The One Priority Leaders Need to Spend Time On (But Don't)

Last Updated Oct 19, 2010 1:26 PM EDT

When Robert Pozen counsels CEOs on how to spend their time, he shares one piece of advice that they almost had never considered. We'll get to that advice in a minute.

Pozen is an ideal person to provide counsel on this subject because, for much of his career, he has flown at high executive levels where time is at a premium. Now a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, Pozen was chairman of MFS Investment Management, ran the Fidelity Management & Research Co., served as associate general counsel at the SEC, and held variety of appointments at high-powered law firms. In other words, his experience is worth considering when it comes to time management.

Top execs usually plan their time by figuring out the top priorities of the organization, then determining who is best equipped to implement them, Pozen tells HBR.org. To often the answer is, "Me." The answer might be right, but the question is the wrong one to ask.

"The question is not who's best at performing high-priority functions, but which things can you and only you as the CEO get done? If you don't ask yourself that question, your time allocations are bound to be wrong. Lots of CEOs who have been great number twos flounder as number one because they are implicitly asking the wrong question. That happens because they usually rose to CEO by being very good at getting things done themselves."
In other words, delegate implementation to the next-best person, and spend your time doing only what the CEO can do. This could be meeting with high-level stakeholders, recruiting top talent, hearing concerns of key customers, or giving talks to important audiences.

"You really have to hold yourself back from taking on other functions or tasks even if you might excel at performing them," cautions Pozen

This is great advice for many top executives, not just CEOs. Figure out the unique tasks or roles that only someone in your position in the organization can do, and farm out the less important things--even if you do them better than anyone else in the business.

You can read the entire interview with Pozen at What Not to Spend Your Time On, at HBR.org.

(Photo by Flickr user ASurroca, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.