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Faculty Viewpoints

CEOs Need More Face Time, Not FaceTime

Yale SOM leadership expert Jeffrey Sonnenfeld explains how effective business leaders make the best use of face-to-face meetings with employees around the world.

  • Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld
    Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management

This commentary originally appeared in Chief Executive.

From the 1960s through the 1970s, AT&T advertised its long-distance service as “the next best thing to being there,” suggesting phone calls were a good substitute for seeing family members in person—but that might not work for the boss. Virtual meetings that save travel costs and provide visibility for CEOs of vast enterprises who can’t be everywhere at once are necessary but no substitute for face-to-face engagement.

According to a study by Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria conducted just before the pandemic, CEOs work roughly 10 hours a day, with more than 61% of that time spent in face-to-face interactions. Porter and Nohria explain that it is through in-person exchanges that CEOs are most effective at exerting their influence, learn what is really happening, ensure proper delegation, advance parallel agendas and coach their team. With only so many hours in the day, leaders need to be highly focused on making the most of their limited time.

Don’t Make Your Visit Punitive

When Graham Phillips took over as CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, he told his top leadership around the world that he believed in office autonomy. “If you see me, that means you’re in trouble.” That was hardly inspiring and did not lead to welcoming receptions. By contrast, for the first decade of the Home Depot’s growth, co-founder Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank conducted every management training program themselves, with warmth and humor but also modeling their high expectations.

Just Being There Is Not Enough

The protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1971 satirical novel Being There is an emotionally and intellectually disabled gardener with no knowledge of his own history, let alone the world’s. By being at the right place at the right time, he advances to top positions on Wall Street and in Washington and is lauded by the media. In real life, however, leaders cannot just get by with such serendipitous good fortune.

Speak the Truth

As Anne Mulcahy, the turnaround CEO of Xerox, told me, “It is important to have good sources. Taking the time to really listen to understand problems from the customer’s and employee’s perspectives. The most important thing we had to do was give our people an accurate assessment of the issues—the brutal truth but also to ensure our problems could be overcome and it was worth sticking around. A big piece of my time is face-to-face communication with all constituencies. I travel over 100,000 miles a year for tables, forums.”

Employees look to leadership for inspiration and will be only alarmed by whitewashing. “I have to say that our whole senior team worried about candidly discussing the problems of the company,” says Mulcahy. “I remember at one of our town meeting, a shop floor worker said, ‘I’m so glad that you know how bad things are.’ I recognized perhaps the most uncomfortable feeling was to believe that they were not hearing what rings true.”

Seek Spontaneity

A pathology in the military is the use of “executive eye wash” to create a superficial façade of orderliness while sweeping underlying chaos under the carpet. Grigory Potemkin, a Russian field marshal and lover of Empress Catherine II, impressed her by creating fake villages in 1787 to perk up her tour to recently seized Crimea. Decades ago, rival Coke and Pepsi executives in India would conspire to deceive their bosses at planned inspections by rolling each other’s beverage machines out in prominent venues to feature their products. Fully 60 years ago, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, founder of HP, institutionalized the novel element of what they called Managing by Wondering Around (MBWA), or conversing with workers in unrehearsed natural exchanges.

Woody Allen famously said in a 1977 New York Times interview that “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” Unfortunately, the remaining 20 percent requires preparation—and your presence.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints