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Why CEOs should work 40-hour weeks

If the data is correct, you are not doing yourself any favors by grinding it out after 5 o'clock.

Matt Munson
Matt Munson
12 min read
Why CEOs should work 40-hour weeks

If the data is correct, you are not doing yourself any favors by grinding it out after 5 o'clock.

I could not believe what I was reading on the slide.

My co-founder and I were seated side-by-side at First Round Capital's annual CEO Summit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Although I had heard about it for years, this was my first time at the Summit . I felt intimidated by the name tags I was reading on the founders seated around me:

  • Leah from Taskrabbit
  • Neil and David from Warby Parker
  • Sam from Hotel Tonight
  • and on and on....

Everywhere I looked, I saw one of my startup heroes.

Photo of a similar CEO Summit courtesy of First Round

As the talks progressed, I was taking notes as quickly as I could write. In spite of all those notes, it was a single sentence uttered by one speaker that really stuck with me that day.

The speaker was Dave Goldberg. At the time he was the CEO of SurveyMonkey:

Dave Goldberg courtesy of The New York Times

Dave concluded his talk by confessing to the audience that ever since his first day in the CEO job he had left the office at 5 PM sharp.

That proclamation rattled my picture of how a successful CEO operated.

Dave was clear in the talk that this discipline made him a better, more thoughtful, more present CEO. For those of you who do not know his story, Dave passed away a few years after that talk. With the perspective of a life cut short, I can only imagine the gratitude he might have felt looking back on his decision to head home and spend time with his family at 5 PM. Food for thought for each of us.

Dave planted a seed for me that would grow over time into a blossoming curiosity about how to truly get the most out of myself as a CEO. That curiosity brought with it a suspicion that the way I had been approaching the job might not be as effective as I hoped.

That suspicion was reinforced when I ran across a 2014 Stanford study. The study found productivity in a work week declined after 50 hours. The study further concluded that people working 70 hours per week are getting the same amount of work done as those working only 55 hours.

If leaving at 5 was good enough for Dave, and if Stanford said 80 hours a week was ineffective, who was I to claim otherwise?

I began an ardent exploration of a more effective way of practicing the CEO role.

No number of hours will get the job done if you don't know what the job is

In my work now as a CEO coach, I love to ask CEOs in our first session the same question that my coach asked me six years ago:

"Tell me," I'll ask, "what do you know about your accountabilities as CEO? What is the real job of a CEO?"

I have asked dozens of CEOs this question. Every CEO, except one, has floundered just as I did.

Very few CEOs are clear on their own job description.

When they flounder, I try to patiently suggest a simple way of understanding the CEO job. This understanding is modeled after a blog post Fred Wilson wrote in 2010.

A CEO's job is to:

  1. Hold the vision for the company
  2. Recruit and retain the team needed to execute that vision
  3. Resource that team with capital and clarity

Once we talk through the simple framework, most CEOs I speak with have the same reaction. It goes something like this:

That sounds right. But I don't have time to do those things.

All the CEOs I meet have time for recruiting and fundraising. In the earliest days, they might even have some time for hashing through the macro vision for the company over beers . But as things get rolling, few early stage CEOs take the job of holding the vision seriously.

To be great, you must.

As you read this post, I assure you, you have what it takes to be great.

It isn't complicated. But it isn't easy.

You might need to slow down a bit to get it right. You might need to slow down to speed up.

As they say, slow is smooth.

And smooth is fast.

In addition to failing at their jobs because they do not know what their job actually is, most CEOs fail because they are too busy grinding it out in the weeds to think straight.

Let's explore our way out of this mire.

I assure you, if I can do it so can you.

I discovered, through my own mistakes, a clear path to really doing the CEO job.

And doing it well.

So can you.

I will be honest with you about my own failures and learnings both as CEO and coach so that your path might be a bit more of a straight line than my own.

Getting clear about the job

Let's pause first and get clear about the CEO job. Then we can build on that understanding to explore why 80 hour weeks are actually counter-productive and why it might behoove you to let go of the guilt and frame your weeks around shorter days.

(As mentioned above, this model was to my knowledge originally proposed by Fred Wilson. I have taken liberties with my own refinements.)

1. Hold the vision for the company

A CEO's first job is to hold the vision for the company. Not set the vision. Not have the vision. Hold the vision.

