Time Management for CEOs (and everyone)

Harvard Business Review recently published an article about a study they did based on how 27 CEOs allocated their time over the course of a business quarter — 24/7 for 13 weeks.

We found this study valuable in how it highlights both the dilemmas that arise in different areas of an organization and describes various means of coping with them. While CEO is a very specific role in an organization, many of these lessons can be applied to managers in traditional corporate hierarchies and any number of roles in organizations that have done away with traditional management structures. Some of our key takeaways follow.

Delegating and empowering others while still staying in touch with the tactical organizational climate/culture

Delegating work allows specialists to excel, operators to thrive, and managers to focus. On the receiving end, having work given to you affirms a certain degree of trust that you can handle the work.

But in delegating most/all work, you can easily lose touch with what is happening throughout the organization. Leaders often choose not to delegate for the specific purpose of staying involved in the more tactical levels of operations (or because they just want something done their way). However, it’s important to exercise consideration when making that choice. Will your choosing not to delegate be perceived as micromanagement and thus disempower those around you? Will it consume your time with a task that could reasonably be assumed by others? Or is your completing the work yourself the best alternative for the organization?

One area where leaders sometimes bypass delegating, according to the HBR article, is in conducting performance reviews. Rather than talk to their direct reports about how their downline employees are doing, CEOs go directly to the downline team members. However, doing so can disempower the management in between and create confusion in the culture and reporting structure.

The recommendation for circumnavigating this problem is to delegate the work as appropriate and repurpose some of the time saved to have other interactions that will provide organizational insight. Casual lunches with non-direct reporting team members, site visits, customer meetings, etc. can all provide tactical insight, and moreover, allow leaders to influence the culture in proactive ways.

Advancing a core agenda while managing ongoing demands that inevitably arise

One of the keys for leadership positions is having a core agenda that you are driving forward. Knowing what you want to accomplish, whether prescribed by others (investors, boards, bosses, etc.) or self-defined, by no means guarantees that agenda will advance. While there are many contributing factors inhibiting progress, including time management, organization, and dependencies, to name a few, arguably the most likely factors are the urgent items that seem to present themselves on an ongoing basis. Calls from customers, PR problems, unanticipated project delays, support to your team(s), and ancillary meetings are just a few examples of the distractions that delay core agenda execution. Or, to borrow from Stephen Covey, the ‘Important’.

To stay on top of what is ‘Important’ while still managing the ‘Urgent’, leaders must have a solid system in place for determining and managing their schedules, identifying the work — the specific next steps — required to advance the Important, and to ensure that work is either scheduled personally or delegated as appropriate. In the absence of clear tasks, the Urgent will always overtake the Important.

Increasing both in-person face time with all levels of the organization — investors, co-workers, customers, and any other stakeholders — and making sure to have dedicated alone time to focus on key areas, reflect, and plan.

This insight and the next both are inextricably linked to the previous two in that they require discipline in time management, diligence toward a core agenda, and an openness to a broad spectrum of interaction. We have seen already how interacting with various stakeholders increases your overall operational perspective, both internally and externally, and from the tactical to the strategic. However, it is equally imperative to ensure alone time. No one can be optimally effective without taking the time to reflect, to assimilate, and to think strategically.

While telecommuting and web-based meetings proliferate under the guise of increased productivity (not losing time in travel), some CEOs in the study consciously scheduled meetings in remote locations to force travel time which gave rise to alone time. While online accessibility — wifi and cellular connections — almost guarantee one can opt to never be alone (meetings, calls, checking emails, etc.), these CEOs leveraged commuting, whether locally or on a long flight, which provided much needed time to focus without distraction.

Planning your schedule to maximize efficacy while allowing for spontaneity

We have established the need to plan. We know we need to ensure that we are delegating. We need to be meeting with key stakeholders. We need to stay focused on the Important amidst the Urgent. But the fact is, you simply cannot pre-program everything. You both need to find opportunity to be spontaneous in your own work/schedule and to accommodate events that spontaneously arise. How do we do that?

The key is to leave room in your schedule. Book shorter meetings so you have more time in between. One CEO reported scheduling lunch alone for 30 minutes each day, which gave him the option of going solo or inviting someone along spontaneously (also giving the opportunity for one-on-one conversations with people whom he might not otherwise schedule a formal meeting). While you may not be able to do it everyday, you will be able to ensure many of your days have some flexibility, allowing you the space to incorporate the urgent, the casual, the fun, the interesting, or even some extra alone.

Consistent with just about every other time management piece ever assembled, this article underscored the need to proactively manage your schedule from the top down. You cannot have a reactive calendar and advance a core agenda at the same time. Reactivity simply does not allow for that. This stands true for not only where you spend how much time and with whom while working, but also the need to proactively plan time for family, exercise, and recreation.

A visual snapshot, consolidating almost 60,000 hours of time of some of the most influential business leaders of our day is below:

While these are just some of the key extrapolations from the article, we feel it’s a good summary for those who don’t wish to read more. That said, the article is a great way to inspire additional thinking and we would be happy to read it again, and encourage you to do the same. You can find the full article here: https://hbr.org/2018/07/the-leaders-calendar