How CEOs Actually Spend Their Time: It’s Not How You Think


Submitted by Nicholas Colas and Jessica Rabe of DataTrek Research

Legendary Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter and the dean of HBS have a new must-read article out; we have a summary and our take below. The topic: how CEOs actually spend their time. It’s not how you think

When we came across a new study in the Harvard Business Review on how CEOs spend their time, we took notice. Time is especially scarce for CEOs after all, and how they use it sends a message about their priorities and can have a direct impact on their company’s performance.

This 12-year study is particularly important because it is the longest and most comprehensive analysis on CEOs’ time allocations to date and its authors are both rock stars. Starting in 2006, researchers Michael E. Porter (of the famous Porter Model) and Nitin Nohria (the dean of HBS) tracked the activities of 27 CEOs in 15-minute increments, 24 hours of the day for three months each. Most of the companies were public and had an average annual revenue of $13.1 billion.

Here’s how many hours CEOs at these companies worked:

  • They worked 9.7 hours per weekday on average, or 48.5 hours a week
  • Each day on the weekend, they worked about 3.9 hours
  • They also worked 2.4 hours a day on vacation
  • 47% of their work was done at headquarters, with the balance at other “company locations, meeting external constituencies, commuting, traveling, and at home”
  • Grand total: 62.5 hours a week

What they did while working (75% of which was planned and 25% spontaneous):

  • They spent 25% of their time developing people and relationships
  • 25% on functional and business unit reviews
  • 21% on strategy
  • 16% on matching organizational structure and culture with the needs of the business
  • 4% on M&A
  • 4% on operating plans
  • 3% on professional development
  • 1% on crisis management

Time spent with those inside the organization:

  • 33% on direct reports
  • 22% with other senior managers
  • 10% with other managers
  • 5% with other employees
  • The balance they spent with business partners or board members

How they communicated:

  • 61% face-to-face
  • 24% electronic
  • 15% phone and letter
  • 72% of the time they were in meetings vs. 28% alone

As for when they’re not working:

  • They slept for 6.9 hours a night on average
  • They exercised for 45 minutes a day
  • They spent about 3 hours with family and 2.1 hours on downtime for things like watching TV, reading, or hobbies

Overall, CEOs have a lot on their plate and only have a limited amount of time to get everything done. Learning how they delegate their time is an underappreciated window into how a company may perform.

We’ll end with a few takeaways from the article:

  • “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.”
  • CEOs had 37 meetings a week on average that took up 72% of their total work time. Therefore, the study noted that they need to shorten meetings from their default lengths, such as down from an hour, to increase efficiency. Email also wastes time: “CEOs should recognize that the majority of e-mails cover issues that needn’t involve them and often draw them into the operational weeds.”
  • CEOs need to spend more time with lower managers and rank and file employees to “keep them in touch with what is really going on in the company.” It will also help “them model and communicate organizational values throughout the workforce”.

    Additionally, CEOs in the study were surprised by how little time they spend with customers. The study highlighted how customers are a “key source of independent information about the company’s progress, industry trends, and competitors”, after all. One solution: some CEOs “systematically schedule” time with their customers.

As for CEOs’ off time, the study said “most had learned to become very disciplined” about spending time with their family. They also needed activities to “preserve elements of normal life” to keep them “grounded and better able to engage with colleagues and workers”. Moreover, 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)”. This is important advice for any professional to remember.

Link to the study here.

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