Scientists Studied the Daily Lives of 1,000 CEOs. Here's What the Best Ones Did

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

I adore it when I read fine articles that tell me all great CEOs get up at 5 a.m., eat two boiled eggs, swim butterfly better than breast stroke and sleep only three hours a night.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that at least some CEOs do things their own way because, somewhere deep inside, they’re still individuals.

Still, scientists need to find common traits upon which they can get grants and sell books. 

(Yes, of course I’m kidding. They need to make speeches too.)

I was moved, therefore, by a group of scientists from deeply venerable institutions such as Harvard Business School and one of my alma maters, the London School of Economics, opining on what makes a great CEO.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they explained that they examined the day-to-day lives of 1,000 CEOs, in order to understand whether boiled eggs really did have that much influence.

Yes, I made up that last part. 

I’m not, however, going to make up the conclusions from this study.

“Our evidence suggests that hands-on managerial CEOs are, on average, less effective than leaders who stay more high-level,” say the scientists.

I pause for your shock, your horror and your aghast grunts of glee.

It seems that the CEOs who didn’t meddle in every detail of every decision were, on the whole, a touch more successful that those who floated in the ether, said important things at the occasional company meeting and appeared a lot on CNBC.

I fear that there is no one formula. Any more than there is no one formula for losing in the MLB playoffs. Why, look at the Washington Nationals. They find different ways every time.

I worry, though, about this research.

You see, it “used machine learning to determine which differences in CEO behavior are most important.”

Ah. Oh. 

The algorithm was, apparently, agnostic. How odd. I generally find that algorithms tend to worship the God that created them.

Still, in the end the machines concluded that, in essence, some CEOs were down-in-the-dirt meddlers, while others enjoyed “relatively more interactions with C-suite executives, personal and virtual communications and planning, and meetings with a wide variety of internal functions and external stakeholders.”

The parts of the researchers’ conclusions I enjoyed most were their description of what CEOs did all day.

Many an employee would really like to know.

Well, CEOs spend 25 percent of their days alone. On the driving range, you might imagine. Or reading self-help books.

But here’s the part that made me reach hurriedly for a very fine glass of Cabernet Sauvignon: 10 percent of their days are spent on “personal matters.”

That’s not “personnel matters.” I can only guess it’s getting their hair coiffed and buying the odd yacht or two.

The researchers seem to lean the way of leaders — rather than managers — as the more successful CEOs. They do concede, however, that some businesses need a CEO who pokes their nose into everything. 

My own conclusion, then, is that the most successful CEOs are the ones who takes a look at a company and then realize the sort of CEO this company actually needs.

And then deliver on that insight.

I should add that, in my experience, some of the most successful CEOs have been the ones who knew how to negotiate themselves a vast payoff, just before the excreta sailed inexorably toward the fan.

But it all depends how you measure success. Naturally, these researchers tended to look at painful concepts such as productivity and profitability.

Leader CEOs seem to have engendered greater rises in productivity. 

Does that mean that people preferred to work for the leader type? I suspect so. They weren’t butting into their business so often, I imagine.


Here's How 3 Badly Chosen Words Turned Disaster Relief Triumph Into a Public Relations Nightmare

It’s a lesson many large companies, most notably BP, have learned the very hard way. You might do everything right during a crisis, but a badly chosen sentence can make all your efforts worthless, at least as far as public perceptions go. The federal government learned that tough lesson again as it sought to help devastated Puerto Ricans survive after the destruction of Hurricane Maria.

The current hurricane season should confirm our worst fears about climate change, but also our highest hopes about our government’s ability to respond to natural disasters. Twelve years ago, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, some government policies hampered relief efforts. When the civilian government asked the military to help out, paperwork held up responders for four days. And ordinary citizens eager to lend a hand were told to stay away.

The Feds learned from the past. This year, they watched the weather and submitted the necessary requisitions for military assistance well in advance so no one would have to wait while a request was approved. This time, helpful citizen volunteers were encouraged to pitch in, leading to the famous “Cajun Navy” rescuers after Tropical Storm Harvey. The multiple disasters of Harvey, Irma, José and Maria caused unimaginable devastation on American soil. That’s especially true in Puerto Rico, where the entire island still lacks clean water, electricity, food, and roads. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is working with local governments as never before to alleviate suffering and help people survive.

