If there's one thing that separates the high performers from the rest, it's how they handle the pressure of time.

Most senior executives have enough trouble handling one BlackBerry. Warwick Smith has two. "There is enough room on my belt and I've got a big enough waist to support them," jokes the former federal minister and former Macquarie Bank executive, who now works for billionaire media proprietor Kerry Stokes. Technology clearly doesn't faze Smith, who wears several other hats, including the NSW chairmanship of ANZ Bank. Neither does planning. Each evening he and his two assistants (one at ANZ and the other at Stokes's private company Australian Capital Equity) prepare a running sheet for the next day's events. "I like to be on time," Smith says.

Smith's regimented style might be a little unusual, but his sentiments are shared by thousands of senior executives who have made it to the top of their field by sticking to the golden rule: be organised. Time is increasingly precious, and amid the deluge of demands and information, the challenge is how to get everything done. The ability to be a skilful time manager is what separates the true high performer from the rest.

"An inability to take control can set an executive career back substantially," says Paul Mills, associate program director at Melbourne Business School. And poor time management in executive level ranks is almost certainly a sign of serious trouble.

"How many times have you seen people in an organisation and you say he or she is not that well organised? You don't want to give yourself that sort of reputation,'' says Oxiana's chief executive, Owen Hegarty. Hegarty doesn't leave much to chance. He hits the office between 6 and 7am. "It's all lovely and quiet," he says. "You don't have to ring people, they don't have to ring you. You can get a lot done early. That's when you tend to do the writing, a lot of the thinking, more detailed stuff in terms of the updating of the strategy or the plans."

The central challenge for almost all high-flyers is making time for "headroom" - precious space to reflect and think ahead. And for most, that means beating the morning peak hour and getting into the office early. Coca-Cola Amatil's chairman, David Gonski even has help on hand at that hour.

"I have always been an early starter - in the office at 7.15am," Gonski says. "I am very lucky my executive assistant is an early starter too. It is very rare that meetings start before 8am, and board meetings rarely before 9am or 10am, so the precious time every day for me is between 7.15 and 8."

National Australia Bank's executive general manager of business and private banking Australia, George Frazis, won't have meetings before 10am or after 5pm. "Otherwise you get these back-to-back meetings and you have absolutely no time to think through how the business is running, or what the key priorities are, or how you are going strategically," he says.

Morning time is vital for freeing yourself of what David Kirk, chief executive of Fairfax Media (publisher of AFR BOSS), calls "mind clutter". Kirk is in the office by 7.45am each morning and tries not to schedule meetings before 10am. "I always give myself 90 minutes every morning," he says. "I call it processing time."

It is a strict routine, one Kirk perfected during a series of one-on-one coaching sessions over the past 12 months with Dermot Crowley from the consultancy company Adapt Training Solutions. Crowley specialises in training business people to adapt their time-management skills to working with new technology and has worked with a range of clients, including Macquarie Bank, Citigroup and ANZ. "Many executives are very organised in their head and not -necessarily organised with the tools at their disposal," Crowley says.

Every high performer has their own style. Oxiana's Owen Hegarty likes to travel overnight and sleep in the plane "to maximise the waking hours with other people". Australian Football League chairman Mike Fitzpatrick gives himself two to three hours of "thinking time" several times a week, and is considering keeping his mornings free and scheduling meetings only in the afternoon.

Tabcorp's chief financial officer, Matt Bekier, schedules "hard stops" such as weekends away or time with the kids that force him to finish things. He keeps a daily to-do list to help him allocate time. "I finish things largely so that I can scratch them off my to-do list," he says. "I prefer to break the back of something ... I try to allow only a certain amount of time for a task or paper and do it in that timeframe rather than polishing it forever."

Insurance Australia Group's group executive, corporate development, people and performance, Christine McLoughlin, who recently also took on the company's Culture & Reputation portfolio, gets up super-early to walk, using the time both for thinking and to help maintain her "sanity and enjoyment. If I'm feeling fit and balanced, the time management flows," McLoughlin says. She goes to the gym a couple of times a week and leaves about two days free each month until a few weeks beforehand to be used for priority matters.

JP Morgan's local chairman, Rod Eddington, swears by having one office, one diary and one personal assistant. Eddington, who is also a director of Rio Tinto, News Corporation and Allco Finance Group, even makes sure he leaves spaces in his diary every day, "so if someone wants to come and see me, they can. I've always done that, even in my CEO roles [at British Airways, Ansett and Cathay Pacific]," he says.

