If you’re a CEO, your time is like a sack of cash. Where you spend it can have defining impact on your organization. How you spend that time is a subject of a new study conducted by scholars from the London School of Economics and the Harvard Business School.
One of the central findings of the study, so far, is that CEOs from around the world spend at least a third of their work time in meetings. No surprises there. But within that finding are some subtle insights — and perhaps some tips – about how they manage that time.
The study, known as The Executive Time Use Project, incorporates time logs (of tasks lasting longer than 15 minutes) kept by their assistants over the course of a week (the week was chosen by the researchers). The preliminary findings are being published in a Harvard Business School paper, and were reported recently in The Wall Street Journal.
Executives spent roughly 18 hours of a 55-hour week in meetings, three hours on calls and five hours in business meals. The rest of the time was spent traveling, in personal activities such as exercise, or in short activities such as quick calls. The time they worked alone was just six hours a week. In most cases, the CEOs expressed a desire for more alone time, to think through issues and strategize.
My experience mirrors that of the researchers. Many of the CEOs I work with tell me they value the time they spend driving and flying, just so they can think without interruption. “Airplane time is some of the most valuable time I spend all week,” one executive told me recently. CEOs often express concern that their days take on a life of their own, packed with issues du jour. Those who pay attention to their allotment of time and how they spend it, are more productive, and I notice others around them are, as well.
For example, Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, told The Wall Street Journal, “I’ve got a spreadsheet, it’s got a budget — my time for the year. I give the budget allocation to my administrative assistants. They lay it all out and then anybody who asks for time, they say, Steve, this is in budget, or not in budget, how do you want us to handle it?”
Robert Steven Kaplan, a professor of management practice at Harvard, points out in the Wall Street Journal article that when top executives compare their top priorities to their time use, they are usually surprised about the mismatch. Similar to Ballmer’s approach at Microsoft, he suggests that executives substitute the word “money” for “time,” when deciding how to schedule their week.
I work with a CEO who recently remarked, “If I calculate what my executives make an hour, and multiply it out over how much time we spend in ineffective, redundant meetings each week it adds up to a colossal waste of the company’s money.” I suggested that he do a simple calculation of the average hourly wage of his direct reports and begin his next staff meeting with the cost of spending the next hour together. He reported back that they had a highly productive meeting, which included a candid discussion about how they wanted to structure future meetings.
Some CEOs I know carve out think time by blocking out part of their day, usually early in the morning, to return emails, plan their day, or catch up on reading. Others have a daily huddle with their administrative assistants, who keep a tight guard on their schedule. Many hold one-on-one meetings with direct reports, to minimize interruptions and stay on top of developing issues.
In the study, the more direct reports the CEO has, the more time the CEO spends in meetings —which is no surprise. But if the CEO has a CFO or COO, the effect was significant. More than five hours of meeting time was shaved off of the CEOs calendar, regardless of how many direct reports there were. This is an important finding for any CEO who wants more time for, say, customer interaction or personal think time.
Another interesting finding was the link between who the CEO met with and the company’s performance. In a sample of Italian companies, meetings with external audiences didn’t have an impact on productivity. Better performance came from a focus on internal meetings.
How do you spend your time each week? Maybe you should do a mini-study of your own to see how your time is spent.