A 12-Year Study of Successful CEOs Reveals Their 5 Most Important Habits
Being the CEO of a massive company is a surprisingly hard life.
Sure, they make loads of money—an average of $12.1 million in 2017—and have untold resources at their disposal, including other executives and employees under them.
But a new report from Harvard Business Review detailing a major 12-year study of CEOs reveals that top executives are sorely lacking in one crucial area: time. CEOs are the internal and external faces of a company and, ultimately, responsible for everything that happens within the organization. They must engage “shareholders, customers, employees, the board, the media, government, community organizations, and more,” the report says. Given that, they could work nonstop and still have plenty left to do. So how do they best manage their schedule?
The study tracked time allocation of 27 CEOs—two women and 25 men—for a quarter, or three months, each. Their companies, largely public, had an average annual revenue of $13.1 billion. Data looked at what chief executives do at work and outside of it, and researchers discussed results and areas of potential improvement with subjects. Here are important takeaways about the productivity secrets anyone can learn from head honchos across the US.
Prize face-to-face interaction
We all know the flood of work emails. CEOs aren’t exempt from that pressure. The study found that email, though efficient in theory, is often ineffective and a time sink, but leaders have trouble avoiding their inbox. “CEOs are endlessly copied on FYI emails. They feel pressure to respond because ignoring an email seems rude,” HBR notes.
The fix, for managers or anyone else, is relatively simple: Understand the difference between emails that don’t need action and ones that do. Sending lots, especially at odd times, gives the wrong signal to staffers.
Instead, emphasizing video conference and, even better, face-to-face communication is key. It’s the “best way for CEOs to exercise influence, learn what’s really going on, and delegate to move forward the multiple agendas that must be advanced,” the report says. It also adds human connection that builds trust and unity.
Make a clear agenda—and let others know it
With so many issues coming to their desk, CEOs need to figure out where their priorities lie. “Our research finds that they should have an explicit personal agenda and that most do,” the report finds. Without one, their limited time will be overtaken by various factions, “and the most important work won’t get done.”
An agenda can be as simple as a to-do list written on a Post-it, or a more elaborate setting of goals for a longer length of time. On average, CEOs studied spent 43% of time on items furthering their agendas, and felt better when devoting more time to those tasks. It’s also important to update agendas as necessary to align with overall missions, and announce them to leadership and team members so everyone works cohesively.
Trust and rely on the people directly under you
The person at the top is only as good as their direct reports. Those underneath them “span all the key elements of the business and offer CEOs the greatest opportunity for leverage,” the report says. “The leadership team, working together, can be the glue that helps the CEO integrate the company and get the work done.” The research found that 46% of a CEO’s time was spent with one of more direct reports, and leaders were more likely to spend time with those employees when they had higher confidence in them.
On the flip side, weaknesses in your closest team can create significant problems. CEOs’ “number-one regret was not setting high enough standards in selecting direct reports,” the research found. Leaders need to stay connected to departments across an organization to further goals. If they’re siloed, they’re setting themselves up for failure.
Keep meetings short and efficient
Many of us wish we could escape the barrage of meetings in corporate life. But for a CEO, who’s responsible for everything, yet can only personally do so much, hashing out matters in a group setting is necessary to achieve solutions and dictate strategies. Leaders in the study spent an astounding 72% of their total work time in meetings.
That doesn’t mean they’re always effective. Some meetings can drag on for no reason except habit, the research found. “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,” HBR says. Leaders should also have an eye toward shortening meetings to make them more efficient. Many can simply be cut in half, leaving time for everything else you should confront.
Separate work life from personal life
A CEO’s job is all-consuming, as HBR points out. They’re constantly working, and could always do more. Leaders in the study worked an average 9.7 hours per weekday, 3.9 hours daily on weekends, and 2.4 hours daily during vacation. They totaled an average 62.5 hours of work a week. “The CEO’s job is relentless,” HBR says. He or she has to spend time with every constituency in an organization, and can’t hand off everything. Travel is essential.
To combat that time crunch, CEOs can’t wear themselves out by overpacking their schedule, tempting as it may be. “CEOs have to set limits so that they can preserve their health and their relationships with family and friends,” HBR finds. Leaders in the study concurred, sleeping on average 6.9 hours a night. Many exercised regularly, with fitness taking up about 45 minutes a day. “To sustain the intensity of the job, CEOs need to train—just as elite athletes do,” the report concludes. And leaders also spend off-time with their family and on hobbies. All of those things together help preserve your physical and mental health to prepare you for the next work hurdle. Without those, you can never be fully productive.