By the time you reach the upper tiers of management, you’ll certainly be an expert at organizing and managing your work day—but you’ll soon realize that things work a little differently at the C-Suite level. In particular, how you use your time and who you give it to undergoes significant changes. Priorities and responsibilities shift; sometimes subtly, often radically. There’s much more to do, and the ante is higher: your actions impact the organization in ways undreamt of before.
The modern business environment demands exceptional leadership, so you have to do whatever’s necessary to enhance productivity and efficiency at all levels. Not least , you need to be able to juggle multiple projects without getting bogged down, while simultaneously balancing customer, employee, and shareholder demands. You must also be willing to make the organizational changes necessary to facilitate these aims. All this requires a high level of intelligence, energy, and discipline that sets you above the rest of your organizational hierarchy.
To accomplish these ends, you’ll also need to employ time management techniques superior to the everyday methods you mastered before you ascended to the C-Suite. If you can develop them, then you can maintain control over your own destiny; otherwise, you’re likely to be overwhelmed or, worse, swept aside as success passes you by.
Let’s look at ways that you can avoid those fates.
Don’t Overdo It
I’ll start out with a point that some execs never seem to understand: working long hours isn’t good enough. You wouldn’t be where you are today if you weren’t dedicated to the job and the organization; that should be self-evident. You don’t have to kill yourself to prove it.
And I mean exactly that. In Japan, there’s an entrenched tradition of working superhuman amounts of unpaid overtime, more to demonstrate company loyalty than to enhance productivity. It also drives high levels of “karoshi,” literally the practice of working yourself to death. This isn’t unique to Japan; many Westerners, especially at the executive level, have the same problem.
As much as I hate to use a tired cliché, you really do need to work smarter, not harder. Your goal shouldn’t be to outwork the other guy. Get a handle on what’s really important in your organization, and focus on that; don’t just push and push and push until you fall over.
Working too many hours is demonstrably counterproductive, because it results in decreased productivity. Studies have repeatedly shown that a 60-hour work week results, on average, in a 25% decrease in productivity. The productivity numbers just get worse as the number of work hours increases.
The lesson here? People aren’t robots. Long hours lead to physical and mental fatigue. This results in slower work, more mistakes, and wasted time. It may also lead to depression, which can spiral out of control if left untreated—which is often the case, because the person affected is too busy to take care of it. In recent years, there’s been an alarming rash of suicides at the C-Suite level.
As it turns out, the old forty-hour work week wasn’t chosen at random. It was struck as a compromise, as the best balance between productivity and overwork. Now, it may be that a forty-hour week is an impossibility for you, or that you function well with a more demanding schedule. That’s fine, as long as you’re aware of the signs when you do start burning out, and are willing to do what it takes to short-circuit a drop in performance.
At the very least, you need to stop striving for perfection, stop trying to do everything in one day—and remember that there’s more to life than work. You need to enjoy yourself, and your family, while you can.
Incidentally, it’s a lot easier to manage your time and accomplish your goals if you feel good. You’d take care of any other tool, wouldn’t you? So be sure to exercise regularly, eat right, get enough sleep, take breaks, and give yourself time off to recharge. And for heaven’s sake, take your vacations!
Tighten It Up
One of the biggest excuses executives cite for not getting their work done is that people just won’t leave them alone. The phone never stops ringing, the emails come in like clockwork, people are always approaching them to ask permission for this or that, and they have to run around and put out brushfires all day. By the time they get around to the big responsibilities, they’re tired and distracted, and can’t concentrate.
If this describes you, then you need to tighten up your personal availability. To heck with that open door policy; it sounds good, but how are you ever going to accomplish anything? What you really need is at least one layer between yourself and the people below you in the company hierarchy. It’s not particularly egalitarian, but it’s necessary in an organization with a command structure, so that you can accomplish things with regularity and precision.
Your “dragon at the gate” should consist of at least one hard-nosed, experienced administrative assistant, and a full staff of them as necessary. The idea is to screen interruptions of all types, so their flow is slowed to a trickle by the time they get to you. The only interruptions you should be wide open to are those from your superiors.
You’ll still have calls and emails to answer, so you’ll need to learn to do so efficiently. Do your best to deal with them in a single block of time, and make your communications short and sweet. Always keep an eye on the clock. Instead of asking the people you’re communicating with leading questions like, “How’s it going?”, which can involve a longer answer than you have time for, get straight to the point: “How can I help you today?”
In addition, you’ll need to establish boundaries for meetings, and stick to them. We all know how meetings can wreck productivity by proliferating and dragging on. Don’t let them. Establish stringent guidelines for the meetings you’ll attend and how long they’ll last.
