Researchers from Harvard University, the London School of Economics and the European University Institute began a-still-ongoing study of how CEOs spend their time in 2011. Raffaella Sadun, Oriana Bandiera, Andrea Prat and Luigi Guiso started collecting data on executives from all over the world in 2011 for “The Executive Time Use Project.”
The researchers chose this focus because defining leadership roles and successful leadership is a very important topic, yet they believed that much of the written text concerning and informing the subject isn’t based on reality. Sadun, Bandiera, Prat and Guiso explained their reasoning in a 2011 Vox article. They point out that business leaders often have to juggle communication, information processing and problem-solving within restricted hours, that leaders are meant to be the public face and the bridge with the outward world for the company. They wondered 1) How do executives allocate time resources? and 2) Does what they spend their time on serve the company overall or their own objectives?
To truly determine how top executives spend their time, the investigators had the personal assistants of CEOs record how the leaders spent their time over the work week. They began with 94 heads of Italian companies and asked the personal assistants to also record whether the CEOs spent time with employees of the company (insiders) or people not directly involved with the organization’s functioning (outsiders.) In addition, the personal assistants recorded what work area the CEO was dealing in when they dealt with insiders (i.e. finances, human resources or marketing) and outsiders (i.e. consultants, investors or supply chain.)
What the researchers found was that the CEOs spent 85 percent of their time with other people instead of working on their own. They spent 42 percent of their time with insiders alone; 25 percent of their time with both insiders and outsiders; and 16 percent of their time with outsiders alone.
This initial study also found that the leaders that worked the longest hours spend more time with employees of the company; that CEOs working for companies with strong governance spend more time with insiders; and that time spent with insiders increases the organization’s productivity.
In Harvard Business School’s newsletter, Working Knowledge, Sadun tells Michael Blanding that the research can help measure a leader’s effectiveness as far as how they are spending their time and that in companies with weaker governance, a CEO may be spending time furthering their own interests rather than the firms’ when they are often with outsiders. She also points out, however, that spending time with outsiders is necessary in some industries but that it is useful for leaders to remember that the time they spend with their own employees can improve productivity.
What did these executives spend their time on? Kimberly Weisul of CBS News reports that in the Italian study, finances got the most attention from CEOs and human resources got the least. Consultants got the most outsider time from leaders while suppliers got the least.
This means that even among leaders that spend more time with their own employees, many aren’t spending enough time to engage workers. Among leaders that spend time with outsiders, it could be said that instead of learning about problems and innovations from the people with the services and products that matter to the company, CEOs are looking for ideas about change for either themselves or the organization.
Weisul also reports that the CEOs of the Italian companies spent 60 percent of their time in meetings, 25 percent of their time on phone calls or at public events, and only 15 percent of their time working alone. This is a fact of business that drives many CEOs crazy.
Rachael Emma Silverman of the Wall Street Journal reports on another look at the CEO study in 2012. In this phase, Sadun worked again with Bandiera and Prat, and also with Harvard colleague Julie Wulf, expanding their research to cover 500 CEOs in total. They found that leaders spend a third of their time in meetings.
The study found that when leaders handled direct reports themselves, they ended up spending much more time in meetings but that this could mean that the CEOs are more “hands-on and involved in internal operations.”
Something that reduces meeting time for leaders is delegating to finance officers and operating officers but many leaders still miss having time to do direct work, to think and strategize, or to have meetings without set agendas to bounce ideas around.
The Executive Time Use Project has also found that how executives think they spend their time differs greatly from how they actually do spend their time. This is very important, Harvard professor Robert Steven Kaplan tells Silverman, because leaders are often surprised by the difference in what they are spending their time on and what their priorities are.
Kaplan believes that top executives really do need to think of time as money–their own time–their own money. “With money…you’d be more careful and judicious about it. If someone asked you for some, you’d be more likely to say no,” he says.