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How CEOs manage priorities, allocate their time and energy

New study of for-profit leaders emphasizes importance of a clear agenda

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Aug. 31, 2018
By Lori Sharn

As CEO of SAE International, David Schutt is very aware that how he spends his time—and with whom—is of political and strategic importance.

“I really think through, ‘Where is the CEO necessary?’”said Schutt, who leads an engineering professional association, three other nonprofits and a dozen business lines under the SAE Group umbrella. “Everybody wants the CEO, but is the CEO really necessary to be involved in that?”

CEOs face competing demands from a wide range of stakeholders while running increasingly complicated organizations. How do these chief executives get so much done while keeping so many balls in the air?

An article in the July-August 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review highlights the characteristics of effective leaders, based on a study of how 27 CEOs of large companies actually spent their time—clocked in 15-minute increments—over 13 weeks. Authors Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria of Harvard Business School point out the findings have implications for leaders of all types of organizations, including nonprofits.

A key takeaway from the study: “A clear and effective agenda optimizes the CEO’s limited time; without one, demands from the loudest constituencies will take over, and the most important work won’t get done.”

Schutt shares this focus: “It really is knowing your organization’s goals and knowing where you can add the most value and impact, and having a team around you that’s going to do a great job,” he said.

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Dufrane (left) and Schutt

Finding balance, achieving more
Amy Dufrane, CEO of the HR Certification Institute in Alexandria, Va., has been working with an executive coach to help her zoom in on priorities, both for her group and for herself, and to achieve more in less time. Part of this process has involved “mind mapping” to help clarify what’s most important.

She is also finding success with a tool called “The 12 Week Year,” based on the book and program developed by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington.  The aim is to concentrate on specific goals and achievements during a 12-week period. Dufrane said she is in her third 12-week cycle using this program.

“It makes you get really focused on what’s important and where you can move the needle,” Dufrane said. “What are the things you can shed, push off to somebody else, push down or just say I’m not going to do that in this 12-week period.”

Her executive coach, Moira Lethbridge, helps provide accountability, along with a peer group of leaders connected to each other through Lethbridge.

Lethbridge said what she finds most critical for C-suite executives is thinking time.

“The biggest problem my clients have is they are working in the business and not on the business,” she said. “They get caught in the weeds and need … vision, course and direction.”

Tackling overflowing schedules 
Executive coach Terry Monaghan sees little difference among for-profit and nonprofit executives struggling to stay on top of everything.
 
“There are things they really want to accomplish. In many cases, they have a good idea of what needs to be done, but they don’t know how to fit it into a schedule that is already overflowing, consuming every minute of life,” said Monaghan, owner of consulting firm Time Triage.
 
Often, executives need to learn to delegate effectively, she said.  Women, in particular, often seem predisposed to try to handle it all rather than focusing on what they do uniquely well and offloading everything else.
 
“Especially as you move up in management, and certainly when you’re the head of an organization, saying no is more important than saying yes to what’s on your plate,” Monaghan said.

With her clients, she looks at what they really want to accomplish—not just in their career or current position, but what’s important in their lives. They analyze how the day is structured and who actually controls scheduling the executive’s time.

“Even small steps in this direction lead to a big difference. If you just turn off email most the day and sort through it (later), it will free up time and space to do actual work,” she said.

Knowing self, politics
Being CEO requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, both with knowing when to say no and how you work best, said SAE CEO Schutt. He usually starts his day at 4 a.m., and tries to protect the early morning hours for thinking and pressing projects.

“If I have to get something important and creative done, that’s when I can be the most efficient at it,” Schutt said. “Sometimes I use running time (during these hours) to think things through.”  He usually ends the day between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., but also carves out time for family and running and biking, though he admits to losing many vacation days each year. 

SAE is based near Pittsburgh, but Schutt spends much of his time traveling around the world. He said there’s a very strong human element associated with where the CEO is or isn’t spending his or her time. The presence of the CEO signifies that a constituency or an issue is important, which makes saying no all the more challenging.
 
“I can’t underestimate the importance of understanding the politics, and that’s probably more so in associations than just about anywhere else,” Schutt said.

THE CEO DAY, DISSECTED
Researchers from Harvard Business School closely tracked the schedules of 27 CEOs of large companies for 13 weeks. These CEOs slept an average of 6.9 hours per night and devoted 45 minutes a day to exercise.
The researchers divided CEO work time into three categories and determined the percentage of time devoted to each. They found:

– 61 percent of CEO work time involved primarily face-to-face interactions.
– 15 percent of time was spent on the phone, reading or replying to written correspondence.
– 24 percent of time was spent on electronic interactions. The study authors noted that email is a “dangerous time sink” for many leaders. 

An article about the study by Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria is in the July-August 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review.