What do chief executives do all day?
It really is what it seems: They spend about a third of their work time in meetings.
That is one of the central findings of a team of scholars from London School of Economics and Harvard Business School, who have burrowed into the day-to-day schedules of more than 500 CEOs from around the world with hopes of determining exactly how they organize their time—and how that affects the performance and management of their firms.
Their study—known as the Executive Time Use Project—incorporates time logs kept by CEOs' personal assistants, who tracked activities lasting more than 15 minutes during a single week selected by the researchers. The project, which is ongoing, so far has collected data from three different studies of CEOs from around the world. [More from WSJ.com: In This Online Word Game, the Winning Spell Is Love]
In one sample of 65 CEOs, executives spent roughly 18 hours of a 55-hour workweek in meetings, more than three hours on calls and five hours in business meals, on average. Some of the remaining time was spent traveling, in personal activity, such as exercise or lunches with spouses, or in short activities, such as quick calls, that weren't recorded by CEOs' assistants. Working alone averaged just six hours weekly.
The more direct reports a CEO had correlated with more, and longer, internal meetings, the researchers found. Rather than foisting off responsibilities to other managers, CEOs with more direct reports may be more hands-on and involved in internal operations, they said.
But not all direct reports are equal. In companies that incorporated a finance chief or operating chief into the corporate hierarchy, the CEOs' time in meetings was reduced by about five-and-a-half hours a week, on average, the researchers found.
Even if a CEO has a lot of direct reports, "the effect of the CFO or COO is stronger," and may help reduce a CEO's time spent in internal meetings, says Harvard Business School's Raffaella Sadun, a co-author of the project. The other researchers were Oriana Bandiera and Andrea Prat, of the London School of Economics and Julie Wulf of Harvard Business School. Their preliminary findings were just published in a Harvard Business School paper.
The researchers said they weren't surprised by the amount of time spent in meetings, since one of the roles of a CEO is to manage employees and meet with customers and consultants.
A busy meeting schedule—often conducted virtually in global companies—can indicate that executives are engaged with their companies and close to their managers and clients. Still, CEOs say they pine for more solo time to think and strategize.
Rory Cowan, CEO of Lionbridge Technologies Inc., a Waltham, Mass., technology-services firm with about 4,500 employees, says he is constantly communicating with staff and clients. "I don't know when I'm not in a meeting," he says.
Instead of spending a lot of time in long face-to-face meetings, however, Mr. Cowan spends more time "doing frequent iterative touches," either in person or via text messages, instant messaging and video chat—sometimes with "four or five windows open concurrently."
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As a result, his meetings rarely last more than 15 minutes, he says.
Lars Dalgaard, CEO of SuccessFactors Inc., a human resources software firm, says he spends about a third of his work time, at most, in formal meetings.
"While you are sitting in a meeting, your competition is getting stuff done," he says. (Software firm SAP AG recently announced that it was acquiring SuccessFactors.)
NV "Tiger" Tyagarajan, president and CEO of Genpact Ltd., a technology-management firm, recently analyzed his time use to make sure he was spending enough time meeting with clients. He determined he was. But he does wish for more time to "sit back and think," he says, or simply to bounce around ideas "without a fixed meeting or a fixed agenda."
Mr. Dalgaard says he tries to dedicate as much as 25% of his week to thinking by making time on flights or blocking out time on his schedule—occasionally retreating to a quiet room or driving on the highway to let ideas crystallize.
Likewise, Mr. Cowan says that he tries to "build a big fence" around his first work hour in the morning at 7 a.m. to clear his thoughts, catch up on reading and manage email.
In contrast, Jon Oringer, CEO of New York based stock-photo provider Shutterstock Images LLC, doesn't seem to lack "alone time." He is rarely on the phone and averages about three meetings a day mostly lasting about 30 minutes, with some going up to 90 minutes.
The rest of the time he is usually scoping out his competition on blogs like TechCrunch, monitoring Web traffic and Twitter feeds and working on his own pet projects.
He is in the office from about 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., but says he works a lot from home, even during weekends.
"It doesn't feel like I work when I'm working," Mr. Oringer said. "It's my thing."
Executives' assessment of how they spent their time differed from the actual records, as noted by their calendars and personal assistants, researchers found.
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When top executives compare their top priorities to their time use, "they are usually surprised about the mismatch," says Robert Steven Kaplan, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School.
He recommends executives substitute the word 'money' for 'time' when deciding how to schedule their week. "With money... you'd be more careful and judicious about it. If someone asked you for some, you'd be more likely to say no," says Mr. Kaplan.
The researchers' global study involved both private and public companies from many countries; they didn't determine whether executive time use correlated with a firm's performance.
In another sample of 94 Italian CEOs, the researchers found that the way an executive budgets his or her time strongly correlated with a firm's profitability and productivity, measured as revenue per employee.
In the Italian sample, the key to a company's performance was with whom CEOs met. Meeting with external figures didn't help a firm's productivity, they found. Better performance came from more internal meetings, they found.
—Willa Plank contributed to this article.