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The Proper Use of a Top Executive's Time

Written By: Mitchell Gooze
It's been a recognized axiom for almost a century that an enterprise's scarcest asset is its executives' time. That's still true - but it's what you should spend your time on that changes as the structure of the economy changes.

There are many areas that merit your attention. However, there's a difference between spending time on something and focusing on something. That is, there are activities that require your time, just because they do. And then there are the activities that deserve your committed focus, because they determine the success or failure of the business. 

Keeping that important distinction in mind, there are four areas that should be the center of a top executive's focus. These are:

1) Spending time with customers- approximately 25% of your time should be spent with customers
2) Aligning your company with market demand-your marketing/sales process. About 10% of your time should be focused here.
3) Developing the products that serve that demand-your product/service development process. This activity also demands about 10% of your time.
4) Long-term strategy - again, about 10% of your time

These four areas of focus sum to 55% of your time. That leaves 45% for all the "other stuff" on which you need to spend time. There are priorities there, too, of course. But first, let's look at the above four focus areas.

Focusing on the right activity:

Customers: Companies that are successful over the long haul are led by CEOs and top executives that spend roughly 25% of their time with customers. We all know that companies have to be customer led these days, and there's simply no other way for that to happen unless the leadership of the company spends its time where its focus should be - on customers. If there's something else that's more important to the success of your company than your customers . . . well, then naturally, spend your time there!

Marketing process: Drucker's classic observation that the corporation exists only to perform marketing, and that everything else is mere "costs", was prescient decades ago when he said it, and verifiably true today. The definition of marketing is "to align the capabilities of the enterprise with the needs of the market." That is the really the only thing that a company does today that provides value to its customers. Everything else is subordinate to it. Everything else is a cost of doing that. Everything else is merely a means to that end. Because of it's overwhelming importance to the fulfillment of your mission, you should spend about 10% of your time insuring that you have a defined, measurable, manageable, and adaptive marketing/sales process, that ties to the value your customers need, want, and demand.

Product/Service Development: While the marketing process identifies and defines a company's value, the product/service development process manifests that value. The development process is the way in which a company realizes its rasion d'etre: to align its capabilities with its market needs. About 10% of your time should be devoted to the top-level management of this function.

Strategy: Strategy has always been the domain of top management, and it still is. Despite pre-mature announcements of its death, it is - and will always be - alive and well. Certainly strategy takes different forms in different companies, in different industries, and in different economic environments. In the past it may have revolved around detailed financial forecasting. Today it may consist of defining the few simple rules that govern seemingly random short-term behavior. Or it may be something in between for your particular company right now. But it's perennially necessary.

Spend Time Wisely:

The remaining 45% of your time should be spent as the dictates of your particular situation demands. However, there are a couple areas that cannot escape your attention, and a couple that should not.

Human Resources:  We are in an era of scarce talent, and we will be for the foreseeable future. A company is its people, and its assets are its people's knowledge. Investing in a process and policies that recruit, retain and motivate the best people is the highest ROI investment you can make. As the leader of the company, spending face time with employees and defining HR strategy is an important task.

Finances: A company is ultimately an economic entity that must return a profit to its owners. If you spend time with customers, do your strategy, marketing/sales and product development right, the numbers should take care of themselves. Nonetheless, these numbers are ultimately what the company is about, and there's no way to avoid spending time on them.

Operations - a warning: While operations requires some attention, it should not be allowed to consume much of it. It's true that world-class operations are the ante to building a world-class company today. But accomplishing this level of performance is now a known and replicable skill - merely a baseline. It thus can be either outsourced altogether or delegated to your subordinates.

Free Time: There's a part of every top executive's job that reaches beyond the running of existing systems. The hallmark of breakaway companies is that they envision and try new management methods first, and you need time to discover these. How can you develop vision or discover new ideas if you spend all your time on the status-quo, on routine and scheduled activities?
And avoid the trap of letting free hours become buffer overruns from other allocated activities. And don't forget the documented value of "management by walking around."

How to go wrong:

What goes wrong is generally one or more of three things:

1) Less important things are allowed to occupy your time. The ability to say "no" is vital to an executive.
2) The right things may seem uninteresting. If you are an operations person, for example, then spending time on operations is the path of least resistance and greatest fun. But in this circumstance, the right things are ignored.
3) Less important things become crises demanding your time. This will happen if you have not appointed a staff competent enough to handle their areas of responsibility.

These three things are fixable; indeed, if they are broken they must get fixed to achieve high performance.

So, how are you spending your time?

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