Holding the vision is a bit like the Olympian charged with transporting the torch during the off-season. It is not a CEO's job to sort the long-term vision of the company alone. It also isn't her job to be some genius visionary who can see the future in a crystal ball.

The CEO's job is to ensure the board and team coalesce around a shared vision for where the company is going in the long-term and that perspective is not lost in the inevitable ups and downs of building the business in the short-term. In short, to keep the torch burning and ensure everyone can see it.

2. Recruit and retain the team to execute that vision

The second job of the CEO is to ensure the right people are in the right seats needed for the company to execute that vision. To build and retain the team.

This includes recruiting, or supporting the recruiting, of those people and creating the systems and culture to compel those people to remain in those seats.

Beyond the first ~ 20 employees, the CEO's focus should be on the leadership (or executive) team. The key disciplines for the company should be identified and led by a domain expert.

The CEO's job then shifts to ensuring this leadership team is supported, nurtured, retained and developed into a high-trust, high-function team.

3. Resource that team with capital and clarity

I have yet to meet an early-stage CEO who does not understand the capital piece of this equation. But I have met only a handful who fully appreciate the clarity piece.

Capital means ensuring there is enough cash in the bank to support the team's ability to execute the vision over the ensuing 18+ months.

As challenging as raising or earning capital can be, clarity is the harder piece here.

Clarity means everyone on the team:

  1. Understands the purpose, mission and long-term vision
  2. Can articulate the short-term (ie 3-month) priorities
  3. Understands how those priorities are broken down within the organization at the individual and smaller-team level
  4. Knows who owns which accountabilities to keep the company moving day-to-day (everything from buying coffee to preparing the board deck)
  5. Knows how company systems support her in receiving feedback, mapping her salary and career progression, attaining healthcare, and other employee-level support mechanisms.

A bleary-eyed CEO has no vision

I recently taught my 8-year-old son to play Settlers of Catan, perhaps Silicon Valley's most beloved strategy game.

Much like chess, one of the keys to winning at Catan, and the hardest part to teach my 8-year-old, is to pursue your own strategy while also tracking and combatting the strategies of your opponents.

My 8-year-old gets lost in his excitement around his own plan and forgets to watch the whole board.

This is the same mistake many CEOs make.

To do the CEO job well, you need to be able to see the whole board.

You need to study your own company with the perspective a visiting anthropologist would bring to the office.

You need to study your industry with the curiosity of a first-day business school intern.

You must revisit long-held assumptions with fresh perspective. And through board-meetings and leadership retreats, you must ensure the board and team do the same.

You cannot do any of that well if you are grinding it out in the office 80 hours a week.

If you are too busy trying to manage the minutia of your next ad campaign you cannot do this critical part of your job.

To do it well, you need space from the company.

You need time out of the office, time to travel, time to think, time to read, time to rest.

Author Yuval Noah Harari has built a career providing vision and perspective not for a single company but for the entire human race. If you have not yet read it, his book Sapiens provides tremendous context on our point in time as a species.

This guy has published three such best-selling, high-impact books in the last nine years.

And he is definitely not working 80 hour weeks.

Harari famously meditates 2 hours each day and spends 60 days per year on retreats.

Virtually everything Harari says in our conversation is fascinating. But what I didn’t expect was how central his consistent practice of Vipassana meditation — which includes a 60-day silent retreat each year — is to understanding the works of both history and futurism he produces.                -Ezra Klein, VOX

This is the guy Bill Gates credits as one of the visionaries of our time.

What is your practice around gaining vision and perspective on behalf of your team?

Are you holding space for yourself outside the daily grind to explore the big questions and the big opportunities?

A great team will not want you around all the time

Great people do not want to be micromanaged.

If you are trying to hire exceptional executives for your company, ask questions in interviews about how they like to be supported by their manager.

The mediocre ones will not have a great answer.

The great ones will ask for alignment, trust, and space to do their jobs.

Mediocre CEOs micromanage their teams. They ask for updates randomly over Slack and insert their opinions on a whim.

Great CEOs trust their leaders, providing clarity and resources so their leaders can provide the same for the teams they lead.

Want your company to go faster? This is the secret.

Imagine the way your experience as CEO might change if your company just worked whether you were there or not.

Imagine knowing that your big leverage points are at the beginning and end of each quarter where you help ensure the team is aligned on learnings from the past quarter and goals for the next.

