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CEO Excellence: Time And Energy Practice

By Anna Peel. Originally published at ValueWalk.

ceo excellence

Excerpted from CEO EXCELLENCE: The Six Mindsets that Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest. Copyright © 2022 by Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller & Vikram Malhotra. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Time And Energy Practice

How heavy is a sixteen-ounce glass of water? On one hand, the answer is in the question. If you pick up the glass of water, you could probably guess the weight. But what if you held the glass of water in the air for an hour? Your hand would likely be aching, and it’d feel a lot heavier than sixteen ounces. And what if you held it in the air for a day? At that point we’d probably have to call an ambulance. The message: Even though the weight of a glass of water doesn’t change, how heavy it is depends on how long it’s been held.


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This metaphor applies to performance in most human endeavors. The key to body building, for example, is to oscillate between energy expenditure and recovery. In tennis, research shows that in between points the best competitors use precise recovery rituals that dramatically lower their heart rates by as much as 15 to 20 percent. Jack Nicklaus, one of the greatest golfers in history, wrote in Golf Digest, “I’ve developed a regimen that allows me to move from peaks of concentration into valleys of relaxation and back again as necessary. “When he was urged to spend longer stretches of time on his masterpiece The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci immodestly responded, “The greatest geniuses accomplish more when they work less.”

The best CEOs similarly recognize that this dynamic also applies to them. As Intuit’s Brad Smith shares, “My executive coach often said, ‘No one has ever lived to outwork the job. It will always be bigger than you. No matter how much you think you got here by hard work, you are not going to outwork it.’” Cincinnati Children’s Michael Fisher confirms, “Had I not taken care of myself and been consistent about it, there’s no way I could have made it ten years in this role.” Adidas’s Kasper Rorsted shares, “I think your return becomes dilutive the more time you spend. As a CEO, it’s easy to start diving into matters that are none of your business. However, if you create time constraints for yourself, you figure out what’s more important.”

In practice, what Rorsted’s philosophy translates into is a clear and disciplined operating model. He leaves the office most days at 6:00 p.m. He ensures he has time to run and exercise to keep in shape and is an enthusiastic skier. On weekends he’s resolute about spending his time with his wife and four children. “It’s not that I don’t like my colleagues,” he says, “but I don’t want to meet for a barbeque with one versus the other.” Not only does this allow him to remain objective as the boss, but he also sees it as a matter of fairness: “I think it’s inappropriate if I treat somebody differently than the others in the team—it creates a two-tier society.” He also says no to social opportunities that may come with the role unless they have a clear business reason. “If I were invited to the Oscars, I wouldn’t go,” he shares. “I’m just not interested.”

To make sure his time is spent only on his priorities, he plans everything at least three months ahead and with enough flexibility built in to respond to urgent matters as they arise. He clears his emails by the end of every day to keep issues from building up. He also ruthlessly prioritizes where he gets involved in the workplace. If leaders are doing well and have a good plan, he sees no need to spend time with them that could be better allocated elsewhere. “If the people do their job, I’m not really interested in interfering in their job,” he says.

The model Rorsted follows has worked well for him. During his eight years at the helm of Henkel, he tripled the company’s stock price. And while his story at Adidas is still being written, in his first three years he doubled its shareholders’ return and earned a place on Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year list.

Rorsted’s approach certainly isn’t for everyone, but as we looked across how all of the best CEOs control their time and energy we found a number of commonalities. By and large, they:

  • keep a “tight but loose” schedule
  • care enough to compartmentalize
  • infuse energy into their routine
  • tailor their support staff to their needs.

A Tight But Loose Schedule

Let’s take a look at keeping a “tight but loose” schedule for example.

It comes as no surprise to find that the best CEOs are extremely structured about how they use their time. As Mastercard’s Ajay Banga relays, “Time is your single most valuable resource, and it’s finite. The first two years were really hard. I’ve stumbled my way through time management, to be completely honest. I started badly, because I was trying to do everything—communicating, get- ting to know people, leading change, finding the people I could build new relationships with, and getting them to carry my message.” He continues, explaining what life is like when things aren’t well in control: “I was traveling as well. It was hard to sleep. I’d come back to my hotel room in Asia at 11 o’clock at night and I’d have one hundred emails from the US waiting to be answered. And I’d promised my team that I’d respond to every email and every phone call within 24 hours.”

