This year I have been supporting a senior executive of a global company in his development. Like many senior executives we work with at Innovative Thought, his challenge has been how he can manage his time to focus on the big things while all the small things drive his behavior. This is one of the most common challenges that senior executives have – how do you manage the important vs the urgent.

The executive would get into the office early in New York City and already have a half days worth of emails from the European offices asking questions. He has been at the organization for over 20 years so any question that would come in to his email he could answer and therefore he spent most of his morning doing just that.  This has not become a habit both for the executive and the people in Europe asking the questions.

ID-100175198It is not unusual for senior executives to struggle in their time management as they move up the corporate ladder.  Managing an overbooked calendar is one of the most common complaints we hear. Often it is a challenge of how they approach leadership. Their model for leadership, which often involved being very hands-on early in their career, needs to change as they move up the organization. To help them reflect on how they want to lead and then create a model for the future we use the Personal Leadership Model. We applied this model with the executive and it led to some significant changes in how he thought about leadership and therefore his behavior.  It has also highlighted some challenges with email and how it is used in modern organizations.

  1. Email is not communication, it is a sharing of information.  Communication requires a two-way interaction by definition and when an email is sent you are not sure if it is understood and sometimes even read.
  2. Email is a barrier to delegation because it is so convenient.  It can take you 15 minutes to answer a question which is really not much time, while it would take you 30 minutes to get a member of your team to respond with the right answer.  However executives must remember
    that delegation is about the “long game” and not the immediate.  If you answer those emails in 15 minutes, you will always have to answer those emails.
  3. Email provides satisfaction by allowing you to complete a task. Senior executives are successful because they get things done.  Sending 10 emails in an hour “feels” more productive than thinking about strategy or team development.  It even feels more productive than most meetings.
  4. Email destroys work life balance by blurring the boundary between when you work and when you don’t.  The ability for us to get emails on our phone has created a culture of immediate response.  Even if you are at a show and your phone buzzes, you look at it and there
    is an email from the CEO and your urge is to respond (see #3).

So how can we leverage the productivity benefits of email while mitigating what can be destructive behaviors.  Here are some successful approaches that have been applied by our clients:

  1. Email is not communication – Take 5 of the emails that you would normally send each week and pick up the phone (or even better if you use video).  Making it a specific number will help you change your behavior and it will also allow you to think critically about when you should call and when you should email.
  2. Email is a barrier to delegation – For every email that you receive consider if there is a member of your team that can answer it.  Respond to the request and copy that member of the team and let the requester know that this is their person to go to for the question.  If you have quality concerns about the response either ask to see the response before it is sent, or get copied on the response when it is sent directly.  Remember that the first time you do this the requester will be surprised and they will still send you the next request.  However the 3rd or 4
    th request will be sent straight to the team member and that frees your time.
  3. Email provides satisfaction – You need to be self-aware to manage this impulse.  This is where the Personal Leadership Model really is powerful.  If you have a clear understanding of what you need to do to lead then it becomes easier to move from the immediate satisfaction of completing a task to the long term accomplishment of leading effectively.
  4. Email destroys work life balance – Bright line team communication rules about when emails are sent can be effective as well explicit statements about how the team communicates.  However the most powerful individual approach is to either save any late night/weekend emails in drafts and send them at the start of the next work day or use the delayed send function.  This allows someone to manage their work-life balance on their terms.  If your respond to an email at midnight then that is now the senders expectation.  Just like #2, it will take some time to change that expectation but by the 3rd or 4th email they will let you know that they will hope to hear from you in the morning.

Managing email and your productivity needs to be done with thought. Taking these steps will allow you to develop your team, build better relationships and free time to do the important while making sure the urgent is addressed.

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