Dear CEO, Here’s How to Manage Your Time Better

We all know that time is our most valuable asset, but this is especially true for the CEOs of expansion stage companies. As the CEO of an organization at this stage of growth, you are typically still filling multiple roles around product development, business strategy, and company culture. It’s not surprising that most people in this position feel like they don’t have time to think.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that will go away on its own, and the solution is much more complex than simply acknowledging that meetings are evil. To truly win at the battle of reclaiming time for big-picture pursuits, you have to take a more holistic approach.

Part of the challenge is that CEOs don’t just have to manage their time, they have to navigate through a major transition in terms of their role within the company. In the early innings, the CEO takes a more hands-on approach. Once you hit the expansion stage, however, you’ve begun building out a functional leadership team and you’re beginning to work more on infrastructure and operationalizing both your product and your go-to-market strategy. You’ve reached the inflection point at which it’s impossible to meet with everyone in the company directly. Success depends heavily on your ability to figure out optimal operating rhythms and rituals.

Sorting all this out requires diligence and commitment, but it doesn’t have to be painful. In my experience, there are a few key steps that can help any CEO get a head start on wrangling their schedule.

Take a hard look at your organization’s soft structure

Probably the most time-consuming task to tackle is mapping out your organization’s “soft structure.” People tend to spend a lot of time thinking about hard structure—reporting lines, titles, etc.—but overlook the importance of defining things like meeting flow, operating rhythm, and general communication strategies. Getting intentional and specific about this map will provide valuable insights into how you can cut unproductive activities. Exactly what this process looks like will depend on the attributes of each individual company. There are four primary considerations as you explore your options:

Existing Flow

Understanding where you’re starting from is an important first step. Doing a simple analysis of your meetings (which meetings you have regularly, how long they are, who attends, and what purpose they serve) can open your eyes to critical opportunities to save time and streamline operations.

The CEO’s Area of Expertise

A CEO’s focus influences where they prefer to spend their time. For instance, a product-oriented CEO will spend more time in product-related activities and delegate the broader business decisions. Acknowledging where you plan on investing your greatest effort will partially dictate how other aspects of company flow should go.

Geography

Where your team is located definitely plays a role in soft structure. For instance, a distributed team may require more meetings than a centralized one. At Atlassian, we kept our distributed team in sync by having two-day off-sites with the executive team each month. Those meetings were not only a great tool for jamming out work, they also gave us a chance to bond socially and build trust. The trust component is often undervalued, but it’s so important in the long run. When you trust people, you require less face time with them, which helps you avoid meeting creep.

Company Culture

Looking through the lens of company culture can uncover additional insights. If, for example, your culture encourages people to make decisions, operate with speed, and be unafraid of failure, you shouldn’t need to have ten structured meetings to review each decision. That’s a major disconnect between a cultural philosophy and the day-to-day workings of your team.

How you apply these perspectives to articulate your company’s soft structure is up to you. The goal is to do it in a way that helps you improve efficiency and better align your operational approach with your overall strategy and business philosophy. GE, for example, takes a hard line on their soft structure by mandating an annual review of their entire operating rhythm in order to identify how they can cut meeting time by a minimum of 10% each year.

Get intentional about how you spend your time

Stepping back from the big picture to get more personal, it’s incredibly important for CEOs to design their time allocation up front in a very intentional way. Force fit it if you have to. It’s that important. Make a list of your priorities—spending time on company culture, working with customers, talking with outside talent, etc.—and the percentage of your time you want to dedicate to each area. Then “park” that percentage of your time for those tasks. Be aggressive about this. You can always edit it later.

In most cases, doing this exercise will reveal a lot of conflicts with existing commitments, usually meetings. To help identify places where you can free up some of your valuable time, track your meetings on a monthly basis. Put them into categories and rate them. Your rating system doesn’t need to be complicated. It can be as simple as a thumbs up for super productive, thumb sideways for moderately useful, and thumbs down for the ones that weren’t worth your time. This is a great way to clean the deadweight out your calendar.

Pro tip: engage and empower your EA in this process. As you scale your business and get busier, it becomes increasingly critical to have the right EA. Many people make the mistake of hiring junior people for this position, but I think of the EA almost as the CEO’s chief of staff. It’s an important role. Your EA should have autonomy to review your calendar, make suggestions, and be a timekeeper for you.

