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A New Study Examines How Successful CEOs Use Their Time — And Entrepreneurs Should Take Notice

A recent in-depth, 12-year study from Harvard University demonstrates how CEOs manage the most significant resource we all have in common — time.

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BY Peter Gasca - 21 Jun 2018

A New Study Examines How Successful CEOs Use Their Time -- And Entrepreneurs Should Take Notice

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

News Flash: Running a business is hard.

In addition to the challenges of finding and acting on inspiration and developing your company's four S's, entrepreneurs also have the important responsibility of leading and nurturing the business every single day. A busy entrepreneur soon finds out that time is the most valuable and scarce resource available and effectively managing it can make the difference between success and failure.

A recently released study by Nitin Nohria and Michael Porter of Harvard Business School demonstrates how CEOs of large companies spend their time. The outcome of this 12-year study is as much a validation for struggling entrepreneurs as it is a deep dive into the minds of successful business leaders.

The decade-long study included data from 25 CEOs (two women) of publicly traded companies with average annual revenues of $13 billion. The research tracked these CEO's activities and actions every day, 24 hours per day, with details down to 15-minute intervals.

As you can imagine, the results were extremely detailed and profound.

Now, you may not be managing a multi-billion dollar company (yet), but all business leaders need to understand that how they spend their time influences their ability to lead. Spend too little time with your constituents and you will seem to your team as aloof and insensitive, but spend too much time and you could be seen as a micromanager that stifles creativity and motivation.

In the end, understanding the role of founders and CEOs and how they allocate their time in the business is critical for understanding how companies leverage great leaders to grow.

As Porter and Nohria point out, "any leader's schedule ... is a manifestation of how the leader leads and sends powerful messages to the rest of the organization."

Here are some of the most compelling results from the study.

  • CEOs worked on average 9.7 hours per weekday

  • Altogether, CEOs worked an average of 62.5 hours a week

  • CEOs conducted business for 79 percent of weekend days and 70 percent of vacation days

  • Over half (53 percent) of a CEO's work was done outside of headquarters, "visiting company locations, meeting external constituencies, commuting, traveling, and at home."

In general, just like new entrepreneurs, a CEO's time is needed throughout the organization. Moreover, CEOs are just as susceptible to the Entrepreneur's Curse, or the inability to "turn off" the business. This should not be a surprise, but it should serve as a warning to anyone who believes that leading an organization involves the responsibilities of a regular full-time job.

Meetings were also a major part of a CEO's time. On average, the CEOs in the study averaged 37 meetings every week and spent 72 percent of their overall work time in meetings. The duration and quality of the meeting varied, but the time spent did not. In general:

  • 61 percent of the CEO's time at work was dedicated to face-to-face meetings

  • 15 percent was dedicated to phone or reading activities and replying to written correspondence

  • The remaining 24 percent was spent on electronic communications

The study was not all about work, however, and delved into the "off hours" spent by CEOs, which accounted for about six hours per day. During this time:

  • About three hours, or half of the off hours, was spent with families

  • About 2.1 hours a day, on average, was dedicated to individual downtime, which included everything from consuming media for pleasure or indulging in hobbies

  • CEO's slept, on average, 6.9 hours a night

  • For many, physical fitness accounted for nine percent of nonwork hours, or roughly 45 minutes a day

While CEOs were extremely focused while at work, most put as much emphasis on maximizing the quantity and quality of the time spent outside of work, which included mental and physical health. Maybe more compelling is the fact that CEOs in the study were extremely disciplined about maintaining this part of their routine, prioritizing these non-work related activities for a more balanced life.

The takeaway from this study is simple: CEOs (and entrepreneurs) cannot do everything, and how they effectively manage and allocate their time is not only important for the health of the company, but also for themselves. So, if you struggle to manage your time or to understand how you should be spending it, look to these results as your guide to help you better understand what successful CEOs are doing.

What do you think? How have you found to be the most effective use of your time? Please share your valuable feedback in the comments below.

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