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    Chris Harrop
    Chris Harrop
    Portions reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review. Excerpts From “How CEOs Manage Time” by Michael E. Porter and Nitin Nohria, July-August 2018. Copyright ©2018 by Harvard Business Publishing; all rights reserved

    Believe it or not, CEOs sleep. In fact, you might be surprised by how much: 6.9 hours a night on average.

    That insight comes from a study launched in 2006 by Michael E. Porter, university professor, Harvard Business School, and Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School, to track the time allocation for 27 chief executives, all of whom were part of the New CEO Workshop at Harvard Business School.

    Those CEOs — generally leading large, complex companies — regularly said that managing time was one of their greatest challenges.

    The study’s findings, published in the July-August 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review, reflect what most of us know broadly but not specifically: “a CEO’s schedule … is a manifestation of how the leader leads and sends powerful messages to the rest of the organization,” according to the authors.

    How did they manage to figure out the wildly complex schedules of those CEOs? They went right to the source, asking those responsible for building the schedules: their executive assistants (EAs). The participating CEOs’ EAs coded CEO time in 15-minute increments 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and then verified their codings with the CEO for accuracy.

    More than 60,000 CEO hours were collected and coded, representing not just work time, but also work-life balance data.

    By the numbers

    A descriptive analysis of the study data found:
    • A CEO’s average workday lasts 9.7 hours during a normal work week.
    • CEOs worked an average of 3.9 hours on weekend days and 2.4 hours on vacation days.
    • CEOs spent an average of 62.5 hours a week working.
    • When it comes to exercise, CEOs worked out an average of 45 minutes a day.
    • The bulk of CEO work time (61%) involves face-to-face interaction, followed by 24% of time with electronic communications and 15% devoted to phone calls, reading and written correspondence.
    • Less than half (47%) of work done by CEOs is at company headquarters.
    For example, the study authors found that 25% of any given day (about six hours a day) involved CEOs being awake and not working.

    While time devoted to specific areas varied, the authors were “convinced that every leader can improve his or her time management” while meeting the duties asked of a modern CEO.

    Setting an agenda

    A primary recommendation from the study authors was to have a personal agenda for work that extends into time management: “Without one, demands from the loudest constituencies will take over,” Porter and Nohria wrote.

    For the CEOs who took part in the study, the authors urged a quarterly review to make sure the finished, coded schedule was aligned with their personal agendas as to how they wanted to lead.

    While most leaders attempt to convey a proactive mindset, about 36% of CEO time “was spent in reactive mode, handling unfolding issues, both internal and external.” While time spent handling crises was limited (1% on average), most CEOs (89%) spent some amount of time putting out proverbial fires.

    Another area the authors cited for maximizing leader effectiveness was limiting routine responsibilities. On average, 11% of CEO time involved routine duties, including review meetings, board meetings, earnings calls and the like.

    “Some CEOS — especially those who had been [chief operating officers] — overinvested in reviews that could be delegated to direct reports,” the authors wrote.

    To that end, about half of CEO time with internal employees (46%) was with one or more direct reports, usually with those who had built up more trust with the leader. “CEOs were more likely to spend time with reports present when they had greater confidence in them,” the authors noted.

    All of these choices reflect how that individual leader makes choices and builds organizational culture from them. The study found large variance in the time spent with “have-to-dos,” such as welcoming new employees.

    “By thoughtfully choosing which of these events to attend, CEOs can set the tone of their relationship with the organization,” the authors wrote. “Yet a CEO must be disciplined about ensuring that feel-good activities don’t collectively take up more time than he or she can afford.”

    Digital discipline

    Personal discipline also can be measured in a leader’s use of emails. After reviewing the 27 chief executives’ coded schedules, the authors recommended using an EA to filter incoming messages. In numerous instances, issues can be delegated before the CEO actually sees them.

    But even with such assistance, CEOs face the same temptation to spend time on email as everyone else within the organization.

    “In the end, though, there is no substitute for being disciplined about resisting the siren call of electronic communications,” the authors wrote.

    Making meetings count

    The American office is an arena for battling over just how many meetings make sense for business to get done.

    The Harvard study found that CEOs on average have 37 meetings in a given week, spending 72% of total work time in those meetings.

    The key to cutting back? The authors recommend rethinking your standard meeting time. Is an hour necessary, or would 30 or even 15 minutes work better? Confronting meeting length is a crucial step to better time management: “whatever they ask for, cut it in half,” one CEO said of requests for meeting time.

    For the CEOs studied, they tended to favor smaller meetings: 42% of meetings were one-on-one, and another 21% were with two to five participants.

    “Emphasis on one-on-one and small group meetings makes sense for enabling delegating and relationship building and allows confidentiality,” the authors noted.

    The role of decision-making was further underscored in looking at the variance among leaders in the time they allowed for spontaneous meetings, from 3% to 61%. “Spontaneity and accessibility enhance a CEO’s legitimacy,” the authors wrote. “Leaders whose schedules are always booked up or whose EAs see themselves as gatekeepers and say ‘no’ to too many people risk being viewed as imperious, self-important or out of touch.”

    The study also noted that CEOs who travel with an entourage of direct reports might seem as though they have found a way to boost informal meeting time, but that time may be better used for alone time to reflect and prepare for meetings.

    “Long-distance travel out of contact with the office often provides critical thinking time, and many CEOs swear by it,” the authors wrote.

    Time to strategize

    Broad mechanisms help ensure good choices and work throughout an organization. Setting strategy, functional and business unit reviews and developing people and relationships were top integrating mechanisms for the CEOs surveyed.

    “The CEO’s single most powerful lever is ensuring that every unit … has a clear, well-defined strategy” to create alignment among decision-makers organizationwide, the authors wrote. But reviews can be cumbersome: “When CEOs fail to delegate reviews to direct reports who can handle them, they erode the autonomy and accountability of their management teams. That doesn’t help CEOs get the best out of others.”

    The number one regret for CEOs studied “was not setting high-enough standards in selecting direct reports,” specifically as it relates to those direct reports’ ability to focus beyond present-day conditions and think about future planning.
    Chris Harrop

    Written By

    Chris Harrop

    A veteran journalist, Chris Harrop serves as managing editor of MGMA Connection magazine, MGMA Insights newsletter, MGMA Stat and several other publications across MGMA. Email him.

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