Choose your communication mediums carefully

It may seem like a small thing, but the communication tools you choose can affect a lot of your day-to-day productivity. Take email for instance. While it’s a ubiquitous communication tool, it is not an effective collaboration tool. Email is actually a one-way flow of information, not a conversation. It’s also a platform that is rife with risk for miscommunication and unclear responsibilities.

When I was at SuccessFactors, we used email for certain things, but we also disabled two popular features: CCs and Reply All. Use of these features typically led to a lack of clarity because people were often confused about who needed to follow up, respond or get involved in any ensuing email thread.

Be careful about which communication medium you choose for different kinds of conversations and announcements. Sometimes email will be fine. Other times, a live chat or even face-to-face conversation will be much more appropriate and effective.

Manage meetings like an expert

While meetings may not be the sole cause of CEO overload, they are certainly one of the major contributors. Because they seem like a necessary evil, meetings can be difficult to wrangle; but there are a few simple protocols you can put in place to start taking control of your calendar:

Establish Meeting Norms

Be clear about acceptable meeting length. If you leave this open-ended, people will automatically book meetings in hour-long increments. But, if you specify a 30-minute standard, you’ll already be saving time. At SuccessFactors, it was mandated that no meeting could run for longer than 30 minutes. We didn’t stick to that mandate 100% of the time, but just having it in place forced people to be more focused, which meant we were able to get more done in less time and free up schedules.

Engage Your EA

If you’re not comfortable with a company-wide mandate on maximum meeting time, another tool a CEO can use is to have the EA push back on meeting requests by suggesting the requestor cut their meeting time in half.

Task Direct Reports with Establishing Check-in Cadence

CEOs spend nearly half their time meeting with their direct reports. One of the tools I used at Atlassian was to let direct reports drive the cadence of our one-on-one meetings. Instead of assuming that I needed to talk to each leader every week, I let them decide what was best. I had some people who still wanted to meet weekly, but others who met bi-weekly or even monthly. Because we didn’t force a standard across the board, we were able to free up quite a bit of time.

The number and length of meetings needed will vary by organization, but one thing every CEO should keep an eye on is whether they are spending too much time going too deep in any one area. This could indicate a lack of confidence in the leader of that team. It’s fine to be more hands-on with certain areas of the business because you like working in those spaces. Getting overly involved because you don’t trust the capability of the person you hired to do the job is another issue entirely.

Take time for yourself

Stepping outside the office for a moment, CEOs need to remember that they are only human. Being in meetings 24/7 without downtime is an energy draining proposition that dulls insight and decreases efficiency. To get the most out of your working time, you have to be sure to schedule some non-working time. In other words, take care of yourself. Prioritize personal wellness including fitness, family time, and recreation. Cordon off your non-working hours, be they on weekends or evenings or both, and stick to your rules. Don’t bend the rules. Too often, “just answering one email” can turn into several hours of work.

Schedule time to focus on the big picture

Finally, as the leader of your organization, you—of all people—need to schedule time to think about the big-picture issues facing your company. You can’t let the demands of the day-to-day put you in a can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees situation.

When building your schedule, ask yourself if you’ve included enough time to:

      • Mentor key talent
      • Hire new team members
      • Meet with customers
      • Shape company culture
      • Focus on overall business strategy

These CEO responsibilities aren’t things that you can cram into the only remaining 30-minute slot on a Friday afternoon. You need to carve out substantial blocks of time. It may be challenging at first, but the long-term benefits are worth the effort. Not only will you be better able to guide your company toward success, you’ll also be helping everyone become more efficient on the way to those wins. The more time you spend refining and communicating overall strategy to your team, the less time you’ll have to spend in meetings to check that everyone is aligned with that strategy. Everyone will know the game plan and be able to see it through without constant supervision.

Lastly, it’s tempting to plan out every minute of every day, but if you over-schedule yourself, you actually break your operating flow. You end up short changing things you’d hoped to do or having to work more hours to get everything done (leading to burn out) or—just as bad—putting yourself in a situation where you’re unable to be flexible when it would be advantageous for you to take a sudden detour to address a particular situation. So my last piece of advice: be deliberate about enabling spontaneity. You never know what game-changing opportunities might come your way. Be ready for them.

Chief People Officer, Advisor

Jeff Diana is the former Chief People Officer at Atlassian. He currently works as a high growth consultant helping pre IPO companies on how to successfully scale their businesses from go-to-market design to product roadmaps to senior leadership assessment and much more. He is focused on partnerships with key VC firms, CEOs, and other world class HR consultants to solve the challenges of hyper growth and to build incredibly successful businesses.
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