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Time Management Strategies for Executives

When you’re the leader, time is at a premium. Many different stakeholder groups are relying on you to make decisions and advance the company agenda in a timely way. If you don’t develop smart ways to manage your time and energy, your calendar can quickly become bloated with appointments and calls — and your days can become a study in chaos. In my over 45 years of leadership experience, including C-Suite tenures as President of Nabisco Foods and CEO of Campbell Soup Company, I’ve learned a few ways to manage my time better so I can be more helpful, to more people, in a more efficient way. I’d like to share them with you.

Rest assured, these time management strategies for executives are helpful to leaders at any level of their career. Even if you haven’t ascended to the executive level or c-suite, try these out to free up your time and make a bigger impact in your organization, no matter your job title.

Manage Meetings Better

Many people in the modern workplace have a love/hate relationship with meetings. On the one hand, we recognize their potential. After all, when run properly, they can be immensely productive – even energizing. Theoretically, meetings are essential to getting things done. But in the harsh reality of the 21st century, they often end up being slogs and time-wasters. Why? Because they start late, go on too long, are disorganized, or suffer from poor preparation either from the participants or the leader of the meeting. It doesn’t have to be this way. All you need to transform meetings from a perturbing time-suck into a structured opportunity to move things forward is a clear process for managing them properly.

First, make guidelines. Once you’ve got guidelines, enforce them with discipline to show respect for your own time – and everybody else’s. (Even if you are a more junior employee, you can still use these tips with higher-ups and teammates to collaboratively create best practices around meetings.)

I develop these in greater detail in my meetings manifesto here, but at a high level, the rules I’ve created to manage meetings (and thusly time) better are below. To be clear, I hold myself to these rules as stringently as I do anyone else.

Be reasonable. Plan meetings that occur between 9AM-5PM. Everybody’s time is valuable; we all have competing priorities in every area of our life, and have other things to do outside work hours.

Be on time. Punctuality is a must. If the meeting starts late, I guarantee it will still end on time so we can all honor our commitments to our next appointments.

Be succinct. If you’re properly prepared, you should be able to adequately discuss any topic – including world peace – in half an hour. Of course, there are exceptions, but I like to set this as the gold standard.

Be clear. My mantra is “clarity is next to godliness.” To add structure to this expectation, I use a simple framework to ensure we can cover everything in the allotted time. Tell people that you expect them be able to clearly convey the answer to three simple questions in the course of the discussion:

  • What’s working?
  • What’s not?
  • What’s next?

Try using these guidelines as inspiration for your own meeting guidelines. Whatever meeting practices you develop, make sure to leverage them with unwavering consistency; the more people know what to expect, the smoother things will go! And you’ll be surprised how much more time everybody has when group discussions are conducted with efficiency.

Protect What’s “Sacred”

You may have heard some variation of the aphorism, “What matters most must never be at the mercy of what matters least.” attributed both to German writer, Goethe, and to dear-to-me leadership thinker, Stephen Covey. It’s a simple notion but of the utmost importance to time management. To have the most impact, it is essential to identify what matters most to your leadership. Obviously, this is deeply personal and can vary. But whatever you identify as mission critical, that should be considered “sacred” and you should engineer your schedule in a way that protects and elevates it.

For me, at Campbell Soup Company in particular, what mattered most what raising employee engagement levels to world-class (which was key to achieving top-tier financial performance). To do that, I knew a top priority would be connecting with people. If I wanted people to engage with my vision for the company, I couldn’t stay sequestered in my executive office away from the action. I had to find a way to interact personally with all the employees who would bring that vision to life. And, I needed to roll up my sleeves and get my finger on the pulse of the organization.

On paper, I had a punishing schedule and it might seem like I couldn’t find the time. But if something is truly imperative, you learn to make the time in a creative way. So, my assistant gave me a pedometer and blocked out an hour on my calendar every day to walk all throughout the building of our corporate headquarters in Camden, NJ. Daily, I put on my sneakers and briskly walked through every nook and cranny until I had reached 10,000 steps (the daily number of steps recommended by the American Heart Association).

