The FINANCIAL -- In the lexicon of management, the CEO is the epitome of leadership. Yet surprisingly little is known about this unique role. While CEOs are the ultimate power in their companies, they face challenges and constraints that few others recognize.
Running a large global company is an exceedingly complex job. The scope of the organization’s managerial work is vast, encompassing functional agendas, business unit agendas, multiple organizational levels, and myriad external issues. It also involves a wide array of constituencies—shareholders, customers, employees, the board, the media, government, community organizations, and more. Unlike any other executive, the CEO has to engage with them all. On top of that, the CEO must be the internal and external face of the organization through good times and bad, according to Harvard Business School.
CEOs, of course, have a great deal of help and resources at their disposal. However, they, more than anyone else in the organization, confront an acute scarcity of one resource. That resource is time. There is never enough time to do everything that a CEO is responsible for. Despite this, CEOs remain accountable for all the work of their organizations.
The way CEOs allocate their time and their presence—where they choose to personally participate—is crucial, not only to their own effectiveness but also to the performance of their companies. Where and how CEOs are involved determines what gets done and signals priorities for others. It also affects their legitimacy. A CEO who doesn’t spend enough time with colleagues will seem insular and out of touch, whereas one who spends too much time in direct decision making will risk being seen as a micromanager and erode employees’ initiative. A CEO’s schedule (indeed, any leader’s schedule), then, is a manifestation of how the leader leads and sends powerful messages to the rest of the organization, according to Harvard Business School.
A crucial missing link in understanding the time allocation of CEOs—and making it more effective—has been systematic data on what they actually do. Research on that has tended either to cover a small handful of CEOs, like the 1973 study in which Henry Mintzberg closely observed five chief executives (some of whom led nonprofits) for five days each, or to rely on large surveys that cover short periods (such as our HBS colleague Raffaella Sadun’s 2017 study based on daily phone surveys with 1,114 CEOs from a wide variety of companies in six countries over one week).
Our study, which we launched in 2006, offers the first comprehensive and detailed examination of CEO time use in large, complex companies over an extended period. To date, we have tracked the time allocation of 27 CEOs—two women and 25 men—for a full quarter (three months) each. Their companies, which are primarily public, had an average annual revenue of $13.1 billion during the study period. These leaders were all participants in the New CEO Workshop, an intensive program that every year brings newly appointed CEOs of large companies to Harvard Business School in two cohorts of 10 to 12 each. In total just over 300 CEOs have attended it, according to Harvard Business School.
In the study each CEO’s executive assistant (EA) was trained to code the CEO’s time in 15-minute increments, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, and to regularly verify that coding with the CEO. The resulting data set reveals where, how, and with whom the CEO spent his or her time and on what activities, topics, and tasks. Because it also covers what CEOs do outside of work, we have visibility into how CEOs balance work and personal life. In all, we collected and coded data on nearly 60,000 CEO hours.
Where and how CEOs are involved determines what gets done. It signals priorities.
After CEOs completed the time-tracking phase, we shared their data with them, comparing it with anonymized data of the other CEOs we had studied up to that point. These intensive debriefings often included the CEOs’ reflections on the pressures they faced in managing time, and on their mistakes and lessons learned. We also shared our accumulated data with the participants in each New CEO Workshop. In our discussions, CEOs routinely described managing time as one of their greatest challenges. The observations, questions, and personal approaches to allocating time they shared further enriched our understanding.
In this article one will do three things:
First, we’ll provide a descriptive analysis of the data. How much time do CEOs spend at work versus on personal activities? How much do they spend in meetings versus thinking and reflecting alone? How much do they rely on e-mail versus face-to-face conversation? Do they spend more time inside the company or outside, more with customers or investors? We’ll answer those questions—and many more.
Second, we will offer prescriptions for how CEOs can manage their time more effectively across their many responsibilities. One of our most striking observations is that the way leaders allocate their time varies considerably. Some of this variation reflects differences in their businesses and management practices. However, many time allocation decisions, such as participation in company rituals that offer limited return, reflect legacy norms and cultures, as well as a CEO’s own habits. In our debriefings the CEOs all acknowledged that there were important areas where they could be using their time better. On the basis of these discussions and those with the hundreds of other CEOs in our workshops, we are convinced that every leader can improve his or her time management, according to Harvard Business School.
Finally, we will reflect on what our rich data reveals about the overall role of the CEO. A CEO has to simultaneously manage multiple dimensions of influence, which all contain dualities, or seeming contradictions, that effective CEOs must integrate. Understanding this broader view of the role is essential to success and also provides an important perspective for managing time well.
While our research focuses on the CEO role in large, complex companies, its findings have implications for all leaders (including executives of nonprofits) looking for ways to use their time and influence more effectively.
The Job Is All-Consuming
CEOs are always on, and there is always more to be done. The leaders in our study worked 9.7 hours per weekday, on average. They also conducted business on 79% of weekend days, putting in an average of 3.9 hours daily, and on 70% of vacation days, averaging 2.4 hours daily. As these figures show, the CEO’s job is relentless.
