It turns out that some unstructured time is actually important for executive leaders, management experts say, allowing for spontaneous interactions, time to think and bandwidth for putting out internal fires. The value of that time comes down to two factors: how much leaders can really take and still do their jobs effectively and how it is spent.
A study published last year by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter and the school’s dean, Nitin Nohria, looked at how 27 CEOs spent their time over three months, coded in 15-minute increments and cataloged 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It found that the average CEO works a relentlessly tight schedule of 9.7 hours per weekday, conducting business on nearly 80 percent of weekend days and 70 percent of vacation days. And that just 25 percent of a CEO’s work time, on average, is not scheduled in advance, and so allows for more spontaneous interactions.
Trump’s “executive time,” meanwhile -- at 60 percent of his schedule -- appears to be more than twice that.
“Where and how CEOs are involved determines what gets done and signals priorities for others. It also affects their legitimacy,” Nohria and Porter wrote in the 2018 piece. “A CEO’s schedule (indeed, any leader’s schedule), then, is a manifestation of how the leader leads and sends powerful messages to the rest of the organization.”
Harvard Business School professor Raffaela Sadun has also studied how executives use their time. One of the investigators behind the Executive Time Use survey, a project that has had more than 1,100 CEOs of companies in six countries log their time in 15-minute increments, Sadun says “unstructured time” is notoriously hard to track.
Her studies, she said, have found that 85 percent of CEOs' time was spent working with other people, and just 15 percent of their time was spent alone.
“The constant impression from [CEOs] I talk to is that they’re constantly starving for time,” she said. “It would be a luxury for them to have five hours a day to think or work by themselves.”
The Axios report suggests the “executive time” may be used to disguise meetings that could be leaked and the time may include calls with heads of state that don’t appear on his schedule. Even if some, or even much, of Trump’s “executive time” is spent with others in meetings and phone calls, Sadun said, she was still struck by the difference, particularly for a job running something as complex as the U.S. government.
“What I think is true, and what the data seems to suggest, is if you work in a small organization, or if you work in an environment that is not very complex, it might work to have this informal, unstructured style,” she said. “You can walk around. You can observe. But when an organization becomes large and complex, it’s very hard.”
Trump’s background as the CEO of a family-owned business may also play a role.
“In the data we do find that family [company] CEOs are much more likely to have that unstructured approach," she said. "I wonder if this is a case where you have a manager just carrying on with the same style of work he had prior to the White House. The danger is the style of work needs to match the needs of the organization.”
Given the public ambiguity of Trump’s “executive time,” -- some of it does seem to be spent in meetings that aren’t on official schedules -- it’s hard to make comparisons. Porter and Nohria’s study finds that the average CEO takes 37 meetings in any given week and spends 72 percent of their time in meetings.
Meanwhile, the official public meetings described in Trump’s schedule, Axios noted, amounted to 77 hours over the three-month period, or an average of about 15 percent of his time.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders responded to Axios’s story saying “President Trump has a different leadership style than his predecessors and the results speak for themselves." She added that “while he spends much of his average day in scheduled meetings, events, and calls, there is time to allow for a more creative environment.” A tweet by director of Oval Office operations Madeleine Westerhout said what the leaked schedules do not show are “the hundreds of calls and meetings @realDonaldTrump takes everyday.”
Indeed, Trump might seem to follow some of what Nohria and Porter advocate -- carving out blocks of uninterrupted time alone, making time for spontaneity that can make a leader seem accessible and authentic, not spending so much time in meetings that they can’t switch gears in the moment.
“In our debriefings, CEOs who discovered that they had left little room for spur-of-the-moment meetings were often surprised and quick to recognize the need for change,” the two wrote.
Yet what matters isn’t just whether a leader has some unstructured time, but how they use it, particularly if their role is consequential and complex or involves running an institution as sprawling as the federal government.
It “depends heavily on the leader’s role — and on what executive time is being used for,” Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who studies organizational psychology and work motivation, said in an email. "Watching slanted news sources that confirm your intuitions? Bad. Reading analyses from experts that challenge your intuitions? Good.”