Imagine that in the interim weeks, the company leaders have clear goals, set budgets, and the trust to make the small decisions and adjustments necessary along the way.

Getting out of the day to day, whether you are physically in the office or not, also allows you to watch the team work.

It moves you from quarterback to coach.

And coach is a much more effective place to be.

You can see the whole field. Or, to return to our Catan analogy, the whole game board.

You can also see how your leaders are performing in their roles and how your company's systems are performing to allow the machine to run.

This perspective will make it far easier to achieve your accountability of ensuring that each seat is filled with the right person.

The cost of no clarity

A team without clarity might be the most expensive mistake a CEO can make.

A lot of CEOs I spend time with work 7 days a week for well-intentioned reasons.

They recognize their responsibility in taking on an investor's capital. They realize each dollar they receive represents someone's pension or some university's endowment.

Many hold the debilitating belief that the way to ensure they are being good stewards of that capital is to work more hours.

The problem is the moment you sit down in the CEO chair in a company of more than ~ 5 people, your individual contribution on any project is suddenly dramatically outweighed by combined effort work of the team.

Here is where things get wonky.

A team of 50 that lacks clarity will give you the output of a team of 10. No matter how many hours the CEO works.

This setup is in fact a tremendous waste of that entrusted investment capital. I see it on a weekly basis.

It is time for a change.

What are you protecting by working 80-hour weeks?

I am by no means suggesting such a change might be easy.

As humans, we continue the behaviors that provide benefits not those which do not.

If I am correct that over-working is in fact costing your company dearly, what  benefit might you be protecting by working so hard even in the face of great cost?

I myself found working less to be extremely difficult.

I ran my last company, Twenty20, for seven years. The first two-three years I probably worked 60-70 hours per week.

I believed I was trying hard enough only if I was physically suffering.

I only thought my team was trying hard enough only if I could see them suffering. Maybe not bleeding on the office floors, but I wanted to see them in early, out late, and fatigued.

I very much expected that level of commitment from myself first and foremost.

At the time, the enormity of building a company from nothing felt so massive that the only way I knew to measure progress was in pain and fatigue.

I was also terrified of failing and did not have a good plan B.

By the time my company was 18-months old, I had a mortgage and a baby on the way. Failure would have meant giving up on my dreams of being an entrepreneur and, as it was framed in my mind at least, having to go get a fucking job.

Our company was on the brink of failure for most of those early years. I dealt with that existential uncertainty by working until it hurt.

If I was not working, I was stressed out. If I was working, I did not have time to think about the stress.

Maybe you are in the same boat. Or maybe you have your own reasons for not wanting to give up the 80 hour weeks.

And that is ok.

No one is forcing you to.

You can keep those long hours for as long as they serve you.

I simply want you to know there is another way. And if you wake up one day realizing that the benefit of those hours no longer outweighs the cost, I want you to have a light shining on another path. A path to a different way of being and leading without giving up your CEO chair.

The path less taken

I do not have a 10-step plan for creating the company you want.

Many of my coaching clients will ask in our early sessions about whether they are doing parts of the job right.

There is no right.

As a coach, I am less interested in whether you are doing the job right than I am in whether you are building a company that aligns with the way you want to be in the world.

That is a foundation we can build on.

Although there is no perfect map, let's nonetheless imagine for a moment one prospective picture of your company working in a way that might today feel quite foreign. Let's see how it lands for you.

What if:

  • Each person on your team had a clear connection with your company's purpose for existing in the world?
  • Each team member understood the alignment between their role in the company and the life they desired for themselves such that you never had to worry about any one person's motivation?
  • Every person on the team could clearly articulate the three primary objectives of the company this quarter and could explain how each person's work mapped to those objectives?
  • Your job was not to build the product? Rather, your job was to build the engine, the company, that built the product?
  • Your time was spent observing and tuning that engine?
  • You spent a part of your 'work week' reading those books you know would help you improve in your role?
  • You slept 8 hours every night?
  • You took weekends off?
  • You took vacations regularly?
  • You modeled for your team focus, clarity, presence, and thoughtfulness?

What if 80 hours a week will not help you build the company you deeply desire to lead?

What might happen if you begin to explore replacing raw grind with vision, clarity, and trust?

Many of the world's best startup CEOs are rethinking the 80-hour-week mantra and observing the benefits of clarity, focus, and rest.

The movement is yours to join when you are ready.

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