How CEOs Manage Time: an Ambitious HBR study

Harvard Business Review, and more specifically Michael Porter, recently completed an ambitious study of time management by top CEOs.  Their executive assistants were taught to rigorously record how they spent their time in 15-minute increments for 3 full months.  What he learned was eye-opening, and in Porter’s style, instructive and packed with ideas.

The article, worth reading, is full and involves a commitment of time.  I’ve summarized the key results and unabashedly use many quotes that support their conclusions.

The key takeaways

  1. The Job is All Consuming
  2. They Work Face to Face
  3. They are Agenda Driven
  4. They Rely Heavily on their Direct Reports
  5. They Manage Using Broad Integrating Mechanisms
  6. They are Always in Meetings
  7. They Juggle Many External Constituencies

The Job is All Consuming

These top CEOs worked on average 9.7 hours per weekday and an additional 8 hours through the weekend.  But they also are good at setting limits and boundaries in their lives to make room for their personal well-being.  Half of the roughly 6 hours a day when they were awake and not working were spent with families.

They Work Face to Face

61% of their time was spent working with people in face-to-face communications.  What that meant was flexibility and “some CEOs in [the] study have begun to use video conferencing 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.”

Nearly all the CEOs complained about the siren calls of electronic communications and spoke about the need for real discipline in resisting their call.

They Are Agenda Driven

In the study, each CEO was asked to describe the agenda he or she was pursuing during the three months being tracked.  Each CEO had no trouble providing their particular agenda.  These top CEOs were spending on average 43% of their time furthering those agendas.

“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.”

Those CEOs that were most effective were those who were ensuring that their personal agendas were explicit to others.

Porter warns and suggests 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”…and most importantly, does it fit into their agenda.

They Rely Heavily on their Direct Reports

“We found that it’s critical for each member of the leadership team to have the capabilities to excel and earn the CEO’s full trust and support. Any weaknesses in this group significantly reduce the CEO’s effectiveness, because dealing with work that reports should have handled, and cleaning up after them, eats up valuable time.”

While reliance on their direct reports is a crucial part of their ability to be successful, they cannot abandon those outside the executive circle.  “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 Manage Using Broad Integration Mechanisms

What did he say?  Effectively, CEOs set the strategy but then use processes to ensure compliance.  Most used operating reviews and other regular reviews to monitor organizational progress to their agenda.  But setting the agenda, or strategy, is the most important step.

“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.”

They are Always in Meetings

The top suggestion for improvement here was to delegate attendance at meetings that the CEO may not need to attend.  A relatively significant share of meeting attendance was a result of tradition and could be delegated.  CEOs should also challenge meeting length from a very typical standard of 60 minutes.  Often CEOs confess that those standard meetings could be accomplished in 30 or even 15 minutes.  One CEO recommended, “Whatever they ask for, cut it in half.”

Also, “most of our CEOs were dismayed to discover how little time they spent with their customers—just 3%, on average.”

They Juggle Many External Constituencies

CEOs are regularly being asked for their involvement in community and social issues that are worthy.  “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”  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.


Good leaders matter.  Being a CEO has enormous consequences for everyone in the organization and is a highly challenging role to do well.  There are endless ideas about how to improve time management.  The first step is to understand where time is being taken up, find your priorities, and diligently focus on sticking to that agenda where possible.

Categories: Leadership