18 Ways CEOs Manage Time

Feb 21, 2024 | CEO Best Practices, CEO Insights

In life you can argue whether health or time is our most important asset? In business, Time is everyone’s most valuable resource. And for the most important role in business, chief executive officer, time is scarce with only get 24 hours in a day. CEOs typically have strict schedules, and how they use their time is always one of the most important decisions. Below you will learn 18 ways CEOs manage their time in a timeless study by Harvard Business Review.

As reported by Harvard Business Review on July-August 2018 by Michael E. Porter and Nitin Nohria.

How CEOs Manage Time

1.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.”

2. Avoiding the lure of e-mail.

Forbes states that email consumes 24% of a CEO’s time, and taking control of electronic communication requires discipline and boundaries. CEOs must set proper expectations and norms for what emails they will receive and when they will respond, says Nohria. They also have to be careful about sending email, as it can create a downward spiral of unnecessary communication.

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.

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.

That’s why setting proper expectations and norms for what e-mails the CEO needs to receive—and when he or she will respond—is essential. Norms are necessary for the others in the organization as well, to prevent e-mail from having a cascading effect on everyone, wasting precious hours and intruding on personal time. One way for the CEO to stay ahead of the digital avalanche is to have an adept EA filter messages and delegate many of them to others before the CEO even sees them. In the end, though, there is no substitute for being disciplined about resisting the siren call of electronic communications. This is a topic our CEOs were often animated about, and best practices in this area are still emerging.

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.

3. Advancing the agenda.

Forbes HW this links to Fast company, pls check if Forbes) states that on average, CEOs spend 43% of their time on activities that furthered their agendas, while 36% was spent in a reactive mode, handling issues as they unfold. CEOs spend 28% of their work time alone, but 59% of that is fragmented into blocks of an hour or less. To have time to prepare or do strategic work, CEOs need to claim larger blocks of time away from the office.

Keeping time allocation aligned with CEOs’ top priorities is so crucial that we suggest that every quarter CEOs make a point of looking back at whether their schedule for the previous period adequately matched up with their personal agenda. They should also update the agenda to reflect current circumstances.

CEOs can benefit from making their personal agenda explicit to others. Their EAs and leadership teams both need to know and understand it so that they can stay aligned with it. This understanding will help team members assume ownership of the goals and priorities of the work the CEO needs them to drive.

4. Dealing with unfolding developments.

A good portion of our CEOs’ time (about 36%, on average) was spent in a reactive mode, handling unfolding issues, both internal and external. For many chief executives, it is not immediately clear when and how to address such issues or how much time to devote to them. Say that a member of the CEO’s senior leadership team leaves a meeting looking upset. Should the CEO follow up with that person right away to make sure everything is OK? Should the CEO just wait and let the team member cool off? Sometimes emerging problems seem small at first but balloon into larger distractions if the CEO doesn’t attend to them. In other instances a CEO’s intervention makes an issue bigger than it might have been. It’s essential for CEOs to figure out appropriate responses to these unfolding situations.

Every now and then, CEOs find themselves dealing with a sudden, full-blown crisis—a product or safety failure, a hostile activist’s bid, a serious cyberattack, or even an external catastrophe such as a tsunami or a terrorist attack. Most of our CEOs (89%) spent some time on crises. Though on average it was small (1% of work time during the quarter we tracked), the total amount spent varied a great deal among the leaders in our study. Crises can create make-or-break moments in a CEO’s leadership. In dealing with them, CEOs need to be highly visible and personally involved; the response to such events can’t be delegated. Showing genuine concern for the people affected, avoiding defensiveness, holding everyone together, and creating confidence that the organization will not only survive but emerge stronger are some of the things CEOs need to do during these times.

5. Limiting routine responsibilities.

A surprisingly significant fraction (11%, on average) of our CEOs’ work time was consumed by routine duties. Such activities varied considerably across CEOs, running the gamut from review meetings to board meetings, earnings calls, and investor days.

Operating reviews are a major component of a CEO’s routine tasks. Their number, frequency, and length ranged widely across the leaders we studied, and our discussions suggested that some CEOs—especially those who had been COOs—overinvested in reviews that could be delegated to direct reports.

