May 5th 2011 | from the print edition
THANKS to closed doors and fierce gatekeepers, bosses are tricky to observe in their natural habitat. Yet it might be useful to know what they do all day, and whether any of it benefits shareholders. A new Harvard Business School working paper sheds some light.*
Researchers asked the chief executives of 94 Italian firms to have their assistants record their activities for a week. You may take this with a grain of salt. Is the boss’s assistant a neutral observer? If the boss spends his lunch hour boozing, or in a motel with his assistant, will she record this truthfully? Nonetheless, here are the results.
The average Italian boss works for 48 hours a week and spends 60% of that time in meetings. The most diligent put in another 20 hours. And the longer they work, the better the company does.
Less diligent chief executives are more likely to have one-to-one meetings with people from outside the company. The authors speculate that such people are trying to raise their own profile, perhaps to secure a better job. Bosses who work longer hours, by contrast, spend more of them meeting their own employees.
Bosses often complain that they get bogged down in day-to-day operations, says Rajesh Chandy, a professor at the London Business School. Regulations that make them legally responsible for their underlings’ wrongdoings are partly to blame. The prospect of jail is a powerful attention-grabber. Many bosses also feel they must dash around the world pitching to clients. Jim Hagemann Snabe, co-chief executive of SAP, a software firm, reckons that he met over 200 last year. Mr Chandy thinks bosses should spend less time with clients and more time thinking about the future.
How much time they spend thinking about anything is hard to measure. But in an experiment, Mr Chandy measured how often bosses use forward-looking words like “will” and “shall” in their public
statements. He concluded that bosses spend only 3-4% of their day thinking about long-term strategy.
Brian Sullivan, the chief executive of CTPartners, a headhunting firm, says the most difficult part of his job is saying no to people who want a piece of his time. “If it was up to our partners I would be at every pitch,” he says. Mr Sullivan says the only time he gets for blue-sky thinking is when he is in the sky. “Chief executives will rue the day when BlackBerrys work on planes,” he predicts.
Bill Gates took regular “think weeks”, when he would sit alone in a cabin for 18 hours a day reading and contemplating. This, it is said, led to such strategic masterstrokes as “the internet tidal wave memo” in 1995, which shifted Microsoft’s focus (some say belatedly) to the web. But not every boss thinks he needs more time for thinking. “You can hire McKinsey to do that for you,” says one.
* Oriana Bandiera, Luigi Guiso, Andrea Prat and Raffaella Sadun, “What Do CEOs Do?” Harvard Business School Working Paper 11-081.