What should a CEO do if the staff morale is low? Throw more benefits/freebies? Offer unlimited leave, remote work, give additional health insurance, take colleagues to offsites, do CSR activities, celebrate festivals at work and institute more rewards and recognitions?

Recently, Adidas CEO Bjorn Gulden gave out his phone number to each of his 60,000 employees to increase his access and provide transparency to his employees. If you have your CEO’s phone number and permission to contact him or her, would you feel more connected to your employer or call it a gimmick?

The Access

In my first job induction, our MD gave a riveting narration of his journey from a field sales guy to his current corner room. He said his doors were always open if we had any ideas or questions. After a few days, a couple of colleagues and I happened to peep through the glass door of his elegant office and noticed he looked free so wandered in to say ‘Hi’. But his EA blocked us, saying, “He is busy and has back-to-back meetings throughout the day.” We realised then that approachability and access aren’t the same.

Today I use the EA firewall to my advantage to mete out the same treatment to others who intrude into my time. The popular belief is that the higher you climb the corporate ladder, the more valuable your time is. Imagine if you get 200 messages a week from your employees on your phone like the Adidas CEO is now reportedly getting, are you doing justice to your mandate as a CEO?

It’s About Time

In its latest article, “For CEOs, it’s about Time”, Boston Consulting Group talks about an ambassador vs quarterback approach. The ambassador CEOs create access via events or rituals like town halls, awards nights, breakfast or dinner meetings. The quarterback CEO prefers to work directly with reportees to shape their philosophies and strategies. Would these modes of operation be directly influenced by the organisation’s context or the CEO’s leadership style? Or a combination of both?

Harvard Business School’s professor Michael E Porter and former Dean Nitin Nohria studied 60,000 hours of 27 CEOs for an entire quarter with help from their EAs who plotted their boss’ time. Their companies, which were primarily public, had average annual revenue of $13 billion during the study period. The leaders in this study worked 9.7 hours per weekday and 62.5 hours a week on average. They also conducted business on 79 per cent of weekends, putting in an average of 3.9 hours daily and on 70 per cent of vacation days, averaging 2.4 hours daily. They spent 70 per cent of their time with internal constituents and 30 per cent with external constituencies. Surprisingly, these CEOs spent only 3 per cent of their time with customers, which was less than the time they spent with management consultants.

Social Media Time

We don’t need a Harvard study to prove that the CEO’s time is precious. However, social media’s lure of brand building has made their job more complex. Imagine being accessible to strangers on social media and not being accessible to your own rank-and-file employees. A 2022 study found that 70 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs have a profile on at least one social media platform compared to 62 per cent in 2020, 97 per cent of them being on LinkedIn. The fact that 80 per cent of them are not on X (formerly Twitter) also suggests that they want to guardrail their time. Most of them who are present are not active, and it’s easy to decipher that many of them are letting their PR colleagues manage these handles.

Access: A Double-Edge Sword?

It’s no secret that employees and media love a highly accessible leader. As an employee, I loathed some of my CEOs, who firewalled through their managers and were inaccessible. Any back-channel lobbying was almost impossible. We all have our agendas, and access is a licence to further our cause with our senior leaders. When I eventually entered the corner office, I instantly met about 250 people one-on-one in the first three months and created the bridge I had once aspired. But I found I was consuming significant time on trivial stuff such as colleagues barging in to rant about others. Once, a new joinee stopped me in the hallway and complained that the AC on his floor needed an upgrade, and I wondered what my access had turned into. On the other hand, thanks to our founders’ approachability, one of my colleagues could share her boss’s unwelcome advances, resulting in a quick enquiry and timely ouster of an offender long before PoSH policies came into our work life.

Spontaneity and accessibility enhance a CEO’s legitimacy and also keep them closer to the ground. Should leaders be mindful of defining the boundaries of access and approachability to be more productive with their highly paid time?

The Perks

When you have access to the who’s who of your organisation as an employee, it protects you during bad times. Performance is seasonal and you need the influence of higher-ups to ensure you survive bad bosses or layoffs. Refresh your memory of people telling you, “S/he has the ears of the CEO. Be careful while dealing with them, or don’t discuss anything sensitive in front of people with access to the CEO!” I always wondered how some people do a daily 9 to 5 show at work but constantly get increments, successfully escape every downturn and are lucky enough to keep getting new jobs along with the bosses they follow. They have blessings through their affiliations!

The inherent limits on the CEO’s time and knowledge mean that the most prudent influences they can have internally must also be indirect. Instead of overusing their direct access, if only they can work through their culture or rather their People plus Processes!

It’s a tough act for leaders to follow what President Roosevelt once said, “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground”.

(Kamal Karanth is co-founder of X-pheno, a specialist staffing firm)