The ability of CEOs to control what we term “have-to-dos” was also quite variable. Have-to-dos include rituals such as giving welcome talks to new employees. These can play an important symbolic role and help reinforce the company’s values and culture. By thoughtfully choosing which of these events to attend, CEOs can set the tone of their relationship with the organization. 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.

Our discussions suggest that CEOs need to take a hard look at every activity that falls into the routine and have-to-do categories. They must ask whether it serves an important purpose or is simply a company habit, something instituted by the predecessor, or a carryover from the CEO’s previous role.

6. Staying connected to other managers.

The CEOs in our study also spent considerable time (32% of their time with internal constituencies, on average) with a broader group of senior leaders, often called the top 100 (plus or minus). Many in this group report to the CEO’s direct reports. We found that time with this next level of leadership was well spent. The top 100 are often the driving force for execution in the organization, and direct contact with the CEO can help align and motivate them. These leaders are also key to succession planning: Some will be candidates to replace the company’s most senior executives. Given that the people at this level are often a generation younger, a few may eventually even be candidates to succeed the CEO. So getting to know them personally can be very useful.

Not surprisingly, the CEOs in our study spent less time with lower-level managers (14%, on average) and even less time with rank-and-file employees (about 6%, on average). However, our research suggests that effective CEOs need to be careful to maintain a human face in the organization. They must stay approachable and find ways to meaningfully engage with employees at all levels. This not only keeps them in touch with what is really going on in the company but helps them model and communicate organizational values throughout the workforce.

Direct human contact with the rank and file also grounds CEOs and helps them understand employees’ reality. CEOs face a real risk of operating in a bubble and never seeing the actual world their workers face. Relationships with employees at multiple levels also build a CEO’s legitimacy and trustworthiness in the eyes of employees, which is essential to motivating them and winning their support.

7. Knowing what is going on.

Spending time with the rank and file, and with savvy external frontline constituencies, is also an indispensable way to gain reliable information on what is really going on in the company and in the industry. This is a major CEO challenge. Some CEOs get frontline contact by walking the hallways and factory floors, and using mechanisms like periodic lunches, unscheduled visits, and carefully designed field trips to customer and company sites. Others use group interactions, such as town halls, to foster genuine and open conversations with a large cross section of employees (rather than present slide decks). Our data indicates that CEOs have varying success in carving out time for such steps, however.

8. Harnessing strategy.

The CEO’s single most powerful lever is ensuring that every unit—and the company as a whole—has a clear, well-defined strategy. Strategy creates alignment among the many decisions within a business and across the organization. By spending time on strategy, a CEO provides direction for the company, helps make its value proposition explicit, and defines how it will compete in the marketplace and differentiate itself from rivals. Strategy also provides clarity on what the company will not do. A compelling strategy—if well understood throughout the organization—is motivating and energizing. And without clarity on strategy, the CEO will be drawn into too many tactical decisions.

In large, complex firms, CEOs can almost never spend enough time on strategy—they must constantly be working to shape it, refine it, communicate it, reinforce it, and help people recognize when they may be drifting from it. CEOs must also ensure that the strategy is renewed from time to time and based on changes in the environment. Portfolio choices such as divestitures, mergers, and acquisitions are critical to strategy, and a CEO must be personally involved with them.

9. Aligning organizational structure and culture.

To foster appropriate decisions across the company, the organization’s structure needs to be aligned with its strategy. Otherwise, the CEO will be drawn into endless adjudication among units. It can also become a big drain on the CEO and others if the organization is constantly lurching from one structure to another.

Culture—which encompasses an organization’s values, beliefs, and norms—is another key CEO lever for reinforcing strategy and influencing how the organization as a whole goes about doing its work. CEOs can shape a company’s culture in many ways, from the time they spend talking about it at various forums, to personally living the valued behaviors, to recognizing, rewarding, and celebrating those who exemplify the desired culture while taking corrective action with those who don’t. It is the CEO’s job to champion the organization’s culture and constantly look for opportunities to strengthen it.

