How do CEOs manage their time? The winners of the 60th annual HBR McKinsey Award explain

Nitin Nohria, a dean at Harvard Business School, and Michael E. Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, have spent their careers forging future CEOs in the classroom and writing for them in influential management publications. But about ten years ago, Porter says, they realized that “we had little understanding of what CEOs actually do.” They decided to find out, devoting more than a decade to collecting data from CEOs about how they spend their most valuable resource: time. The resulting article, “How CEOs Manage Time,” has won the 2018 HBR McKinsey Award for best Harvard Business Review article of the year.

How do CEOs manage their time
Michael E. Porter, left, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Nitin Nohria, a dean at Harvard Business School, won the 2018 HBR McKinsey Award for best article of the year for their study of how CEOs spend their time.
How do CEOs manage their time

The award was presented on Thursday, May 16, at a dinner at Harvard Business School. Nohria and Porter collected 60,000 hours’ worth of data from 27 CEOs, interviewing each for more insight into how they think they use their time. The data set they created illustrates the ways CEOs navigate the inevitable trade-offs of this finite resource, no matter how well they manage their time. The findings have also been discussed with hundreds of other CEOs participating in Harvard Business School’s yearly workshop for newly appointed leaders.

“Time management is a crucial issue in today’s high-pressure and fast-changing environment,” said Adi Ignatius, editor in chief of Harvard Business Review. “‘How CEOs Manage Their Time’ offers a fascinating window into the demands and complexities of leading a company, and its insightful analysis can help all leaders who want to use their time and influence more effectively.”

So how do you figure out what CEOs actually do with their time? “Mapping what they do was the first step,” says Porter. He and Nohria created a taxonomy of time—categories that could usefully describe the many different activities they undertake, like meetings with direct reports, spending time with investors, and answering emails, as well as exercise, time with families, and alone time.

The second step was enlisting willing CEOs and their executive assistants. “You want me to track every 15-minute increment of my day, 24/7, for 15 months?” Porter remembers CEOs reacting to their request. “This wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Their assistants were ready to kill us all,” Nohria says.

Over the course of more than a decade, Nohria and Porter gathered data. “It’s one of the joys of tenure, to be able to spend as long as we did on this research,” says Nohria. In addition to collecting the time logs, the pair interviewed the CEOs—a step that frequently yielded more insight than the logs themselves. They found that the CEO job is “all consuming.” For instance, according to the article, chief executives conduct business on 79% of weekend days and on 70% of vacation days. “As these figures show,” they write, “the CEO’s job is relentless.”

Nohria and Porter also found that chief executives are “always in meetings,” “agenda driven,” and “rely heavily on direct reports.” What surprised them most was the gap between the CEOs’ expectations of how they spent their time versus how they actually did spend their time. “No, we’re not making this up,” Nohria recalls saying on many occasions. “The single most common surprise: CEOs thought they spent lots of time with customers. In fact, few of them really did.” The pair plans to follow up with their study subjects after five or six years to see if their participation in the research has changed how they spend their time.

Can everyone apply this technique for insight into their own habits? “Some things in this research are pretty specific to CEOs. However, in general, one of the takeaways is, do you have a personal agenda? How are you spending alone time? There are many lessons that are applicable,” says Nohria. Porter agrees: “This research applies to anyone with a significant managerial role. If every manager knew the taxonomy of time categories, that alone would be useful.”

This year’s HBR McKinsey Award also recognized two other finalists: “The Surprising Power of Questions,” which provides guidance on how to hone a valuable skill, by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John of Harvard Business School; and “Strategy for Start-ups” by Joshua Gans of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Erin L. Scott and Scott Stern of the MIT Sloan School of Management.

The 2018 HBR McKinsey Award judges were Bharat Anand, professor, Harvard Business School; Cheryl Bachelder, interim CEO, Pier 1 Imports; Peter Cappelli, professor, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; and Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, senior advisor, Egon Zehnder. Since 1959, the HBR McKinsey Awards have recognized 142 articles published in Harvard Business Review. Past winners include Clayton M. Christensen, Peter Drucker, Daniel Goleman, John Kotter, Mark R. Kramer, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Michael E. Porter, and George Stalk.

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