About half (47%) of a CEO’s work was done at company headquarters. The rest was conducted while visiting other company locations, meeting external constituencies, commuting, traveling, and at home. Altogether, the CEOs in our study worked an average of 62.5 hours a week.
Why such a grueling schedule? Because it is essential to the role. Every constituency associated with a company wants direct contact with the person at the top. As much as CEOs rely on delegation, they can’t hand off everything. They have to spend at least some time with each constituency in order to provide direction, create alignment, win support, and gather the information needed to make good decisions. Travel is also an absolute must. You can’t run a domestic company, let alone a global one, from headquarters alone. As a CEO, you have to be out and about, according to Harvard Business School.
Making time for personal well-being.
Given that work could consume every hour of their lives, CEOs have to set limits so that they can preserve their health and their relationships with family and friends. Most of the CEOs in our study recognized that. They slept, on average, 6.9 hours a night, and many had regular exercise regimens, which consumed about 9% of their nonwork hours (or about 45 minutes a day). To sustain the intensity of the job, CEOs need to train—just as elite athletes do. That means allocating time for health, fitness, and rest.
We paid special attention to the 25% of time—or roughly six hours a day—when CEOs were awake and not working. Typically, they spent about half those hours with their families, and most had learned to become very disciplined about this. Most also found at least some hours (2.1 a day, on average) for downtime, which included everything from watching television and reading for pleasure, to hobbies like photography.
The CEO’s job is mentally and physically demanding. Activities that preserve elements of normal life keep CEOs grounded and better able to engage with colleagues and workers—as opposed to distant, detached, and disconnected. CEOs also have to make time for their own professional renewal and development (which our data showed was often the biggest casualty of a packed schedule). And they must be careful, as our colleague Tom DeLong puts it, not to become “like race car drivers and treat home like a pit stop.”
They Work Face-to-Face
The top job in a company involves primarily face-to-face interactions, which took up 61% of the work time of the CEOs we studied. Another 15% was spent on the phone or reading and replying to written correspondence. The final 24% was spent on electronic communications, according to Harvard Business School.
Face-to-face interaction is the best way for CEOs to exercise influence, learn what’s really going on, and delegate to move forward the multiple agendas that must be advanced. It also allows CEOs to best support and coach the people they work closely with. How a CEO spends face-to-face time is viewed as a signal of what or who is important; people watch this more carefully than most CEOs recognize.
Avoiding the lure of e-mail.
In theory, e-mail helps leaders cut down on face-to-face meetings and improve productivity. In reality, many find it ineffective and a dangerous time sink—but one they have trouble avoiding. E-mail interrupts work, extends the workday, intrudes on time for family and thinking, and is not conducive to thoughtful discussions. CEOs are endlessly copied on FYI e-mails. They feel pressure to respond because ignoring an e-mail seems rude, according to Harvard Business School.
CEOs should recognize that the majority of e-mails cover issues that needn’t involve them and often draw them into the operational weeds. Conversely, e-mails from the CEO can create a downward spiral of unnecessary communication and set the wrong norms, especially if the CEO sends them late at night, on weekends, or on holidays. It then becomes easy for everyone in an organization to fall into the bad habit of overusing electronic communications.
Some CEOs in our study have begun to use videoconferencing as an alternative to face-to-face meetings, especially to cut down on travel for themselves and for team members who might otherwise have to come to see them. Although such efficiencies should surely be sought, CEOs must never forget that at its core their job is a face-to-face one.
They Are Agenda Driven
CEOs oversee a large number of organizational units and work streams and countless types of decisions. Our research finds that they should have an explicit personal agenda and that most do. A clear and effective agenda optimizes the CEO’s limited time; without one, demands from the loudest constituencies will take over, and the most important work won’t get done, according to Harvard Business School.
A good agenda sets priorities for the CEO’s personal involvement over the coming period. But it is not unidimensional; rather, it is a matrix including both broader areas for improvement and specific matters that need to be addressed, and it combines time-bound goals with more open-ended priorities.
They Are Always in Meetings
CEOs attend an endless stream of meetings, each of which can be totally different from the one before and the one that follows. Their sheer number and variety is a defining feature of the top job. On average, the leaders in our study had 37 meetings of assorted lengths in any given week and spent 72% of their total work time in meetings.
Making meetings shorter and more effective.
CEOs need to regularly review which meetings are truly needed and which can be delegated, and to let go of ones they were accustomed to in previous roles.
Dimensions of the CEO’s Role and Influence
The data on CEOs’ time use reveals that the sheer complexity of their role—the myriad types of work, activities, and constituencies—is much greater than has previously been documented or perhaps even understood, according to Harvard Business School.
In examining the CEO’s role, we have come to see that their work entails six dimensions of influence. Each involves a duality—a seeming contradiction, akin to yin and yang—that CEOs must manage simultaneously in order to be effective.