This had a dual effect. It allowed me to work towards my top priority of connecting with people — and it helped me champion a health initiative company-wide as the pedometer gave me cause to celebrate that I was getting my heart-healthy steps. On my travels through each department, I got to have valuable face time with people at every level of the organization. Employees had an opportunity to celebrate wins, bring me concerns, or just connect with me about highlights in their personal lives. Most importantly they got to see that I cared about them, was paying attention, and was “all in.” It may seem gratuitous to devote an entire hour to this each day. But this practice accelerated the pace of change in our organization. By protecting that time as sacred, we were actually able to get things done faster as an enterprise because these walkabouts deepened my relationship with employees in a productive way.

Take some time to identify the top 1-3 things you need to do to achieve success in your leadership. What actions can you take in service to those top 3 things? Choose some that are “sacred”, protect them at all costs, and make time for them in your schedule. To enhance your process even more and increase your odds of success, I recommend enlisting partners in this initiative. My partners were often my Executive Assistants but you can collaborate with colleagues or employee groups to identify what’s important to your team and protect your top priorities together. Trust me, you will save time and energy in the long run.

Power Up Your Commute

It’s common to think of time spent in transit as “down” time. Travel time can feel unconducive to crossing things of your to-do list. Understandably so. In a plane, train, or automobile there are often untold stimuli from traffic, noise, and other passengers that can interfere with the type of work that requires deep focus. But that doesn’t mean we should write it off altogether. Yes, travelling is perhaps not ideal for certain types of tasks (although this varies person-to-person). But a commute can also offer a welcome respite from the bustle of an office environment. You just have to identify the kinds of things you can get done during your travel time and smartly manage your time around that knowledge.

For me, at Nabisco and Campbell, I was devoted to a practice of writing handwritten notes of appreciation to employees all over the globe. They weren’t empty notes of thanks. These notes recognized substantial accomplishments and contributions. And they meant a lot – both to me and the recipients. It was important to me to carve out time to get them done. I found that the best way for me to ensure they got written was to allocate my time spent commuting home from the office to write them. Every day in the car I dutifully wrote the notes. I even enjoyed the ritual; it was inspiring to celebrate all the noteworthy accomplishments of employees worldwide.  This endeavor only became manageable because I was committed to using my time in the car to do something I knew was worthwhile.

Granted, I was privileged to be riding as a passenger with a driver during these commutes. It’s likely your situation is different in one way or another. (You can’t write notes too well on a bumpy subway car for example.) But no matter what your commute looks like, you shouldn’t rule out finding creative ways to power up your commute.

Illustratively, let’s say one of your leadership goals is pursuing personal development. This is often one of the first things that falls by the wayside when leaders’ workloads get hefty. But a commute opens up a whole new window of time in your day. Maybe you find a leadership book on tape, a podcast about management effectiveness, or an online course that you can listen to. Whether you drive, or take the bus or train, now all you need to explore your development initiative is some speakers in your car or a pair of earbuds.  That’s just one way to take advantage of what might seem like “down time.” With a little brainstorming, you can probably find something to do that saves you time and keeps you motoring towards progress, regardless of how you get from point A to point B.

There you have it. Three of my top time management strategies for executives. They have served me well throughout my career and I hope they are helpful to you too. But I don’t have all the answers. I love hearing from other leaders too. I’m curious: what strategies have you used to manage time and energy? I invite you to join the leadership conversation and share with me in the comments.

Interested in learning more about advancing your leadership competence and maximizing your time? Join me at one of my upcoming leadership boot camps. I teach this program personally to empower leaders to serve with greater impact. The 2-day program leaves you with practices you can put to work on Monday morning. And it kicks off a lifetime of ongoing leadership growth. This is an exclusive opportunity and space is limited. Apply today. 

Doug Conant is remarkable—and so is this work.
– Stephen M. R. Covey
Author of The Speed of Trust

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