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How The Most (And Least) Successful CEOs Spend Their Workdays

This is what you can learn about success and failure from studying the daily schedules of 1,000 CEOs.

How The Most (And Least) Successful CEOs Spend Their Workdays
[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

Ever wonder what the CEO of your company does all day? Or if you’re a CEO, are you curious about your peers’ schedules? A group of professors from Harvard Business School, the London School of Economics, Columbia University, and the University of Oxford pondered the same question and conducted a survey of more than 1,000 CEOs in six countries to find out what they’re doing and how that behavior relates to the success or failure of their companies. Their findings were published in the Harvard Business Review. Here’s how the average day breaks down:

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  • 26% is spent alone, planning, sending emails, and other solo activities
  • 10% is spent on personal matters
  • 8% is spent traveling
  • 56% is spent meeting with others

Leaders Versus Managers

While these numbers examine their calendars, how they use this time was another area of exploration in the study. The researchers divided CEO behavior into two types: leaders and managers.

Managers interact more with employees in supply chain management and meet with clients and suppliers, while leaders have more interactions with C-suite executives and external stakeholders, and spend more time on communications and planning.

“You are more likely to find CEOs that are leaders in larger companies that are more complex,” says study coauthor Raffaella Sadun, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “Manager CEOs are often found in smaller, simpler organizations.”

After analyzing CEO type against company financial performance, the study found that leaders run more productive and profitable companies, says Sadun. This begs the chicken-or-the-egg question: Do leader CEOs just happen to work at better companies, or do they impact the change that makes them more successful?

“We looked at before and after data for firms where a new CEO was appointed, and we found that the appointment of a leader CEO was followed by higher productivity,” says Sadun. “The effect showed up three years later, which suggests that leaders are doing the hard work of changing companies.”

The fact that leader-style CEOs are in larger organizations isn’t surprising to Adam Goodman, director of the Center for Leadership at Northwestern University. “It’s about the infrastructure that would be around that CEO,” he says. “If you’re running a Fortune 100 or even a Fortune 1,000 company, you’re going to have support around you that helps you properly deploy a focus on vision and strategy. If they’re smart, CEOs in large companies also tend to hire chief strategy officers who can pick up what would ordinarily be one of the more important CEO tasks. Smaller companies—sub $500 million in revenue—tend to be thin in terms of support.”

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While there isn’t much harm in being a leader-type CEO in a smaller company, the opposite could hurt performance of a large organization, says Sadun. “We see lots of companies that are large enough to support a leader but, in fact, are being led by a manager,” she says. “Hands-on CEOs are still attached to operational activities, and that can be detrimental. Instead of having a more coordinative CEO, they’re stuck with a micromanager.”

Comparing Calendars

How a CEO spends their day will also depend on the nature of their business, says Goodman. “You can cut it in any number of ways, but a company regardless of size could be in a burning platform, in terms of change and turnaround and urgency,” he says. “That is a different skill set than if a company is stable and growing. There are different CEO requirements, and those are going to dictate experience and temperament. I would argue that the context and fit with CEO strengths is what really matters.”

Successful CEOs also spend their time working on the right things, adds Elena Botelhos, founder of the leadership research firm CEO Genome Project and coauthor of The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors That Transform Ordinary People into World-Class Leaders. “Our research shows that the best CEOs are highly decisive in how they allocate their time—focusing on priorities that truly move the needle on the success of their business,” she says. “Often, when CEOs conduct calendar reviews and look at how their time is actually spent, they’re surprised to find that top priorities are regularly trumped by urgent fires.”

While the data set provides an interesting peek into the role of leadership, Goodman cautions CEOs from making any changes based on their peers’ behaviors. “I think this study makes a real contribution, but I don’t think it should drive CEOs to make different choices,” he says. “Situational context and individual strengths should override those factors. I wouldn’t wake up and try to match what other people are doing. The research is startlingly clear that CEOs need to understand their strengths, play to those strengths, and find situational context that helps those strengths sing. You’ll find a much better measure of success with company results.”