10. Designing, monitoring, and improving processes.

CEOs must ensure that the company’s strategy is being well executed. This will occur when the organization has rigorous processes through which work—such as marketing plans, pricing, product development, and strategy development itself—is done. Good processes bring together the best organizational knowledge and keep the CEO from continually having to override decisions.

Formal reviews are essential to monitoring whether the company is delivering the required process performance. Though these consume a quarter of a CEO’s total work time, they allow CEOs to track progress, provide regular feedback, uphold high standards, and ensure timely course corrections. Reviews are also necessary to make sure that lessons learned are used to enhance the various processes through which work gets done.

However, excessive participation in reviews can get the CEO too involved in the company’s operations and mired in unnecessary details. We talked a lot with the CEOs in our study about this problem. We have found, again and again, that many have a hard time shedding the COO or president roles they may have previously held. Some also forget that their senior team should bear the primary responsibility for many reviews and keep the CEO informed on a regular basis.

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.

11. Developing people and relationships.

Building the company’s leadership pipeline is an important CEO function in its own right. We have found that CEOs must be personally committed to and be involved in improving the quality of the company’s leaders. They cannot just leave this task to HR. Leadership choices are also pivotal in shaping the company’s culture. Who gets hired, promoted, or fired signals what is truly valued by the CEO and the company.

CEOs need to get the most out of an organization’s talent, and to do that, they must forge personal connections. Our CEOs spent another quarter of their total work time in meetings that focused on building relationships. When trust is mutual, delegation comes more naturally, agreement is easier to reach, and less monitoring and follow-up are necessary. Good relationships also make people more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when you need it—and to tell you the truth, which is invaluable at the top.

The time CEOs spend building social capital through a network of personal relationships has many benefits and is time well spent.

12. Making meetings shorter and more effective.

Forbes states that CEOs attend an average of 37 meetings each week, consuming 72% of their total work time. CEOs need to regularly review which are truly needed and which can be delegated.

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.

They should also take a hard look at meeting length. In our study, meetings that lasted an hour accounted for 32% of a CEO’s meetings, on average. Meetings that were longer accounted for 38%, and shorter meetings, 30%. We found that the length of meetings was often a matter of organizational or personal habit or both—a default length (like one hour) was the norm.

“Standard” meeting times should be revisited with an eye toward shortening them. Doing this can significantly enhance a CEO’s efficiency. In our debriefs, CEOs confessed that one-hour meetings could often be cut to 30 or even 15 minutes. Another good way to streamline things is to reset meeting norms: Every meeting should have a clear agenda, and to minimize repetition, attendees should come prepared. Effective CEOs spread these meeting norms throughout the organization.

Some CEOs were worried that they might appear standoffish if someone asked for an hour and the CEO (or the EA) offered 30 minutes. But we have found that meeting length is worth confronting. “Whatever they ask for, cut it in half,” said one CEO.

Another important meeting attribute is the number and composition of attendees. One-on-one meetings were the most common (accounting for 42% of CEOs’ meetings, on average), followed by meetings with two to five participants (21%). Although every CEO had meetings involving large groups of 50 or more—like town halls, leadership off-sites, or all-company meetings—these were infrequent (5% of meetings).

The emphasis on one-on-one and small group meetings makes sense for enabling delegation and relationship building, and allows confidentiality. But leaders should also look for opportunities to bring the right people together. An essential part of the CEO’s role is to align various internal and external constituencies around a common understanding of issues, decisions, and action agendas. Having the right people in the room is a powerful way to build that alignment and avoid the need for repetitive, time-consuming interactions to bring everyone along.

13. Allowing for accessibility and spontaneity.

The vast majority of our CEOs’ time (75%, on average) was scheduled in advance. The CEOs initiated more than half (51%) of their meetings themselves.

While controlling the nature and number of meetings is essential, we also found that CEOs need to regularly set aside time for more spontaneous interaction (which represented 25% of their work time in our study). This frees up space for same-day appointments initiated by others, for opportune conversations or meetings, and for responding to unfolding events.

The amount of time our CEOs allowed for spontaneous meetings varied considerably, ranging from 3% to 61%. In our debriefings, CEOs who discovered that they had left little room for spur-of-the-moment meetings were often surprised and quick to recognize the need for change.

