CEO's Struggle With Time Management, Too

Getty Images
‘Firefighters’ are managers who are prone to dealing with emergencies, instead of driving long-term planning.

If there’s one thing executives lack, it’s time. And many of them, it turns out, aren’t happy with how they’re managing this limited resource.

In an online survey of nearly 1,400 senior executives  — including 668 CEOs and 557 other C-level execs  — just 52% said they were spending their time in a way that matched their companies’ strategic priorities.

Respondents were further divided in their satisfaction of how they utilized their time at work: 32%  said they were somewhat or very dissatisfied, 48% were somewhat satisfied, and only 9% were highly satisfied. The rest said they were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, or did not know.  The study will be released Monday by consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

When compared with the highly satisfied group, executives who were dissatisfied exhibited remarkably similar time-use habits, which McKinsey grouped into four categories:

“Online junkies” spent on average 38% of their time using email or voicemail, leaving little time for personal interaction.

“Schmoozers,” represented well by CEOs and sales directors, interacted heavily with external stakeholders like clients and customers, at the risk of neglecting their own employees.

Meanwhile, “cheerleaders,” often C-suite executives, spent a big chunk of their schedules meeting and managing employees, but considerably less time with outsiders.

“Firefighters,” usually general managers, were often preoccupied with resolving short-term and unexpected issues.

The findings indicate that methods of time management are a crucial yet overlooked issue at many companies, says Aaron De Smet, a principal at McKinsey’s Houston office and co-author of the report. Executives generally don’t track how they spend their time, he says, and many companies don’t offer guidance in this area.

“Time is one of the most precious and undermanaged resources at a company, and it seems to be getting more so,” De Smet says. “We’re just piling on more and more and more.”

Executives who were fully satisfied with their time management were generally more consistent and balanced in the way they budgeted their time. They spent on average 38% of their time in face-to-face interactions, 28% using email or voice mail, and 21% on the phone. They were more likely to be found working alone (24% of time), than with clients and customers (17%) or direct reports (15%).

CEOs, perhaps unsurprisingly, comprised more than one-third of the 124 executives in the “fully-satisfied” group. De Smet theorizes that they are more efficient with their time because they have executive assistants who manage their calendars. These top bosses also have more discretion when it comes to how they choose to budget their time, he adds.

Overall De Smet argues that companies need to address time management as an organizational initiative, not an individual one. He says firms should  set “time budgets” for certain projects and tasks, and limit the introduction of new initiatives that might overwhelm executives.

The survey, conducted in late 2011, polled executives from a mix of public and private companies around the world.