execution around these simple things, I live it every day. I am the Number Two man at Cisco and so I have to be vocal about these things. You can’t put it somewhere under the carpet. This is how global companies will have to operate five to 10 years down the line. People should speak at least three languages because they would have lived in different continents.

But not everybody can have an open mind, or are willing to move around and learn. So, we are formulating a policy for that because we need to groom future leaders and a percentage of top talent should move around.

I am European. My father told me to make a career, one day I will have to leave Netherlands and go to the US. To my children, perhaps I’ll say you have to work a couple of years in India, China, Indonesia or Brazil to understand the world. These things have fundamentally changed.

It is extremely important as an executive to feel empowered and I think it has a lot to do with self actualisation. Motivate yourself, do you see a chance, are you being questioned about what you do? It feels great to see what we are achieving in India. The concept is taking off. If you ask me where will I end up 10 years from now, to be honest, I don’t know. It depends on my children, what do they want to do and where will they get the best education. My kids are much more mobile. So their choice will depend more on sustainability, economic outlook, social outlook, inclusive growth and the environment.

(As told to Indrajit Gupta)

(This story appears in the 06 November, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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