Time: Your most irrecoverable resource Executive transitions

23 February 2017

Executives who take on a new C-level role often find themselves working 80-hour work weeks, making burnout pretty much inevitable. Based on his experience in over 250 labs with new CFOs, Ajit Kambil discusses the five things new C-suite executives can do to take back their time.

Most senior executives, when they come into a very large company, will spend 12-hour days during the work week. Some of them spend time when they get home every day doing emails and so forth. That adds, you know, to a 14-hour day sometimes, and then there's at least 5 to 10 hours potentially on the weekend. And that's not sustainable in the long run.

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TANYA OTT: Hello . . . burnout?! We’re going to have some tips for tackling it today on the Press Room.

I’m Tanya Ott, and if you’re like me, when you start a new job, there’s a mix of excitement about all the potential and [being overwhelmed] about all of the work it’s going to take to get there. Lots of meetings, lots of email, lots of learning—just a lot of everything, whether you’re running a small business, working your way up middle management, or find yourself sitting in the C-suite for the first time.

Ajit Kambil can sympathize. He’s global research director for Deloitte’s CFO Program and creator of the Executive Transition Lab.

AJIT KAMBIL: The transition lab is a one-day workshop. It's individualized to senior C-suite executives today, where they come in and they think through how they're going to allocate their time, and their organization’s time and their priorities. It's a day where they really think through their team. How do they develop it further? How [will] they work with different stakeholders internally and externally? All of that they use to create a 180-day to a one-year work plan. So it's an intense workout, but it really seems to help accelerate executives in their transitions. And we've now done, just for our chief financial officers, over 1,100 [labs] across the world in six years.

TANYA OTT: What we're talking about today is managing your time as a new CFO, and as you mentioned when describing the transition labs, there's a whole lot that people that are new to the C-suite job have to be thinking about. Whether they're hired from outside a company or they're promoted from inside the company, they've got to learn the business, establish relationships, and they've got a whole lot of people and projects that are going to be competing for their time. It's probably no surprise to anybody that that can often translate into 60- or 80-hour work weeks for the initial months that you're on the job. What is the risk to executives if they allow that to happen to themselves?

AJIT KAMBIL: It actually tends to go more to the 80-hour work weeks. The real risk is two things: One, they burn out; second, if they don't get their time back, they lose focus on the really important things to do. So it's really important for them to get a handle on their time. Most senior executives, when they come into a very large company, will spend 12-hour days during the work week, and then there's at least 5 to 10 hours potentially on the weekend. So it easily adds up to 70 hours. Some of them spend time when they get home every day doing emails and so forth. That adds to a 14-hour day sometimes, and you know that's not sustainable in the long run. So it's a good idea to figure out how to capture your time back and get energy to focus on the most important things.

TANYA OTT: You have been running these transition labs, and you've worked with about 1,100 CFOs over the last six years, so you've been able to talk with them in depth about what they're experiencing. What have you learned from those transition lab participants about how to manage time when you're new in a C-suite job?

AJIT KAMBIL: I've personally done 250 of these transition labs. What we’ve really learned is that it's very intense for executives. In fact, just the other day I was doing a transition lab, and I was asking the CFO, “How much time do you spend reading anything outside of your work?” And it was less than 10 minutes a day, maybe 5 minutes a day. That's just capturing the news that comes on the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. These jobs can be so intense that at times they're going from meeting to meeting to meeting or dealing with different issues, and they're not getting enough time to step back and really think through the heart of the problem and focus on a strategy to overcome the problem. So it’s really important that they make time for themselves and capture that time back. We talk about five things that can help them capture their time back. One is the screening and scheduling things better than they have ever done before. The other part of it is routinizing and delegating tasks. And another thing that's important is really to have a “kill list.”

TANYA OTT: So let's talk about those. I will just share my experience. I'm not a Deloitte employee, but I am the vice president of another organization, and I have roughly 40 to 50 people that are under me. So not exactly at the C-suite level, but it was a big jump for me professionally. I found that I really struggled with the meetings, because people would put meetings on my calendar, and there would be meetings I would have to be in. It took me a while to figure out which of them I really do need to attend, which of them I don't need to attend. What advice do you give to the folks that you're working with?

AJIT KAMBIL: So obviously in the first 30 to 45 days you'll get invited to a lot of meetings, and it's really important, perhaps, to go to those meetings because you’re still getting to know the people and the context in which you will operate going forward. But after that time, it's perhaps time to say, hey, these particular classes of meetings are not so important to me to be successful, and I need to have somebody else from my team attend those if it's needed for them to attend. Now obviously [if] the CEO is asking you to meetings, and perhaps even marathon meetings, you cannot avoid that. But there are going to be other meetings you could probably start declining and stop doing.

