Researchers at Harvard Business School have conducted the most thorough investigation ever of how CEOs use their time.
Over 12 years, the research team tracked some 60,000 working hours performed by 25 CEOs of publicly listed companies to see how they allocated their personal presence across their organisations’ various constituencies.
One of the most significant findings that emerged from the data was that CEOs place significant weight in the assistance of their direct reports: often highly talented leadership figures themselves, who help CEOs to decant their messages throughout organisational levels and departments. But the relationships can falter if the bond of trust breaks down, according to the researchers.
“We found that it’s critical for each member of the leadership team to have the capabilities to excel and earn the CEO’s full trust and support,” they write in Harvard Business Review.  “Any weaknesses in this group significantly reduce the CEO’s effectiveness, because dealing with work that reports should have handled, and cleaning up after them, eats up valuable time.”
In fact, they add, “when our CEOs gathered as a group across cohorts to see how things were going after they had been in office awhile, their number one regret was not setting high-enough standards in selecting direct reports. Many CEOs told us this was because they focused too much on the present and not enough on the future when they first stepped into the role. Direct reports who could manage the status quo were often not the ones who could help the CEO take the company to a new level.”
Given the intrinsic value of close working between CEOs and direct reports, how can each side of the bargain ensure the relationship is working?
The Institute of Leadership and Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The most important thing to remember with regards to this research is that you can only be good as a leader if you surround yourself with good people, but finding the right people is a challenge for any leader – particularly CEOs. The findings also reinforce or restate a recurring theme that crops up in our own research, which is the importance of trust. At that level, you are appointing people who could potentially be your successors.
“However, if you’re new to an organisation, it’s very difficult to look ahead and say, ‘This is what I need now, but actually I’m not going to go for that – I’m going to go for what I think I’ll need in the future.’ For the majority of CEOs, that’s really a leap too far.”
Cooper notes: “in the end, it’s about developing people. Get the person who’s right for the organisation’s present pressures – then help them grow and develop into the person who could respond to, and play a key role in surmounting, future challenges. That will enable you to build and nurture that all-important trusting relationship with your direct reports. And along the way, be mindful of the need for effective succession planning.”
For further thoughts on building trust, check out these learning resources from the Institute
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