Why Time Wasting is Important - How Top Executives Really Spend Their Time.

Ok, you’ve probably heard dozens of times that if you want to be more efficient and therefore more effective you need to use some type of “time management” system.  Well surprise, the research on how top executives spend their time clearly shows that many of the precepts championed in time management courses, although appearing to make logical sense, if followed religiously as most time management programs demand, would actually decrease an executives ability to be effective.   Furthermore, understanding just how effective executives actually spend their time can impact how you select and develop executive talent.  In this executive briefing I will outline three key takeaways from research regarding executive effectiveness, one of which executive recruiters will not want to hear. 

John P. Kotter, the author of the Harvard Business Review article, What Leaders Really Do, and the Konosuke Mashusita Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School conducted research into the daily work life of effective leaders.  He literally shadowed top executives, observing and noting their actions and interactions through typically work days.  What he observed would shock and horrify most “time efficiency” experts.  Top executives have agendas that “allow them to react in an opportunistic (and highly efficient) way to the flow of events around them, all the while knowing that they are doing so within some broader and more rational framework.”  In other words, there is meaning behind the madness.  

The three key takeaways follow:

1.  I’m sure this will be no surprise to most busy executives but top executives spend most of their time with others…but mostly not in planned meetings.  The “average general manager spends only 25% of his/her time alone, and that alone time is spent largely at home, on airplanes, or while commuting.”  Time management gurus invariably tell people to stick to a firm schedule and don’t allow unnecessary interruptions.  Time management experts exhort executives to “make people make appointments with you…guard your time zealously.”  However, most of the useful information an executive gets comes from informal, on-the-fly interactions with subordinates, customers, peers, board members and bosses.  Top executives and managers are constantly and efficiently conducting brief impromptu meetings with people to gather needed information, influence others and to get things done.  Many of their conversations are 2 minutes or less, disjointed and often punctuated with humor.  If they relied exclusively on formal meetings and channels for their information they would be behind the knowledge curve most of the time.

2.  Beware of the executive who stays in her office with the door closed or tells you that she has no time to talk with people outside her department!  Top mangers spend time with many people, not just their direct reports and their bosses.  What’s critical about this type of interaction is that top executives know that much of their ability to influence others comes through the informal networks they develop.  They understand that developing mutually beneficial relationships enables them to get things done even if they don’t have direct authority in a situation.  Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about “sucking up,” to people (what one executive told me he thought I meant by building relationships with people).  I’m talking about engaging in sincere, respectful interactions with a wide variety of people with whom they are often in some way dependent, vs. holing up in their offices with their noses to the grindstone.  Top executives ask lots of questions, discuss wide-ranging topics often unrelated to work, all the while building relationships.  Kotter noted that “excellent performers ask, encourage, cajole, praise, reward, demand, manipulate and generally motivate others with great skill in face-to-face situations.” Excellent performers “rely more on indirect influence than do the ‘good’ managers, who tend to apply a narrower range of techniques with less finesse.” 

3.  Now the bad news for executive recruiters and a heads up for senior executives who don’t want to spend money on management development.  Kotter also concluded that because top executives spend so much time developing networks and nurturing relationships within their organizations that hiring executives from outside the organization is to be avoided if possible.  “Putting someone in an executive position who does not already know the business or the people involved simply because he or she is a successful ‘professional manager,’ is risky.”  It usually takes an outsider six months or more to get up to speed in a large organization even if the executive is a domain or subject matter expert.   Therefore, Kotter suggests “especially for large and complex businesses…that ‘growing’ one’s own executives should be a high priority, ” and that the money spent on executive recruiters might be better spent on developing internal talent.  Unfortunately, however, he noted, “in light of the booming executive search business, one has to conclude that either companies are not trying hard (at developing executive talent) or their efforts simply are not succeeding.”   To add further credence to Kotter’s research, I refer you to a terrific article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, titled, The Talent Myth, Are Smart People Overrated? where he attacks the practice of simply hiring the best and brightest as the surest way to success.  He cites Enron, for example, as one practitioner of this flawed notion.  (A link to Malcolm’s article follows: http://www.gladwell.com/2002/2002_07_22_a_talent.htm. )

Interestingly, Kotter recommends that whether you promote from within or hire from the outside, that for the first three to six months on the job it’s best to allow the new executive to spend most of her time collecting information, establishing relationships, selecting a basic direction for her area of responsibilities, and developing a supporting organization if you want her to get up to speed fast.  Getting bogged down in accomplishing specific tasks or to work on pet projects can actually be counterproductive.
 
In summary, highly effective leaders leverage their interpersonal skills and nimbly nurture and navigate multiple and complex interpersonal relationships to motivate and influence people to get things done.  Simply being smart and technically qualified isn’t enough for the long haul; you need to be interpersonally adept. 

If you want to purchase books by Kotter or others on leadership I recommend, please click the "Book Store" link on the navigation bar to the left.  You can purchase Kotter’s Harvard Business Review article, What Leaders Really Do, through Harvard Business School Publishing at www.hbsp.harvard.edu