Beware of the meeting trap: how leaders should manage their time

By Kate Lee

Be intentional with your time. And beware of the meeting trap.

Time is the scarcest resource leaders have. How a leader chooses to allocate their time is a reflection on their priorities and how they lead, and directly impacts their effectiveness and the performance of the organization. A leader’s calendar sends a powerful message to their organization.

A seminal study conducted by Harvard Business School’s Michael E. Porter and Nitin Nohria tracked and analyzed how CEOs in large, complex companies manage their time. Porter and Nohria then offered recommendations for how CEOs could manage their time more effectively across their many responsibilities. Among the recommendations from the study were that CEOs should spend less time running the business, reserve more “alone time” for reflection, block unscheduled time for spontaneous interactions, reduce the average length of meetings, spend more one-on-one time with directors and customers and less with investors, and resist the constant lure of email.

While each of these recommendations remains spot on today, in the 10 years since the study has been published, the number of complexities and time traps have increased. In addition to email, text, and phone, our attention and our time are increasingly being allocated to tools including Zoom, Teams, Slack, and Webex.

The relative ease of connecting via digital platforms combined with our need to connect with and check in with our teams, our colleagues, and our organizations has resulted in a 12.9% increase in the number of meetings per person since the start of the pandemic. What’s more, we have seen the number of attendees per meetings increase by 12.5%, our time spent in meetings increase by 5%, and fragmented time (blocks of time to work shorter than two hours) increase by 23%.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Nohria writes that CEOs “should beware the lure of returning to their pre-pandemic work habits or getting overly attached to things that appeared to work well during the pandemic but may be ineffective in the long run. Much as organizations need to be strategic in the hybrid work patterns they embrace, leaders need to be strategic about how they use their time in this new workplace.”

The key here is not falling into the trap of meetings.

In his article, Nohria cautions that leaders need to be intentional about not “popping in” to non-essential meetings, over-inviting subordinates to meetings, and over-relying on video meetings for 1:1. Also critical, not filling “found” time, such as the commute, with meetings. Instead, Nohria suggests using this “alone time” for reflection.

As you look at your calendar, consider the recommendations Porter and Nohria offered for how CEOs could manage their time more effectively as these remain relevant. At the same time, recognize that time management has become more complex, especially as meetings have become easier to schedule and attend.

Be intentional with your time. And beware of the meeting trap.


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