CEOs Are Time-Strapped, and Not Always Time-Savvy

A 12-year study of how more than two dozen executives spend their workdays reveals a lot of meetings and travel—and too little time to be proactive.

CEOs are busy. That’s no surprise.

But a new study from Harvard Business School gets into granular detail about how CEOs spend their time and what’s eating at their schedule. Launched in 2006, the study tracked the work days of 27 CEOs for three months each.

CEOs spend an average of 37 meetings a week, while most opportunities for alone time are an hour or less.

The research showed that CEOs work long hours, including during vacations and on weekends: an average of 9.7 hours per weekday, with nearly four more hours on weekends and 2.4 hours on vacation. While the majority of their interactions are face-to-face (61 percent of work time), a lot of that time is spent in meetings. According to the study, CEOs have an average of 37 meetings each week, accounting for 72 percent of their work time.

Such time-consuming interactions are essential to the job, write the study’s authors, Harvard Business School Professor Michael E. Porter and Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria. “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,” they wrote. “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.”

All that activity can breed inefficiency, and the authors note that much of a CEO’s time is taken away from strategy setting and implementing new ideas: The study reports that 36 percent of a CEOs time was spent in “reactive mode, handling unfolding issues, both internal and external.”

However, the writers also have a few tips for CEOs looking to get a better handle on their workdays.

Avoid email as much as possible. CEOs receive too many emails on operational matters best handled by subordinates. “One way for the CEO to stay ahead of the digital avalanche is to have an adept [executive assistant] filter messages and delegate many of them to others before the CEO even sees them,” they write.

Have a vision to help steer your attention. “A good agenda sets priorities for the CEO’s personal involvement over the coming period,” they write. “It is a matrix including both broader areas for improvement and specific matters that need to be addressed.”

Walk the floor. Making time to meet with rank-and-file employees both builds connections and educates the CEO on emerging issues. The authors recommend “periodic lunches, unscheduled visits, and carefully designed field trips to customer and company sites,” as well as group events like town halls.

Schedule extended alone time. Reflection and preparation are essential, but CEOs rarely get a lot of uninterrupted time to do so: Most alone time (59 percent) come in blocks of an hour or less.

Have fewer and shorter meetings. All those meetings can be a drain on a leader’s time or energy. The study’s authors encourage leaders to make them shorter whenever possible. “Whatever they ask for, cut it in half,” said one CEO quoted in the study.

(coffeekai/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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