Over the past six weeks, I’ve had the same conversation eight times with new CEOs: They explain to me how insanely busy they are and I suggest to them that they need to assign a “chief time officer” (CTO)—aka a really effective executive assistant.
Time is a CEO’s most precious resource. As we noted in an article called “Resolving the CEO’s dilemma,” the first step in getting control of a job so demanding is establishing careful time management. An effective CEO can accomplish an amazing amount, but nobody can do it all. Leaders are constantly forced to make trade-offs between extremely important priorities. By definition, focusing on any one thing means neglecting something else.
What consistently surprises me, however, is how many otherwise brilliant CEOs underinvest in developing a strong partnership with their EA to help manage their time. Some CEOs, of course, are masters at creating these partnerships, and I’ll try to summarize their best practices below. But too many ignore this crucial relationship and expose themselves to severe energy drain as a result.
If your EA is a bad partner in terms of managing time, she or he can break you. First, your agenda fills up with ceremonial calls on the “office of the CEO”—for retirements, customer-care-center openings, speeches, interviews, meet-and-greets, etc. These meetings fire a shotgun blast of distracting moments into your weekly agenda.
Second, a bad EA will open your calendar to the world, leading to lots of tug-and-war matches among members of your leadership team seeking to lay claim to your time. You probably don’t even know this is happening, but take a look outside your door sometime to see if two or three of these folks are hovering over the shoulder of your assistant, peering through your personal diary. They are deciding where and when you should be during the week and, in the end, the loudest or most manipulative is probably deciding your agenda.
Third, a bad EA can leave you breathless, with every second of the day packed with every request to talk to you. It feels efficient, because your days are fun and filled. But you will find yourself looking back each Friday and trying to figure out a single thing you accomplished. You’ll find your own to-do list has been given less priority than everyone else’s. You will be exhausted but ineffective, treading water instead of swimming forward.
In contrast, developing a great EA into a chief time officer can transform your effectiveness. Here are five best practices to get you thinking:
- Your CTO is custodian of the 60:40 rule. This rule states that 60% of the time you are reactive, working for others as leader of the firm, playing the CEO role. But 40% of the time should be devoted to your agenda, pursuing your multiyear objectives to transform your company. Your EA makes this happen. For example, he or she protects your Fridays and gives you three hours each morning (say, 7–10 AM) that are “on hold” for your priorities.
- Your CTO is custodian of your frontline communications. You define the “kings” of your company with whom you want to “direct connect,” and your EA makes sure that you talk to each king once a quarter. How might this happen? You carry a laminated card with all the kings and all their mobile phone numbers. Your EA updates you weekly with the set of “next calls” you need to make. You find 15-minute gaps in your diary—on the way to the airport, between meetings—where you are able to place four calls. Your EA keeps track and forces the cadence. The list can contain any important stakeholder. But emphasize the front line, because that’s the stakeholder that typically falls to the bottom of the list.
- Your CTO keeps you customer-focused. He or she makes sure every drive from every airport stops by a retail shop, a branch, a warehouse or some frontline part of your business. Before the car rushes you from the airport to local HQ, it stops and lets you talk to customers or employees. The signal quickly gets around the organization that these touchpoints matter to you.
- Your CTO hides you periodically to give you a chance to recharge or refocus. Rather than make every minute of every day transparent to every employee (so they can argue amongst themselves how you spend your time), your EA makes your calendar a confidential document. And occasionally, he or she makes you disappear. You left Japan and are due back in England. But what if you stopped at your summer home for 18 hours before rushing back to HQ? Who needs to know—and imagine how much stronger you will be with the battery recharged?
- Your CTO keeps you from getting fatter. You are worried about health. Your chief time officer knows your personal sustainability goals, and you’ve provided him or her with an incentive from your own wallet to help you achieve them. How much better will it be if your EA has even more motivation than you do to keep you healthy? The cookies will disappear from meeting rooms, you’ll see a lot more green and you’ll know you have a silent partner in your own personal sustainability fight.
These are five simple ideas. They assume that your EA is extremely good at managing your diary and making sure you are in all the key meetings to do your job. But these ideas also suggest how you can use time management to actually master the job, not just survive it.
Time is as important to you as talent and capital are to the company. You have a chief talent officer and a chief finance officer. There’s a chief time officer sitting outside your door. Sign ‘em up.