TANYA OTT: Yeah, my CEO certainly gets precedence when she calls.

AJIT KAMBIL: Absolutely. In fact, for me too, I have sort of a seven-layer list that, when my boss asks for something, that's high priority. I've asked my executive assistant, who is very critical to all of this, to schedule calls based on seven different levels of set criteria to get to me. That helps screen and make sure that my time is used for the most important things that I can allocate my time to. The same thing applies to the CFOs or C-suite executives. You know, having a great executive assistant is really important. Having them understand your priorities really early on and having almost a rule set that they can use for screening calls, deciding who to put on your calendar, and when to put them on your calendar is a really important discussion we encourage your C-suite executives to have. It's surprising: Many don't do that, or many don't pay attention to having a really good executive assistant to support them.

TANYA OTT: I would think the other benefit of taking yourself out of some meetings and putting another person on your team in those meetings is that it, at some level, in some instances, is a professional development tool for those folks on your team.

AJIT KAMBIL: Absolutely. It's a wonderful professional development tool. As we see these C-suite roles really expand in scope and responsibility, sometimes we encourage the executives to think about taking not a direct report but a high-talent person that's reporting to one of their direct reports, and have them become a chief of staff or have a title like that for about a year’s rotation. What the individual would do is sort of shadow you as a leader, attend meetings on your behalf, and do a variety of things on your behalf where you cannot make the time to directly attend the meetings and so forth. That does two things: It gives that individual real visibility into your role, and it gives them an opportunity to connect with a number of stakeholders within or outside the organization and really learn what it takes to be a senior-level executive.

TANYA OTT: A few months ago, I talked with two folks who look at the idea of scarcity, whether it's scarcity of resources or, importantly, scarcity of time, and some of the things that can result that are maybe not so positive in the workplace if we're all feeling incredibly stressed to get things done. And you're largely alluding to this idea of scarcity of time, and there are things that take so much attention and distract us. One of them, I think we might all agree, is email. I mean, the volume of email that we get is intense.

AJIT KAMBIL: You hit the nail on the head. I called email a weapon of mass distraction. You see it all around: people constantly looking at their iPhones, looking at their computer, getting distracted. There's lot of research done on distraction and how much time it takes to come back to an issue if you do get distracted. Time is the only finite resource of all executives, and it doesn't come back. So they have to manage this resource well, not only for themselves but also their organization. One of the ways I manage my email, probably to the frustration of some of my colleagues, is I only respond to emails at certain times of the day. I block off email time, and the rest of the time I choose to focus on what I need to get done, and then I'll get back to an email towards the end of the day. I think it's important for folks to say, technology for the first time allows us all this connectivity, but at the same time it doesn't mean we have to instantaneously respond. It may be better if we take some time to think through our responses and not get caught up in this email cycle.

TANYA OTT: So you schedule time to answer email. You also suggest scheduling time out to think. I love that idea. I've actually started doing that after the scarcity conversation that I had: just blocking off time in my schedule so I have time to think about the big issues in my industry, and to do that reading that I need to do to better understand the forces at play.

AJIT KAMBIL: Yes. Again, that's where a good assistant comes. Have them block different times in your calendar to think or maybe even to just go hit the treadmill somewhere, because that may be uninterrupted time where you’re focused on processing some of the issues that are going on in the company and helping you formulate how you might respond to certain complex issues. If you're multitasking and going from task to task every 30 minutes or so, it doesn't allow you that time to grapple with the big ones. So blocking off an hour a day . . . you take a walk, or “the Truman walk,” I think it was called. It’s a wonderful way to step back and say, what is really important today, and how are we going to really tackle this tough problem and get the right resources.

TANYA OTT: One of the other things that you said in addition to screening meetings and scheduling time to deal with email and things like that is that it's important for new C-suite execs to develop a routine, to routinize what they're doing. What do you what do you mean by that?

AJIT KAMBIL: Often, people come into an organization, and they see the organization is doing a lot of work, but everything is going from one crisis and one fire to another, and putting out one fire and going to the next. What that tells you is maybe the organization has really not created a routine to solve problems consistently. So if you come into an organization and you keep seeing this kind of behavior, everything getting done at the last minute, people scrambling, you may want to look at it and say, why do these people scramble? Is that they don't have access to the right data in a timely way? Is a process of creating a particular report broken? If it is, [figure] out why it's broken and [create] a routine to create that report in an effective way. Do that routine correctly once, and then everybody else can follow that routine the next time around and free up a lot of organization time and your time, because they may not be pulling on you in that ad hoc way. Senior executives should try to get as many things routinized that they can in their organization because their real value is to focus on the important things that are more ad hoc, less routine, less structured. But if it can be made into a routine, get it done, get it delegated to other folks and not have it impact your time.