In general, you need to be vigilant when it comes to your time, so other people won’t steal it away piecemeal. In addition to the above factors, set specific times when you’re not to be disturbed—and learn to say no and make it stick. If possible, leave enough flexibility in your schedule for crises and emergencies, but not too much.
All this may seem difficult to implement, and it may seem selfish from the outside—and maybe it is. But if you give everyone and everything a minute when they demand one, they’ll eat you alive, and you’ll have no time left for what truly matters…whatever that may be in your case.
Get Your Priorities Straight
Once you’ve tightened up your time, establish priorities for yourself and your organization. This will probably require that you first sit back and reflect on both your day-to-day activities and your long-term goals—the kind of thing that overworked executives hate, because it robs time from their busy schedules. But I assure you, this practice will pay serious dividends down the road.
As a proven expert on the basics of time management, you know that you’ll need to focus on the big, important stuff first, while pushing the less important items to the bottom of the stack. One way to strengthen your focus on what’s important is to refer back to the classic four-quadrant Time Management Matrix. You remember the one I’m talking about. It goes something like this:
Quadrant A: Important and Urgent
Quadrant B: Important and Not Urgent
Quadrant C: Urgent and Not
Quadrant D: Neither Urgent Nor Important
That concept still works in general at the uppermost levels; however, like so many other things, your emphasis on what’s important must change when you transition to top-tier management. The key here is to shift your primary focus from Operational Time to Strategic Time, which means that you should start to pay much more attention to items traditionally belonging to Quadrant B. Here’s how your priorities should be ordered henceforth:
Priority 1: Strategic Goals
• Long term planning
• Values clarification
• Relationship building
Priority 2: Operations (Tactical)
• Everyday management
• Development and refinement of systems and processes
• Most customer service
Priority 3: Time Sensitive
• Pressing issues
Priority 4: Trivial items
• Time wasters
• Busy work
All that should really matter to you are Priorities 1 and 2. Of these, you need to spend the lion’s share of your time on strategic issues, planning and implementing the things that make the company the most money over the long run. Priority 2, Operations, should be delegated as much as possible; these are the things that you should oversee, but not have a day-to-day hand in managing. Priority 3 issues are the kinds of brushfires you shouldn’t handle at all, and as for Priority 4 items, just jettison them altogether.
Once you’ve got that straight, hammer on the big stuff first, and think deeply about what it will take to clear the path from here to there, so that everything comes easier and quicker. Now, you can’t plan for everything that you and your organization will face, but you’ll still need to develop an understanding of all the big picture possibilities, and have at least generalized procedures in place to handle whatever obstacles, challenges, and problems may arise.
Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
This is a basic tenet of time management, but it’s more important at the C-Suite level than ever before. At your pay scale, you shouldn’t be doing anything that someone at a lower pay scale can do. So focus on those high-value tasks that you do best, and leave everything else to others. This is the very heart of delegation.
As you consider your schedule, ask yourself these questions about each of your tasks:
1. Is this the best use of my time right now?
2. What’s the impact of this task?
3. Am I the best person to perform this?
You shouldn’t be running around putting out brushfires all day; your time is too valuable. This is one reason why it’s critical to hire good administrate assistants; not just to bar people from wasting your time, but to help you stay organized and prioritized. Good lieutenants like these are invaluable, so pay them well and treat them right.
When you do assign a task to someone else, remember to delegate, not abdicate! Don’t just dump work on someone and walk away. Keep an eye on their progress, but at the same time, give them room to work; avoid micromanagement at all costs. Empower people within their positions, and trust them to do their jobs with minimal oversight. If they don’t perform, then make changes.
You accomplish this level of efficiency by building effective systems and organizational structures that can function with or without your input. Once you’ve done this to your satisfaction, you can stop drowning in detail, focusing on other matters that require your attention while everyone else takes care of the infrastructure. Sure, keep an eye on the systems, but don’t obsess over them. Let other people handle the day-to-day details. Give them the power and privilege to make decisions at all levels, and keep them well-informed so they can.
Needless to say, I could write a book about how to maintain a good C-Suite time balance—and I’m sure it’s been done. However, I feel that the topics outlined above provide at least a general framework to help you understand and adapt to the time management changes you’ll encounter as you move from middle management to the top ranks. It all boils down to taking care of yourself, tightening access to your time, organizing your priorities, and shedding the tasks that other people can do just as well. All this is critical if you expect to maintain an enjoyable life and avoid killing yourself from overwork. Work is an important part of your life, but it shouldn’t be all of it.
You can do this. You’re already an expert at managing your time. Just adapt these concepts to your new circumstances, and after the initial transition phase, it’ll be smooth sailing from then on.