Executives’ Biggest Productivity Challenges, Solved
February 17, 2014 Editor 0
Robert Pozen knows a little something about thriving at the top — he’s the former chairman of MFS Investment Management, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and the author of the book Extreme Productivity. I recently asked him about how demands on executives — and CEOs in particular — have changed over the years, and how today’s leaders can best navigate their busy days. An edited version of our conversation is below.
What are the most pressing productivity issues executives are facing today, and how can they tackle them?
For executives who aren’t part of the C-suite, I think the two most pressing issues are meetings and email. They consume a ridiculous amount of people’s time, and a lot of it isn’t well spent. But they’re both solvable problems.
On email, my suggestions are pretty simple. First, don’t look at it every minute; look at it every hour or two. Second, try to discipline yourself to read only the subject matter in order to discard 50% to 80% of your emails right away. We all get so much spam. Third, practice what I call “OHIO” — Only Handle It Once, immediately deciding what to do with each email. Concentrate on the emails that are important and answer them right away. And don’t put them into some sort of storage system, because by the time you’re ready to finally tackle them, you’ll spend another half an hour trying to find them.
As to meetings, I’ve really been clear in my book about what makes a good meeting. First, you ought to have the materials and agenda sent out in advance. Second, the person who’s presenting the issues should speak for a short amount of time, 10 or 15 minutes, and not consume the whole meeting. Third, you need to have a real discussion and debate. Fourth, you should end the meeting with clear to-do’s — what are the next steps, who’s going to follow through on them, what are the time frames? And fifth, you should end the meeting at the very latest in 90 minutes, and try for 60 minutes.
But there are slightly different issues CEOs and the C-suite are facing, right?
A lot of the critical issues that I see from advising CEOs, and being one myself, stem from how to allocate your time.
There are two classic errors CEOs make. One, they often schedule their whole day up, every hour and every day. I believe you need to leave time — an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon — for thinking, and for things that come up, for emergencies.
And the other error, which is much more fundamental, is that many CEOs are asking themselves the wrong question: since four main functions need to be done, who’s the best at doing them? Many top executives often come up with the same answer in all four areas: Me, me, me, and me. Which leaves them with a lot to do.
But the better question is, what can I and only I as a CEO do? That’s a very different question.
For instance, CEOs might have come from the advertising or marketing side of the company, so they may be very well the best person to put together a new ad campaign, in terms of skill set. But that’s not a good use of their time, because it’s a very delegable task. On the other hand, if a company executive has to meet with a top regulator, the CEO may be the only person that has the clout to get the meeting. Or if someone needs to deal with the board, the CEO may be the only one who can do this effectively.
It is imperative that CEOs make the best use of their time — their scarcest resource. But many CEOs wind up spending huge amounts of time doing things that are really delegable and not enough time on the things that are really critical to being the CEO.
You’ve been analyzing this topic for a long time, both as an academic and as an executive. What big changes have you seen over time?
A lot of the same issues continue to be there; the crucial difference is technology. And technology is both a big positive and a big negative. It’s a big positive in the sense that now you can, as a CEO, use your time very efficiently. That is, you can speak to people by phone from almost anywhere. You can get information instantaneously — CEOs can accomplish a huge amount from the back of the car.
On the other hand, because it’s so easy for people to reach you, it’s hard to have thinking time. And if you let yourself be a person who is giving detailed directions all the time, your reports are going to ask you for directions all the time.
So it’s about setting up boundaries.
Yes. Before a lot of this technology, you could be a little sheltered. Now there aren’t any constraints on the amount of information you can be sent or the number of people who contact you, or where you can go quickly. That’s the negative part of technology. The potential is there for you to go everywhere, try to read everything, and be totally overwhelmed.
What are other coming challenges you see, aside from technology?
Almost all companies have gone global. In the large companies, many derive 50% of the revenues from abroad. And even in smaller companies, they have to export. Doing business globally requires a very different skill set than distributing domestically.
But there are many executives who are very U.S.-centric. They really haven’t spent much time overseas. Being a leader today requires that you have lived overseas, or have spent a lot of time overseas.
So how do you handle the demands of international business travel?
You as the CEO actually have to show up at your high value-added offices around the world. And that takes a lot of time and effort. When I was running Fidelity’s investment arm, we had offices in London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. We also had distribution offices all over the place.
I tried to visit, at least once a quarter, those investment offices because they housed our prized contributors: portfolio managers and analysts. They needed to meet me regularly and have a chance to talk through issues. When you run a global operation, it’s hard to maintain a global esprit and an integrated approach. And the CEO has an important role in leading those.
And what about the relationship with their board?
The nature of corporate boards has changed significantly over the last 20 years. When I joined my first board over a decade ago, a friend called me up and said, “We need an American on our board, would you consider it?”
I said “sure.” He sent me some material on the company and told me that the CEO was coming to town in a few weeks and asked if I would have dinner with them. So this director and the CEO and I had dinner. At the end of the dinner, the CEO asked, “OK, are you ready to join the board?”
By contrast, when I joined the Medtronic board, the lead independent director came to my office and interviewed me first. Next I had to meet with a number of the independent directors on the governance committee, and then, at the end, I saw the CEO. It is probably true that if the CEO really hated me, the board might not have gone forward, but I was 90% on board before seeing the CEO.
Now CEOs have shorter tenures than they used to, and the notion of the imperial CEO is no longer accepted by most directors. They want a much higher level of accountability and a much higher level of transparency. And the CEO who doesn’t realize that has probably made a bad career decision.
With these shorter tenures, how can CEOs deal with the inherent pressures that go along with them?
I believe that being a CEO is a lonely existence, so I think CEOs need personal coaches — preferably somebody who’s been a CEO — to help with overall strategic thinking and also somebody just to talk with about company matters. A CEO really can’t talk openly to anybody else in the company.
If being a CEO is increasingly lonely, how should CEOs sort of seek and maintain connections with family and friends, especially when they’re so busy?
Families are very important, so CEOs should carefully protect their family time. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I cannot possibly get home on most business days until 10 p.m.” The demands on the time of most CEOs are so great that they easily do that. But I insisted on getting home to eat dinner with my wife and children at 7:00 p.m. and to share two or three hours of quality time.
Family time is critical. If 10 years later your kids are grown up and you haven’t really spent much time with them, there is no way to recapture those years. Moreover, family dinners were healthy mental breaks for me. There were many times when I was struggling with a difficult problem, stopped thinking about it for three hours at dinner, and then suddenly the answer would hit me.
So what should — and shouldn’t — executives do when they get home?
You don’t want to come in the door, and then immediately receive phone calls or answer your email. Before I walk in the door, I will literally sit in my car and finish all my emails and all my phone calls; I won’t walk in the door until I’m out of work mode.
If you come home for dinner, and immediately get a phone call or start checking your email, then you really undermine the notion of “quality family time.” In the end, you will retire from your business, but your family is forever.
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