"Technology-enabled communication is a double edged sword," says Melbourne Business School's Paul Mills. An initial sense of liberation later gives way to frustration as [executives] find it imposes additional demands on their time."

But some executives are better at using technology than others. "It's a blessing and a curse," says Queensland Investment Corporation's chairman, Trevor Rowe. "You get the information you need or you are able to access the information you need in real time. You also get a lot of it from so many different sources."

Deena Shiff is group managing director of Telstra Business, the part of the company that provides new technology for the time-poor. She is also a working mother. Shiff has a Next G mobile phone and a Palm Treo that she uses for emails, and she carries a small wirelessly connected laptop.

"I hate dead time," she says. "If I'm waiting in the baggage carousel or a queue, I would want to do my emails. I will be ringing my SMS alerts on my phone. My voicemail is now converted to text so I can read it really quickly on my phone." Shiff says that Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) now comprise 15 per cent of all Telstra business handsets sold. Her business clients are also changing the way they use the devices to get information and the rate of non-SMS traffic has increased by nearly 100 per cent.

A growing number of firms now offer one-on-one training on a range of strategies for getting organised and managing priorities using such tools as MS Outlook, Lotus Notes and handheld PDA devices. Sometimes personal assistants are included in the training.

But neither a first-class PA nor adeptness with email or BlackBerry can eliminate arguably the biggest time-waster of all: meetings. "My life is meetings," says David Gonski, who in addition to being CCA chairman is a director of Westfield, the Australian Securities Exchange and Singapore Airlines. He is also chairman of Investec Australia and a chancellor of the University of NSW. "Planning is fundamental," he says.

Gonski says most company directors will have their diaries planned out for 2008 already. Trevor Rowe's 2008 diary is already set. "It can be depressing at times," he says. As well as QIC, Rowe chairs Rothschild Australia and United Group, and is chancellor of Bond University and a director of the Australian Securities Exchange and the Future Fund.

"I know, for example, I am going to be in the US on business next march for board meetings. I know I will be in London in June, and 2008 is already done. I have some entries already in the 09 diary. "

Paul Mills says the meeting culture is a product of generational change: "Previously, once you reached a position of senior management it entitled you to a certain isolation from the rest of the business as a status symbol. Now there is much more of a view around partnering for performance, and this creates incredible demands on the time of executives."

Late, protracted or poorly attended meetings are a constant annoyance for the time-poor executive. Some companies are even starting to fine people who are late for a meeting, with the takings going to charity once a quarter.

But Mills has a more constructive solution. "Another trick we have used with some executives is to ask them to go back through their diaries to ask questions around patterns of engagement," he says. "Look at your meetings over the past month and ask which ones are valuable and which ones are redundant. So they can make decisions based on real data. In a couple of cases people found that 30 to 40 per cent of their meetings were not efficient."

The one thing every executive feels is time-pressured - that feeling when the world closes in and the traffic lights don't change from red to green quickly enough. Perhaps it's then that something else kicks in. David Gonski has the last word: "I have never in my entire life failed to find time for something I am passionate about," he says. "I've always believed people can find time for things they want."

Time tips

Top 5 CEO productivity issues

* Being time poor - days full of meetings and too little time left

for other priorities

* Poor email and inbox management

* Not enough time to work on strategic issues

* Too many emails, especially cc'd ones

* Lack of technology skills, and lack of time to learn them

Top 5 CEO productivity wishes

* More time with their people

* More time on strategic issues

* Seamless link between productivity technologies (eg, MS Outlook and BlackBerry)

* More effective working processes with PAs

* Fewer irrelevant emails

Top tips for better productivity

* Treat the inbox as a delivery dock, not a to-do list - clear it to zero at least once a week.

* Use the Task and Calendar functions in MS Outlook/Lotus Notes to centralise all work, and create a full picture of priorities for each day.

* Convert emails that need action into tasks in MS Outlook/Lotus Notes and schedule them for action (both programs have this function built in).

* Take time out to plan the week ahead. Benjamin Franklin once said that if he had two hours to cut down a tree, he would spend one and a half hours sharpening his axe.

* Protect your inbox from low-value communications. Tell people what you want to be CC'd on and what you don't. * Learn to use the technology - a lot of productivity can be gained from maximising the use of the tools.

Source: Adapt Training Solutions.

Australian Financial Review

© Fairfax Business Media

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