place in the industry, I ask: "What do you do all day long?"
Sometimes I get a significant silence, and sometimes I get the comment: "I'm so busy all day that I can't be specific. Every day is different."
But astute bankers frequently say, "I follow MBWA -- management by wandering around." What they mean is that they make a practice of talking to employees and customers at random to learn what problems the bank faces and find out where bankers should devote their attention.
When I ask, "What percentage of your day can you plan, instead of just putting out fires and handling the immediate problems of staff members?" these astute bankers say that half a day or less is the most that can be scheduled in advance.
Unfortunately, too many top people at banks spend their days "filling in boxes" -- that is, keeping to a tight schedule of meeting after meeting.
"Tuesday is the day for the planning meeting," a CEO might tell my class. All the members of the planning committee fill in time boxes on their schedules -- several hours each Tuesday, or even the whole day. And they attend those meetings like clockwork even on days when nothing really requires any group planning from them.
Bankers are known for spending a lot of time in meetings. Maybe the reason is that once a decision on a loan or investment is made, all that really needs to be done is infrequent monitoring. Now, brokerage is different; brokerage executives must constantly generate business to maintain their income stream. But banks have interest flowing in steadily until their loans or investments mature.
All of us have been stuck in meetings without crisp agendas -- meetings that just drag on and on. One reason is that everyone wants to be seen contributing something.
And indeed, meetings that don't require preparation by all concerned, and that don't result in new tasks for each, are unnecessary, one CEO told me. "A meeting should be work," he says. But many meetings fail that test.
Needless routine meetings are not the only commitments that fill up the time boxes on bankers' schedules. In addition, many top officers give their secretaries too much rein to fill in other slots. The effect is to delegate key decisions on whether the time might be better spent some other way.
I have often finished meetings with executives only to hear them ask their secretaries, "Where do I go next?" You can see what has happened. Someone who wants to talk with the CEO goes to the secretary, who takes out a calendar, finds a slot, and sets up a meeting. In effect the secretary, not the CEO, is setting the bank's priorities.
That CEO might bet better off deciding himself -- or maybe just wandering around the bank.