Banga needed to get control of his calendar to strike the right balance of focus on different business priority areas, and to carve out some thinking time between meetings, especially when traveling. To do so, he adopted a color-coding system in his calendar. The time he spent for travel, with clients, regulators, internal, and so on were each assigned a different color. “If I wasn’t spending time in the right places in any of these areas, a quick look at the calendar would make that abundantly clear,” he shares. “One of my chief of staff’s primary jobs,” says Banga, “was to make sure that the balance of meetings was correct.”

To keep on top of a busy schedule and the demands of the job, some CEOs turn to an old-fashioned technique: making a list. “Even now I handwrite quarterly objectives for myself,” says Ecolab’s Doug Baker. “What do I need to get done? It could be as simple as starting the search for a leader. My objectives come out of the annual company objectives. It’s basically what needs to get done to make the strategy happen. That’s how I hold myself accountable.” Baker codes his list of objectives. One star means he’s working on it. A circle means it’s getting there. And a cross- out means it’s done. “No doubt it’s rudimentary, but when a lot of objectives aren’t started, I tell myself that I’ve got to get three things done before I head out the door.”

Check Point Software’s Gil Shwed sorts his to-do list into three categories. First are areas that need minor tweaks or improvement. Next are those that are bigger issues to solve that still require a lot of work. The last category are the big bold moves meant to get the business moving in the right direction. Explains Shwed: “If you’re finding every day that everything you’re doing is in the first cate- gory—trivial stuff—then either everything is wonderful, or you’re probably not needed or not adding enough value to the system.”

Notwithstanding all the structure CEOs put into their sched- ules, they’re just as disciplined about building in flexibility. Says Lockheed Martin’s Marillyn Hewson, “I tracked my time every month to make sure I was doing what was necessary to meet my goals. At the same time, you have to realize the job of a CEO is different every day. Stuff just drops in. If you don’t have a framework, you’re going to constantly be dealing with the crisis of the moment or with things that aren’t that necessary, and you can’t delegate because you don’t have a good rhythm. However, if you get a message, ‘We want you at the White House next week,’ you’ve got to be agile enough to move things around.”

Some of the best CEOs build blocks of open time into their schedules. Majid Al Futtaim’s Alain Bejjani sets a stretch target for how much time is not booked: “My aspiration is actually to be free seventy percent of the time, so I can think, reflect, and have the capacity to deal with important things as they come up. This is a struggle, but I haven’t lost hope!” He continues, “If I can become redundant, as in, the vast majority of things can be done the way I expect without my being in the room, I will have succeeded as a CEO. It’s a sign that we’ve developed the strength, brains, and muscles that are needed for the organization to thrive.”

With all the demands on a CEO’s time, any effective system requires learning when and how to say “no.” Galderma’s Flemming Ornskov explains his philosophy: “It’s very important for me that not every single hour of the day needs to belong to the company. I don’t think I become a good CEO in that way. Get balance in your life and stay in shape, because the CEO job is mentally and physically tiring and time-consuming.” To get this balance, he says, “The thing I had to learn was to say no. When someone calls me and says, ‘I want you to be the keynote speaker,’ or, ‘Don’t you want to do this off-site?,’ or ‘Let’s do a dinner,’ saying no feels uncomfortable initially, because people mean it in a friendly way. But to say no politely is important. After that, the key thing is how do I make the hours I’ve said ‘yes’ to as productive as possible.”

Westpac’s Gail Kelly shares a final tip on how to manage time-consuming outside events. “When I had to do a corporate dinner,” she shares, “I’d make sure I walked the tables or the room, but then when it was the right time to go I’d go.” Her team played a role with this, too. They’d move her on to the next group to speed things up or help her make a low-key exit. “Tomorrow would be another busy day, and I knew I needed to manage my energy,” says Kelly. “I had the discipline to get in my car and drive home.”

Time management is essential, but also relatively mechanical. Managing one’s mental and emotional state is vital to using the time effectively, and it starts with the ability to compartmentalize.

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