Spontaneity and accessibility enhance a CEO’s legitimacy. 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. EAs play a key role in finding the right balance here.

14. Carving out alone time.

It’s also vital for CEOs to schedule adequate uninterrupted time by themselves so that they can have space to reflect and prepare for meetings. In our study, CEOs spent 28% of their work time alone, on average—but again, that varied a great deal, from a low of 10% to a high of 48%. Unfortunately, too much of this alone time (59% of it) was fragmented into blocks of an hour or less; too little (18%) was in blocks of two hours or longer. CEOs need to cordon off meaningful amounts of alone time and avoid dissipating it by dealing with immediate matters, especially their in-boxes. This proved to be a common problem among the CEOs in our study, who readily acknowledged it.

Given that time in the office is easily eaten up, alone time outside the office is particularly beneficial. Long-distance travel out of contact with the office often provides critical thinking time, and many CEOs swear by it. To capitalize on it, CEOs should avoid traveling with an entourage.

15. Finding time for customers.

Most of our CEOs were dismayed to discover how little time they spent with their customers—just 3%, on average. It surprised some even more to learn that this was less than the amount they spent with consultants. The scant time devoted to customers is partly a function of the huge scope of internal responsibilities: As an executive ascends from managing a line of business (which involves more-frequent customer contact) to the job of leading the entire company, it is natural for customer-facing time to decline.

Nonetheless, the CEOs in our study clearly felt that 3% was too low. Customers are a key source of independent information about the company’s progress, industry trends, and competitors. In the B2B space, meeting with customers’ CEOs is highly valuable, since peer conversations can be very candid. In B2C companies, there are also rich opportunities for customer contact. For retail CEOs, for example, store visits—especially unannounced ones—are an indispensable way to talk to regular customers, not just the company staff.

Some CEOs systematically schedule time with customers. The CEO of a financial services firm in our study, for instance, aims to meet face-to-face with one customer a day. A manufacturing CEO allocates two days a month to customer visits. Other CEOs try to build customer visits into their travel. A habit of some type seems to be the most reliable way to ensure enough customer time.

16. Limiting time with investors.

On average, our CEOs spent only 3% of their total work time on investors. Most of them found this surprising; they tended to believe they spent more. But while more time is likely to be better when it comes to customers, the same is not true with investors. Too many meetings with investors can easily become a time sink and can draw the CEO into trying to manage the stock price rather than focusing on business fundamentals. Staying in touch with a few key buy-side investors, doing quarterly calls, and holding an annual investor day may be all a CEO needs to do—unless, of course, the company is dealing with serious investor unrest or activism. By and large, the CEOs in our study seem to have discovered such focus over time, after getting caught up early in their tenures in too much investor relations.

17. Limiting unrelated outside commitments.

There is a real risk that CEOs will get distracted by outside activities not directly connected to the business, where they are in high demand and which often involve worthy community and social issues. Such activities consumed an average of almost 2% of the work time of the CEOs in our study. While CEOs should give back to their communities and play the role of business states people, they should carefully restrict the hours they personally spend on such activities and on participating in business groups. Though the CEO’s presence can be important, overseeing and managing such work does not require the CEO and can be delegated to direct reports, for whom it is motivational and provides professional development opportunities.

18. Finding time for directors.

All our CEOs understood the importance of spending time with their boards. In our study, interacting with directors accounted for 5% of CEOs’ total work time, or 41 hours a quarter, on average. But again, we saw significant variation: One CEO spent six hours with directors; another spent 165.

A CEO must never forget that the board is his or her boss and that “managing up” is vital to success. However, that involves more than board meetings, committee meetings, and board retreats; CEOs must find time to build meaningful one-on-one relationships with individual directors. This is essential to take advantage of each board member’s particular expertise and perspective. At board meetings, it’s often not clear where each director is coming from, but that knowledge is crucial in crises and when dealing with controversial topics. CEOs also need to keep the directors well informed and engage with them between meetings through newsletters and updates. A common understanding and alignment with the board is important in periods of stress or market challenge.

Additional Time Management Resources

CEO Resolutions for Success in 2024: Navigating Challenges and Driving Growth

20 Essential Qualities of a Successful CEO

How To Build Balance Success As A Top Executive


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