“The Leader’s Calendar,” and you

A landmark study finally discovers what CEOs do all day, and how they manage their calendar. Here are the implications for speechwriters who want to get on it.

The theme of the 2018 World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association is: "More." Per the conference agenda, speechwriters and leadership communication pros from around the world will be discussing how they can "take more responsibility and get more influence, access, trust, or money—and what they’re willing to do to get it."

So much of that has to do with getting on the CEO's calendar, in the CEO's face, in the CEO's circle of advisors. So I'm going to suggest some reading ahead of the conference: "The Leader's Calendar," in the July/August issue of the Harvard Business Review. It's a summary and discussion of an important new study that looks credibly into the mysterious question: What do CEOs actually do all day? 

Short answer: They may not work quite as many hours as you think, they set aside a fair amount of time for exercise and other healthy activities, and yes, they spend most of their days in meetings. There's lots more interesting detail here.

But of course I read the summary in the eccentric way I do everything: vicariously, through speechwriters.

Here's what speechwriters should know about "The Leader's Calendar":

 • Just reading the study will help you contemplate the infinite nature of the CEO's job. My observation over the years is that speechwriters regard their clients simultaneously with a little too much awe and not quite enough compassion. That is, most speechwriters have a hard time thinking of the boss as a fellow human being trying to prioritize chaos in the finite hours and days and weeks and years of a life. So speechwriters say that the boss won't rehearse a speech or doesn't like to read from a text or refuses to tell personal stories or clings to PowerPoint like a drunk to a lamp post. Spending a little time standing on the edge of the grand canyon of your CEO's potential responsibilities will remind a speechwriter that "Good Speechwriting Client" is not a core competency for being a CEO, and help you to not take the boss's public-speaking peccadillos (or even occasional pecados!) so personally. 

• A CEO's relationship with a speechwriter is political. "How a CEO spends face-to-face time is viewed as a signal of what or who is important," say the study's authors. Of course, speechwriters always want more time with the CEO at every stage of the speech-creation process. And the CEO may in fact want to spend more time on the speech, but may feel self-conscious about devoting too many precious hours to communication consultation or speaker coaching. Will other executives, all vying for the chief's time themselves, interpret intense speech preparation as vanity? "I need her to weigh in on the merger strategy and she's in there with her goddamn speechwriter again!"

• Do you know the CEO's agenda this quarter? The study's authors asked each of the two dozen CEOs they followed "to describe the agenda he or she was pursuing during the quarter being tracked and to highlight the hours devoted primarily to advancing it. Every executive provided an agenda. We found that the CEOs invested significant time—43%, on average—in activities that furthered their agendas." Seems like an exec comms pro who wants to get more time with the CEO should know what the CEO is trying to achieve in a given quarter. I know: If you could get more time with the CEO, you'd be able to ask about his or her agenda! Still: Is there another way to find out, so that the communication activities and messages you're proposing dovetail with what's top-of-mind for the chief this quarter?

• Meanwhile, CEOs are always trying to limit obligatory activities that they do out of habit—theirs, or the organization's. The study authors call these "have-to-dos." They "include rituals such as giving welcome talks to new employees. These can play an important symbolic role and help reinforce the company’s values and culture. By thoughtfully choosing which of these events to attend, CEOs can set the tone of their relationship with the organization. Yet a CEO must be disciplined about ensuring that feel-good activities don’t collectively take up more time than he or she can afford." Obviously, speechwriters are hired in part to make some of these "have-to-dos" less hard to do. But speechwriters who work only on "have-to-dos" and never on communications connected with strategic priorities will be treated as "nice-to-have" servants rather than strategic partners.

• Actions speak louder than words—and when it comes to CEOs, more frequently, too. The study lists the ways that CEOs actually exert influence. Speeches and other verbal communications, however important an aspect of leadership, are a relatively small portion of the process. Most of their day, week, year and career, CEOs communicate not through words but through the meetings they choose to attend, the people they hire and promote, and the myriad decisions they make about investment, resource allocation and corporate structure. The ambitious executive communicator seek to find find not just novel new words for the boss to say, but inventive new ways show the CEO leading, day to day.

I hope you'll read the study yourself, and come up with your own notions about how speechwriters and exec comms pros can use its insights—and bring them to the World Conference.

Because if speechwriters are going to get more—influence, access, trust—it won't be through activism and organization. It will be through shared inventiveness, driven by each speechwriter's genuine desire to be of more real help to his or her time-strapped leader, rather than another bureaucratic mouth to feed. —DM

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