More articles and books are talking about how executives spend their days. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson begins his with a sunrise swim. Warren Buffett drinks several Coca-Colas throughout his workday. Oprah Winfrey swears by a morning meditation session before anything else. Most of us probably think the rest of the day is packed to the brim with meetings and more meetings, maximizing the time spent commuting from one to the other until the executive drops from exhaustion.
The truth is far more surprising.
Author and Harvard Business Review editor John P. Kotter got dozens of executives to allow him to shadow them for a while and see how their average days are conducted. In his article (that became a book) called What Leaders Really Do outlines some almost shocking results.
Executives always listen for opportunity knocking.
Leadership is about coping with change. How well someone adjusts on the fly and makes quick decisions is crucial. Kotter found that, by and large, executives did not stick to a hard and fast regimen of scheduled phone calls or in-person meetings. Kotter found that on average, an executive spends only 25% of his/her time alone, and that alone time is spent largely at home, on airplanes, or while commuting. The remaining 75% of the workday is interacting with everyone from the security guard to other top executives. Informal interactions yield a lot more information for executives and allow them to stay in the loop. Most conversations were 2 minutes or less and did not need more than that to gain what they needed to know. Formal meetings are more of a rarity for top executives. They rely on subordinates to pare down the information they need, so they do not have to attend long meetups.
Executives line things up.
Kotter writes that what top executives truly excel at (and therefore how they rise to the top) is in the talent of “aligning people. This means communicating the new direction to those who can create coalitions that understand the vision and are committed to its achievement.” Those at the top of their game spend time with lots of different people. This is crucial because it allows them to form informal networks of people, largely with exchanges based on touches of humor or personal knowledge. Executives know that to cultivate a kinship with someone is key to staying ahead of the curve and not merely current. Such exchanges are not flippant or insincere, but “excellent performers ask, encourage, cajole, praise, reward, demand, manipulate, and generally motivate others with great skill in face-to-face situations.” This establishes a mutually beneficial relationship even when the exec does not have direct authority over a person or project.
Executives make the most of their time by making the most of their people.
Because of the tendency for top executives to speak to so many people throughout the day, those with direct chances to speak to them directly nurture a great deal of trust. That trust means the exec doesn’t have to be supervised closely because they trust their peers or subordinates to take care of business. What does this mean for outsiders? It means that an executive at the top of their game is unlikely to hire from outside their purview. Not only do they already have a cadre of people who have earned their trust, but they also trust those people to hire someone, too. Nurturing relationships like this means executives have more time for “big picture stuff. So much of what needs to be done happens outside the boardrooms and the glass highrises. It is in restaurants, on golf courses, and in organizations affiliated with the business.
Does this mean top executives lean back all day in leather chairs, lazing about? Not even close. What makes an executive is their ability to take on leadership with the kind of keen understanding of the balance between interpersonal relationships and business. They are often busy from morning until their heads hit the pillow, but it is not done with a military stratagem. It is done by sensing what kind of leader is needed for the people they are around and relying on that interaction to feed them what they need to know.