TANYA OTT: Delegation is sometimes a really hard thing to do, particularly if someone is new to a C-suite position and they're used to being a little bit more hands on.

AJIT KAMBIL: We see that with internal promotes. One of the first questions I ask them is, have you stopped doing your old job yet? (laughs)

TANYA OTT: What do they say?

AJIT KAMBIL: They kind of look sheepishly at that question and say, no, I haven't quite done that . . .

TANYA OTT: Because they know they should extract themselves from that, but it's hard!

AJIT KAMBIL: Exactly. So the first thing is get rid of your old job. Acknowledge you’re promoted, and do your job. But it's not always that easy. Delegation challenges for some individuals have to do with trust. If they don't fully trust their team and the staff that they've inherited, it's hard for them not to get involved and not to oversee. But what they have to do is time-box this: Get the right staff in place that they can delegate. Verify one or two times, and then trust to people who do the work to deliver it well. It's really important at these levels to be able to delegate well and have strong direct reports who themselves may delegate further down into the organization. But it's really critical, because otherwise you can’t free up the time to deal with the ambiguous, the complex, the things that the CEO’s looking to you to help them navigate.

TANYA OTT: Some of that really is about, when you get in there, assessing whether or not the organizational structure is built in a way that you know there are the kinds of people and the right people in those jobs to be able to delegate.

AJIT KAMBIL: Absolutely. So we call it the time-talent trade-off. If there are individuals who are not strong in your leadership team and in the next layers of your organization that you depend on, it's just going to kill your time. What we try to do is get people to resolve all the talent issues within the first year in the role, ideally within the first 180 days of their new role, but sometimes that's more difficult to do for various reasons. But the way to think about it is an executive may be in their role for about five years. The average tenure for CFO is around five [years]. So if their team is not operating at a top level within the first year, that's 20 percent opportunity cost of time. There are multiple dimensions of time: There's the daily time, but there's also—if you're thinking about a five-year run in a role—you've got to fix your team within that first year; otherwise your brand is affected, and the output of your organization is affected.

TANYA OTT: So, you cap it all off with saying you have to have a “kill list,” which sounds really brutal! What is a kill list?

AJIT KAMBIL: The kill list! I always tell every CFO, what's your back-pocket kill list? There are two reasons for a kill list. One reason for a kill list is to ask the question, what should an organization stop doing? What are we doing that's no longer so relevant? That's important because what it does is it allows you to look at things and say, “If we stop doing this, it frees up my people and my time resources to focus on other things.” The other reason to do this is it also frees up capital resources if we stop doing things. Or [if] you get rid of a business that's no longer performing as well, it saves everybody's management attention when you do that. But within your own organization, say your finance organization, if you ask people to really inventory what they do and ask which of these things they would say has the lowest priority from a client perspective, or ask your clients whether the reports are working for them, you'll probably find a lot of things [that] the organization you just inherited is doing are no longer as relevant. So stopping those things is a really good way of freeing up time and freeing up the energies of your organization to focus on other things.

TANYA OTT: What are the biggest obstacles to developing a kill list and then actually killing things on the kill list?

AJIT KAMBIL: I often say it's habit. People have gotten used to doing things a certain way. It may be something that gives a person a sense of accomplishment if they're in your organization and producing this report. But if the customer no longer finds it valuable, it's no longer valuable, so why do it? So you have to be sensitive to the fact some things may give people status and a sense of worth and so forth. But that's not the reason why we should have that in the organization. We’ve got to try a change. Then, on the customer side of the equation, you may find very few customers really demand this data, or the customer may not have thought through how they could, with a different report, have more insight into an issue. So sometimes it takes the CFO and the financial planning and analysis team to really work with a customer to reframe what data they should have for planning and action. It's a change process on both sides, within the organization as well as outside. It's about overcoming habits of the past and saying what's really important for the future.

TANYA OTT: Ajit Kambil, it’s been wonderful speaking with you again.

AJIT KAMBIL: Thank you, Tanya. It’s been a delight.

TANYA OTT: Ajit Kambil is global research director for the CFO Program at Deloitte and also the creator of Deloitte’s Executive Transition Labs. He says when they created the lab they talked with a lot of a CEOs, board members, and other key stakeholders, and, to a T, they all said, look, we understand that C-suite jobs are really intense. They’re demanding. We want a whole person in that role. We want to make sure they’re doing things for themselves, that they’re taking care of themselves. Ajit has more ideas for how to strike that ever-elusive work-life balance in his Executive Transitions series at dupress.deloitte.com.

Lots of cool stuff there, including our podcast archive—which is chock-full of thought-provoking, 20-minute bits of inspiration. You don’t want to miss it—so subscribe on our website or your favorite podcast app. I’m Tanya Ott for the Press Room. Catch you again in two weeks.

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