Get Out Of My Inbox: Effective Communications in the C-Suite
At Cerius, most of our communication is virtual. We’ve tried everything under the sun, yet always find our way back to email.
Communication: It’s easily the most esoteric topic in any company. It is something everyone knows we need to improve on and complain about, but it takes the most amount of work to improve, and no one knows where to start.
Sometimes it feels like a game with a clock ticking down. There are 100 emails in your inbox (all unread) and you only have 15 minutes. Ready, Set, Go! It can be endlessly frustrating to sift through what requires attention in the next hour, versus today, versus you simply need to know this, in general.
I remember managing a field service division before the era of email. To communicate with all our staff, we produced weekly mailings to share tasks news alerts, and general company updates. The most brilliant idea to improve these mailings was to print items on colored paper to help identify priorities and get everyone on the same page. Salmon was a news alert; green for weekly directives; of course, red was for urgent: read and/or do this right away! I’m sure you can imagine what happened. We ran out of red paper faster than any of the other colors. Everything became a priority. Our system to help identify what needed immediate attention…immediately fell to pieces.
Fast-forward a few decades and the same hamster is running around the same wheel. It’s just a newer, higher-tech wheel.
The Inbox Beast Is Everywhere
Much of our team at Cerius is virtual and we are always looking for the best way to share information, ask questions, get answers, and have it all archived so the same issues don’t keep getting asked (and answered) differently each time. We have tried everything from Slack to CRM chatter to texting. Each time, we’ve returned to good, old-fashioned email.
The problem with email, however, is that you either begin fantasizing about it waking up with an empty Inbox or you dread turning on your device. There is simply no end to the onslaught.
We have a few communication hacks to consider.
Taming The Inbox Beast in Three Short Steps
Start with a few basic guidelines for sending emails. (By the way: I have seen email protocol guidelines that are three pages long. Other than legal compliance, there’s no reason for that.)
- Use a subject line tag to identify priority.
Subject line: “Information” or “Action Needed”
Because we implemented this simple flag, when I get out of a series of marathon meetings and I only have 30 minutes, I can quickly scan through my internal emails and prioritize communication with customers, Interim Executives, and messages with subject lines starting with “Action Needed.”
- Top of email – BLUF (Bottom line up front)
What is the most important thing you need me to know after reading this email? Say that—in the first few sentences. Don’t wait to get to the point. Don’t bury the lead (and the entire point of the email) down at the end or lose it in the middle. Put the point at the top of the email, supporting it with additional information and details (if necessary) below.
- Bold action that is needed
When action is needed, again, don’t bury it. No need to capitalize (shouting is rude). Just turn on the boldface or hit CTRL-B and make it stand out. Now,
Subject: Action Needed – Fw: random subject from 10 emails ago
Client is not happy and wants a call from you.
Blah, blah, blah, blah call before 4pm pst today blah, blah, blah, blah…
Bonus Communication Best Practice: The Company Command Center
Once the Inboxes are tamed, it’s time to tackle the next project—a centralized communication hub for the entire organization.
It is rare that a small to midsized company collects all of its information in one place, and if it does, it takes more time to find which shared folder it resides is in, even with the aid of a search bar. A central communication center can help reduce inconsistency and uncertainty when the same question is asked over and over, wasted time looking for URL links, and the number of emails in everyone’s Inbox.
The Company Command Center can be as simple as a Google doc or Word doc on a shared drive that everyone has easy access to. Populate it with:
- Weekly alerts
- Departmental updates: When is the next release coming, big wins for marketing, etc.
- Helpful links – the most popular or common web, directory, or file links everyone should have quick and easy access to.
- Helpful reminders: List out your email protocols, don’t forget to ask for referrals, and so on
Most importantly, include your company’s core purpose and values at the top. They should be the first thing everyone sees each time the document is accessed.
Pick Up the Phone
Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that humans are still human, and that means not everything can be automated, not everything goes perfectly, and not all communication should be handled digitally.
Sometimes, you simply need to pick up the phone and call the person. And the best time to make that determination is not 5 emails into the conversation; it’s before the first or second email is sent.
A phone call is always more personal and offers more opportunity for real-time two-way communication in an interactive, effective manner. This is especially true when communicating with those who receive information best verbally. If you aren’t sure, ask.
One of my favorite sayings is, “What gets measured get managed, what gets managed improves.” The same can be applied for prioritizing communications. And finally, don’t be surprised if the second page of the Command Center or anything beyond the “Weekly Alerts” goes unread. It becomes quickly apparent what is and is not a priority and where the