At the heart of CEO effectiveness

At the heart of CEO effectiveness

The most valuable resources of CEOs are their time and energy.

CEOs and staff can work together to strengthen effectiveness with customers, shareholders, stakeholders, and citizens. They need to be efficient and effective in each interaction. High-performing support staffs can help their bosses achieve these aims, which are even more important in the coronavirus era, while amplifying their reach and sharpening their focus.

By CEO staff, we mean chiefs of staff and executive assistants (EAs). Less commonly, an organization will have a dedicated office of the CEO. In bringing structure, roles, and practices to the CEO’s day, these critical staff members can boost a CEO’s effectiveness. As well as actively leading, CEOs must make room for strategically focused reflection and creativity, energizing the organization, and receiving candid feedback. CEO staffs help their bosses identify, prioritize, and protect time for these things, which can make the difference between realized ambition and lost opportunity.

Despite their importance, the inner workings of CEO support staffs are not generally well understood. Two otherwise similar companies can have vastly different staff practices and structures. Our recent, pre-COVID-19 survey of 94 companies and in-depth interviews with EAs and chiefs of staff reveals current practices and suggests some new approaches.

Different models of CEO support staffs

Almost all the companies we surveyed had one or two EAs working full time for the CEO. About two-thirds also had a chief of staff or equivalent role. Only 15% of surveyed companies had an office of the CEO. Such arrangements were more common at government agencies; holding companies with large, complex portfolios; and businesses that were undergoing organizational change without the aid of a chief transformation officer. These offices tended to have ten or fewer employees, including executive assistants, chiefs of staff, and often the heads of legal, business development, administrative, public relations, and increasingly corporate strategy.

In our survey, most companies with an office of the CEO had at least $2 billion in revenue. The CEO staffs of large companies also tended to have greater breadth of responsibilities and duties. Ultimately, however, the organization of a CEO’s staff is less important than the scope of support and how its members work together. Here’s what we learned from our research.

How a staff helps the CEO succeed

Similar to most other staff functions, the CEO’s support staff needs to master both strategic and tactical activities. Great staffs are defined by their ability to deliver broad objectives and have influence on the organization.

Orchestrating the Calendar. The calendar is a primary tool for driving CEO effectiveness. Putting an item on the calendar explicitly establishes its importance. As a strategic tool, the calendar should broadly reflect the organization’s priorities over the next 12 to 18 months. If it does not, the urgent will swamp the important. Hence, skillfully managing a calendar is one of the staff’s most important roles. CEOs have more control over their calendars than they might realize. Their staffs can help them orchestrate the timing of board interactions, investor outreach, customer visits, and staff meetings so that they are “on” when it matters most. “In every day, there are probably only 200 minutes that really matter,” explained one CEO.

Managing a Calendar’s Rhythm. A calendar is more than a collection of appointments; it should have a rhythm of public events, one-on-one conversations, reflection, professional activities, and personal time. One of the hardest jobs of the CEO’s staff is saying no. To preserve the flow of the day and reserve time for what is truly important, a critical calendar task is to screen internal meetings and turn away well-meaning executives and teams whose affairs can be handled elsewhere. To do so, the staff needs to win the CEO’s trust and internalize his or her chief concerns.

On the flip side, the staff should be opening time in the calendar for communication with employees. For example, CEOs need to hear regular, candid feedback. Ideally, honest brokers come from throughout the organization—not just near the top. And as part of succession planning and talent development, CEOs must meet with high-potential reports. They should also be meeting regularly with the top 40 to 50 leaders in the company. These meetings will occur in a variety of settings, from one-on-one and formal meetings to time outside of headquarters. A skillful staff can play a role in making sure that such conversations, and appropriate venues, are built into the calendar over the course of the year.

In addition to highlighting strategic priorities, a calendar should carve out room for solitude. Successful CEOs need not only to be present and convey energy but also to be able to step back, slow down, reflect, and imagine—to engage in the System 2 thinking popularized by psychologist Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. This practice leads to better insights into innovation, strategy, and execution. It improves outcomes and credibility with boards, leaders, employees, and other stakeholders. With discipline, structure, practice—and the help of their support staff—even the most harried CEO can find time to reflect. Finally, the CEO’s work calendar will allot time for exercise, family commitments, and medical appointments.

By thoughtfully and skillfully guiding the flow of the calendar, a support staff can help the CEO navigate fluidly through both time demands of internal and external stakeholders and personal commitments. One EA said that she set aside time at the end of each month for what she calls a “look back and look ahead,” identifying what went well and what did not go well in the past and finding ways to build momentum in the future.

Of course, the CEO’s calendar is a moving target and beyond the full control of staff. Emergencies, urgencies, and contingencies will always arise. One of the staff’s most valued proficiencies is the ability to juggle the anticipated demands on the CEO’s time while organically building in flexibility for unexpected events.

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About the Author:

Paul Imison
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