Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


Leading the Changing Face of Email Strategy

Volume: February-Mid 2012

By Doug Van Dyke, Leadership Simplified, www.leadershipsimplified.com


Email. The word used to connote efficiency and ease of rapid communication. Now, however, the mere mention of “email” makes most of us wince as we ponder the hundreds of emails awaiting us in our inboxes. The topic of email becomes even more sensitive when we consider various studies that highlight the amount of litigation, lost customers, and job firings that stem from ill-advised email. So how do we tame this electronic beast? The short answer is “we don’t.” We can, though, manage our email much better than we do now. Remember that managing better requires a change in behavior, which is not an easy task. So even if you are wildly efficient when it comes to your email, perhaps the following cornucopia of tactics and ideas will serve as a tool for you to coach others (you know who they are). You may also reduce their psychosis and stomach acid while you assist them in efficiently handling email. 


  1. Clarity of Subject. De-code your emails as much as possible. Say what you really want to have happen. Start with the subject line. Make it clear and compelling (and be willing to change it when the subject in a thread changes). Be clear about action items and priorities. Spell them out, as lists or bulleted items.


  1. Correctness. Based on various survey data, most customers treat our emails like a letter from the US postal service. Yet the workplace seems to be getting sloppier about email. Do not treat email like instant messaging. There is a hierarchy of communication, and instant messaging is near the bottom. In order to be as correct as possible during important email correspondence, consider printing out and proof-reading your email prior to hitting Send. Also, if you do not have a proof-buddy in the workplace, get one. Ask a trusted colleague to take a peek at mission critical email before you send it off.  


  1. Include Only Relevant Recipients. I am lobbying hard to eliminate the “Reply All” button. Are you with me people? Use good judgment when sending and responding to emails. Sometimes, in the spirit of covering one’s behind, way too many people are copied when an email is sent. Do your best at work, take calculated risks, and find alternative means than the proverbial “reply all” in order to CYA. Remember: The more you use the Reply All function, the less likely that email from you will be read….by anyone. 


  1. Expectations. Some workplace teams have a rule on the number of sentences that may appear in an email. The lowest number I have seen is five, by the way. Other teams do not want email messages to be longer than what appears on their computer screen. Remember that emails longer than one full screen often are not read right away. They get shoved to the end of the day or the next morning. Note: Many professionals read their email on their cell phone, where just a normal message reads like a novella. As such, seek to be succinct whenever possible, and provide an attachment if necessary. 


  1. Keep Threads Short. When the iterations on an email thread become longer than an Egyptian scroll, it is time to call someone, visit someone, or start a fresh email. There comes a point when further emailing eats up time unnecessarily and is entirely unproductive.


  1. Self-Discipline. The subheading for this paragraph should be: “use capital letters gently.” I think by now we ALL know that messages in all caps are the equivalent of the speaker yelling. We do all know this, correct? Similarly, take a chill pill when you receive an email that evokes emotions. In other words, if you read an email that incurs your wrath, makes you frustrated, elated, whatever – do not immediately respond. Give yourself a handful of hours or days (if necessary) before responding. Remember: Flame emails are the best friend of the pink slip, and none of us wants the latter.


  1. Inject Humor with Care. What one person thinks is funny does not always resonate with other people. Therefore, we must be careful with the humor that we inject into our emails. Also, only forward appropriate humorous videos, slideshow’s, etc. Send these at your own risk. Everyone likes to laugh, but do not develop a reputation as the class clown of email. It will erode your credibility when you send a serious message.  


  1. Day Plan. The time management concept here is to build email time in to your day so that you can act upon emails that truly call for your attention. If need be, delegate the sorting of your email to someone responsible. Also, while most leaders attempt to respond to email and messages within 24 hours, it is not always possible. When is it too late to respond to someone? The answer is “never.” Just make certain that your excuse is a good (and true) one, and is delivered with an authentic tone.


  1. Cluster. There are days when a leader receives so many emails they practically lose their will to live. The sheer quantity of electronic mail causes them to shut down. When there are many topics to share and respond to, consider clustering them into one email. Better yet, for some, create a cover email and attach a succinct document that addresses the items you desire to cover. Note: Be careful about too many emails, and be careful about too lengthy an email. Both scenarios can lead to a longer response wait time than you may have bargained for.


  1. Talk with People. Good, old-fashioned, face-to-face communication can be wonderful. You have the advantage of viewing the other person’s body language. You gain clarity on their tone of voice. The words they say take on deeper meaning. Too many leaders use email as their primary communication mechanism because it is fast and easy. I like fast and easy workplace tools – but not at the expense of long-term rapport and effectiveness. If your team or selected team members prefer communication via email, bravo! Use it lavishly and enjoy. If others prefer a more hands-on approach, it is the leader’s responsibility to recognize this preference and to deliver accordingly. Be strategic in your communications to ensure its effectiveness.   


Bottom Line: Email can be an efficient method to communicate and share important information. It can help us learn about work issues, as well as to document conversations and understanding. It can also be a minefield for legal woes and misunderstandings. By using email as one of many communication tools and methods, leaders can enhance the stickability of their messages. Using email too much or unwisely simply creates a sticky mess. 


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Please do so, as long as you do not alter the content or embedded links. Also, please include the following information: Doug Van Dyke is a leadership and collaboration consultant, executive coach, and strategic planner. Doug’s book, Leadership Simplified, as well as CDs and DVDs are available at www.leadershipsimplified.com. To learn more about coaching and training services, contact Doug today at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). 

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