Updated: Mar 5, 2018
How should I spend my time as CEO? It's the question I hear most from CEOs.
CEOs trying to maximize their performance are constantly balancing these two fundamental challenges:
What are the areas that are most important for me to focus on?
How do I stay focused on mission critical areas without getting dragged into daily firefights?
It’s a fact of life that CEOs have on-going demands for their time, attention and focus. How they address them is a core determinant of their success.
There’s a simple construct that is attributed to former President Eisenhower… It’s a two x two matrix that compares what is the most important thing I can be doing vs. what is the most urgent. Urgent things need to be done right now, even if they are a distraction. Valuable things create long-term benefit, even if they might not seem super important right now. Think of it as putting out the kitchen fire vs. a shiny new coat of exterior paint.
In general, you should spend the vast majority of your time doing the things that only you are uniquely qualified to do. Think setting the vision, establishing the culture, managing the board, and challenging the status quo. This of course is highly dependent on your particular situation, but generally there are areas that just cannot be delegated to others and only can be managed by the CEO (this doesn’t mean others can’t help/assist, but that the CEO leads the charge, sets the direction, and is closely involved).
Beyond that, I’ve often felt that CEOs should spend their time on areas that are uniquely in their wheelhouse: if you have a strong background in marketing, then stay closely involved in that function as you can add your expertise. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be involved in areas that you don’t have deep experience, but these are the areas where you should be over-investing in leaders with strong domain knowledge that you can rely on. Since I don’t have a strong engineering background, I hired the best CTO I could possibly find, encouraged her to hire strong engineering leads, and generally let her do her job without a lot of involvement from me. (This is not to say I abandoned this function, but stayed engaged more at the oversight level rather than deep management). A high performing CEO should spend valuable time where the most value can be added.
I generally tried to allocate my time as follows:
25% Board management (including investor relationships)
25% Vision and culture
25% Key clients and sales efforts
25% Team building, communicating, and development
Of course this varied day-to-day but over the long-run, it was where I felt my energy was best directed for high performance. More importantly, I tried to follow these simple rules:
Focus your CEO time on the things that only you can do.
Hire to strengthen the areas that aren’t in your wheelhouse and let those people do their job.
Urgent stuff needs to get right done now. Important stuff still needs to get done but you can be creative about when you do the work. Longer-term valuable stuff can be done in your downtime.
Lastly, a CEO friend of mine once told me that CEOs have intense periods of activity where your time is at a premium but not to be concerned about times where it seems like you literally have nothing to do. It’s part of the CEO rhythm and having periods of ‘downtime’ is reflective of a high-performing company. Use that time to your advantage!
I’d like to hear what’s worked for you. Drop me a note…
I've been a CEO or General Manager for over 17 years, most recently of FreeWheel, which we sold to Comcast in 2014 for $375 million. Along the way, I've learned some powerful lessons about what it takes to successfully scale a company and achieve an extraordinary outcome. Now I’m spending my time and energy to help other CEOs and companies succeed, because you don’t learn this stuff in MBA school and the stakes are too high to screw up.
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