Daniel Vasella, CEO of Novartis AG, is in charge of 98,000 employees in 140 countries at his giant drug and health care products company, which had $38.1 billion (Rs1.63 trillion now) in revenue last year. Yet, for all his authority, he sometimes feels like a prisoner — to his calendar.
“I am locked in,” he says. He is booked nearly solid until September, with back-to-back meetings and trips that were scheduled months ago. “Due to the constraints, I have to put down in priority things I like to do and that would be very interesting. I can’t spend as much time as I would like to at hospitals, talking with doctors and patients who use our products.”
Other CEOs are equally chained to crammed agendas. They complain about a lack of spontaneity in their workdays and little time to mull over problems that crop up. They often have to make do with phone calls and emails when a face-to-face meeting might be more effective.
(Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint)
Far more than their predecessors, top executives face many demands from many different people. “Where CEOs a decade ago may have had five choices, they have 100 — and because they’re under more scrutiny, they are more pressured to be visible and make themselves available,” says Richard Wellins, senior vice-president of global marketing at Development Dimensions International, a Pittsburgh-based consultant.
To start with, executives are at the helm of much larger companies than existed even a short time ago. They spend considerable time globetrotting to visit employees and customers dispersed around the world. They are expected to stay in close touch with a growing list of constituents — from directors and big investors to government regulatory officials and potential business partners. They are also in demand to serve as directors of other organizations, to appear on television, to give speeches, to headline conferences and to participate in non-profit and civic groups.
“With each request, I have to make a judgement about whether this is something important for the company, something I would enjoy doing, or something I want to do to help someone else,” says Vasella.
He keeps himself in check by occasionally stepping back to evaluate his plans, questioning whether he could do his job differently. When he has to give presentations to analysts, he asks himself whether they really add to sales and earnings.
Like Vasella, Mark Hurd, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, thinks meetings with customers are crucial to expanding profits and shouldn’t be sacrificed. He tries to visit at least one customer whenever he is travelling for another purpose.
The problem is that it is impossible to predict months in advance, when trips are being planned, which customers will be most important to see. So, he makes sure he has some breathing space on his calendar. He leaves some time each day for things that just come up. That can be anything from a call from an executive at another company to an impromptu meeting with one of his own managers.
Planning downtime for unexpected meetings isn’t easy for executives on the go. Kathleen Murphy, CEO of ING US Wealth Management, says her calendar is booked a year ahead for meetings she holds every quarter with employees in different parts of the US. She spends around 60% of her time travelling.
These days, she looks forward to the time she has for herself on planes. “No one can reach me by phone, and I can get reading and thinking done,” she says.
When she is back at her office in Hartford, Connecticut, she has to find a way to quickly catch up and then move ahead. She often schedules meetings at half-hour intervals during her workdays, which, typically, are 12 hours long.
“I ask pointed questions to make sure (subordinates) know I am focused on what is driving the business,” she says. “It is not about keeping them on their toes, but about having meetings that matter.”
The single most crucial element for surviving such a schedule, she says, is to have a competent team to which you can delegate important jobs. “At my level, you can’t get caught in the weeds,” she says. “You have to move back to a more strategic position.”
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