People skills key for CEOs, who spend most of their time in meetings: HBR study

Female executive leading meeting
CEOs should give sufficient attention to all employees, a Harvard Business Review study says. (Getty/Sam Edwards)

Perhaps one of the best attributes a CEO can have is people skills, according research by Harvard Business School that says executives in the top position spend the vast amount of their work time in meetings. And they also work over 60 hours a week.

Roughly half (47%) of CEOs' work is done at corporate headquarters, says the CEO time-use research in the Harvard Business Review by Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School, and Michael Porter, a professor at the school.

The rest of their time is spent visiting other companies, meeting with external constituencies, commuting, traveling and at home. Altogether, the CEOs that Nohria and Porter studied work an average of 62.5 hours a week.

Many, many meetings

CEOs spend 72% of their time in 37 meetings a week. On average, 70% of that time is spent dealing with internal constituencies, and the balance with outsiders. Most of the CEOs the researchers interviewed were dismayed to discover how little time they spend with their customers—just 3% on average. CEOs also spend just 3% of their time on matters related to investors.

Generally, the higher-ranking the executive, the more time spent with that person. Going down the scale, CEOs spend less time with lower-level managers (14%) and even less with rank-and-file employees (6%). This is not a positive, the researchers said. “Effective CEOs need to be careful to maintain a human face in the organization. They must stay approachable and find ways to meaningfully engage with employees at all levels.” 

Having an agenda is important

CEOs invest significant time—43%, on average—on activities that further their agendas. Overall, the researchers found that an explicit agenda is one of CEOs’ most important tools for making progress on multiple work streams and using time effectively.

Over one-third of CEOs’ time (36%) is spent in a reactive mode, handling unfolding issues, both internal and external.

The vast majority of CEOs’ time (75%) is scheduled in advance, with them initiating roughly half (51%) of their meetings themselves.

Toiling nearly 10 hours a day

CEOs in the study work 9.7 hours per weekday, on average. They also conduct business on 79% of weekend days, putting in 3.9 hours daily; and on 70% of vacation days, averaging 2.4 hours daily.

And they do sleep—a surprisingly healthy 6.9 hours a night given their grueling schedule. They also make room to exercise about 45 minutes a day. “To sustain the intensity of the job, CEOs need to train—just as elite athletes do,” the researchers said. 

The study was undertaken over 12 years and tracked 27 CEOs at large companies. All but two of the participants are men. The demanding pace the CEOs keep “is essential to the role,” the researchers said. “As a CEO, you have to be out and about.”

Everyone wants attention

“Every constituency associated with a company wants direct contact with the person at the top,” the researchers said. “They have to spend at least some time with each constituency in order to provide direction, create alignment, win support and gather the information needed to make good decisions. Travel is also an absolute must. You can’t run a domestic company, let alone a global one, from headquarters alone.”

Limited family time

And in their down time when they are awake, which is about 6 hours, or 25% of the time, CEOs spend about half that time with their families. About two hours of downtime is allotted for watching television and reading for pleasure, or hobbies like photography.

The heavy schedule CEOs keep while staying sharp is necessary if they are to be strong leaders, the researchers imply.

“Much of a CEO’s work involves anticipating problems, gathering the facts, conducting analyses and making sound and timely choices,” they say. “And reacting well to unplanned and unforeseen events and crises is some of the most important work CEOs do. Such periods can make or break a company and the CEO’s own capacity to lead.”