The study conducted by Harvard Business Review monitored how CEOs spend their time

By Daniel Herborn


Posted on June 22, 2018

Twenty-seven CEOs (including 25 men and two women) were shadowed for the project in order to gain a greater understanding of how exactly they spent both their working hours and personal time. The companies they led had an average annual revenue of US$13.1 billion.

The research process, conducted by Michael E. Porter and Nitin Nohria, took place over a period of 12 years and tracked each CEO for a 13-week period. It recorded how they spend their time in 15-minute increments 24 hours a day, seven days a week and gives an insight into the notoriously tricky issue of work-life balance at the upper echelons of business leadership.

The results have now been published in the July August edition of the magazine.

Talking to CNN on 18 June 2018, Porter said: “We found that time is indeed the scarcest resource.

“Their time, where they spend it and who they spend it with is enormously challenging because there are so many agendas and things they are responsible for. They just can’t do it all.”

The CEOs in the study worked an average of 62.5 hours a week with an average of 9.7 working hours per weekday.

The study also confirmed the work of a CEO regularly extends outside standard business hours with the participating CEOs conducting business on 79% of weekend days. They worked an average of 3.9 hours a day on Saturdays and Sundays.

Vacation days were only nominally work-free for these CEOs, who worked on 70% of vacation days at an average of 2.4 hours per day.

The authors of the study point out that how a CEO spends their time forms a major part of their legacy as an executive. It is a crucial component of how they are perceived within their company; if they are removed from the day-to-day work of their staff they may be seen as aloof and disconnected. Conversely, if they are intimately involved in the work of their reports they may be condemned as micromanagers.

In an increasingly digital age, face-to-face contact was still paramount for the participating CEOs and 61% of their working hours were spent interacting with others face-to-face. Harvard Business Review concluded this is 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 authors also note the role of CEO has physical demands as well as mental ones. In light of this, they wrote, “CEOs need to train – just as elite athletes do. That means allocating time for health, fitness and rest.”

Many of the CEOs in the study had implemented daily fitness regimes and the authors describe discipline as an essential component of their busy lives.

Tom Gentile, CEO of Spirit AeroSystems, was one of the participants. He said that he would make an effort to switch to shorter but more purposeful meetings after having read the findings.

He also shared the authors’ concerns over the increasing use of e-mail in business. “Email is impersonal and reactive,” he said. “CEOs have to stay human and be authentic, and you can’t do that via email.”

Takeaways from the research

The authors also drew on their extensive research to make some recommendations for CEOs.

Some of their key advice included:

  • Leaders should aim for efficiency in meetings. Setting a clear agenda for each meeting and coming prepared can help with this goal.
  • Executives should avoid being bogged down in low-level emails; Porter said email was quickly “becoming poisonous” for CEOs. An executive assistant can play an important role in filtering and redirecting messages.
  • Scheduling time with rank-and-file staff is a must. The authors suggest field trips to customers and company sites but note these should be “carefully designed” rather than aimless visits.
  • Implement a personal agenda not just an agenda for the company. The authors write this can be “a matrix including both broader areas for improvement and specific matters that need to be addressed”.

Read more on time management for business leaders:
5 essential tools to build a high-performing team:
Time management: take control of your time