It should have been a public relations win for an administration that could use one. But it all came crashing down when Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke said this during a TV interview: “It is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place.”

Duke was strikingly lacking in emotional intelligence, but she wasn’t wrong on the facts. People who’ve had no electricity for a week, can’t get diesel to run their generators, are running out of food and can’t go find more because of thigh-high putrid water in the streets certainly need more help than they’ve gotten so far. But given the storm’s magnitude and the fact that the nation was already recovering from two massive hurricanes before it hit, the response and the relatively low death toll have both been impressive. If only she hadn’t said those three little words: Good. News. Story.

When CNN played the clip on the air for San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, her understandable response was outrage. “Damn it, this is not a good news story! This is a people are dying story,” she said. “This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen.”

Duke, to her credit, tried to make things better by heading to Puerto Rico where she reviewed conditions on the ground and walked back her earlier statement that she was “very satisfied” with relief efforts. But meantime her boss was on Twitter, lashing out at Cruz.

Predictably in our divided, cantankerous nation, commentators from the right and left began piling on the invectives. And so what could have been an inspiring tale of horrific devastation followed by effective and well-organized rescue efforts devolved instead into hostility and name-calling. All because of three words spoken off the cuff, and chosen without sensitivity. There’s a lesson there for every leader.


Lego Hit a Wall Because It Grew Too Quickly. Here's How to Pace Your Company

Lego holds a special place in millions of childhoods. The universal appeal of the bricks has endured for over 80 years and helped it dominate the global toy industry. So when Lego unexpectedly announced a percent drop in profits last week, and that it would consequently being laying off eight percent of its workforce, many people were left scratching their heads. What on earth went wrong?

After coming back from the brink Lego has being growing rapidly in recent years; reporting double digits for the best part of a decade. During that time it hired and spent aggressively while tripling its workforce. But as it grew it became more and more complex with new product lines and franchises.

Chairman, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, says the whole company will undergo a “reset” featuring cost-cutting, both via layoffs and a simpler business model that will entail “a clean-up of inventories across the entire value chain.”

Lego was not pacing for growth; as they grew rapidly they added more and more complexity and eventually hit their maximum capacity. Their strategy was all about executing growth but neglected to build the capabilities that they would need to sustain that growth for the future.

Strategy is only strategic when it allows you to decide what to do and what not to do. Focus is only focused when it allows you to do less or say no more often.

Here are five ways you can use focus to drive lasting growth for your business

1. Use focus to drive absolute clarity.

Just because we have the people or capital we need to launch a new product, enter a new market, or roll out a new sales tool doesn’t mean we should do it. Focus requires saying no to opportunities, tasks, and ideas that have less merit than other opportunities, tasks, and ideas.

We have to decide if the effort needed to attain the outcome is worth the time and other resources. The right focus stops people from doing some things so that they can do other things.

2. Use focus to invest energy disproportionately.

Every business has limited resources. Even in a cash-rich enterprise or well-funded start-up, resources like time and deep expertise are often in short supply. When we focus the resources that most matter to driving growth, they have more impact.

We can only achieve this focus by stopping some activities. Growth leaders understand that you can only build capacity for growth by conserving time and energy by making tough choices.

3. Use focus to align vertically.

Top-down or vertical alignment ensures that all levels of the organization understand and focus on delivering what is needed today as they develop themselves for the future. This is not possible when the business, team, or individuals are always maxed out.

4. Use focus to align horizontally.

Horizontal alignment means reaching out across the business to ensure it is delivering the right product to the right customer in the right way at the right time. This chain of activities involves almost every function in the business.

Horizontal alignment allows decision makers across the chain of activities ending with the customer to make good decisions together–at the right speed–to maximize benefit to the company, not just their particular piece of it, and for the customer.

5. Use focus to conserve resources for growth.

We waste so much energy when we lack focus and alignment across the different functions of the business. By learning to focus and then align people and other resources to that focus, you can conserve time and energy that can be used to build new capabilities for growth.

Lego has a fantastic core product, an extremely strong brand and is company that knows how to pivot and make a comeback. Although there will be some painful times ahead, this new strategy of simplification will hopefully give them the focus they need to recover and find a more sustainable pace of growth for the future.