The Ten Golden Rules of Managing Via Email
The Revenue Journal post on the worst mistake you can make as you manage via email (not responding) hit a nerve - not only with the people who recognized themselves as the non-responders, but with the people who work for non-responders.
So I checked with some readers and asked if I should be writing the definitive guide to managing via email. Obviously, their answer was yes. Very few managers have mastered it, and a lot of employees are suffering due to the mismanagement.
Before I get into the Ten Golden Rules of Managing Via Email, let's zoom up to the 35,000-foot level.
Emails are messages stuffed inside boxes. The boxes have labels on them (subject lines, primarily, but also date and sender info). People who are working for you get instructions from you via email. When they work on their projects, they go digging in those boxes for the little bits of information they need to do the job properly.
If the boxes are mis-labeled, your people waste hours of precious time in every given week, going on scavenger hunts for the data they need.
That's why it's more important to CHANGE the subject line when the . . . ahem . . . subject changes.
If the subject line stays the same, but the content of the message changes, the whole searching system breaks down.
Most email software simply doesn't provide advanced search functions such as multiple filters. For example, if an employee searches for a word or phrase, such as "new product launch," she'll get all sorts of non-related results. She will have to hunt through the list until the desired email is found. It's disgustingly inefficient.
Every single time you start an email, get in the habit of applying focused brain power to the subject line. Even if you are replying to someone, if the email you are going to write calls for a subject change, change the subject line.
You can, if you must, say something like, "Shipping instructions (was 'need a refund')" or, "Merger candidates (was discussion re merger)."
Start thinking of your emails as a message inside a box, and the subject line as the box label, and you'll start doing a better job of managing via email.
Now, let's go back to the one-foot level, where the rubber meets the road.
The Ten Golden Rules of Managing Via Email
1. If you can say it all in the subject line, do so - and say "EOM" at the end of the subject line. I got into this habit because of Janet, a very efficient woman who worked for me for years, and who used this method very well. "EOM" stands for End of Message (and there's nothing further inside the message). So if you are simply giving someone permission to go ahead with something, or you are telling them you got something from them, and you don't need to go into any more detail, the message would be: "Go ahead with Plan B - EOM."
2. Do not mix information, discussion, and instruction emails - and use appropriate acronyms in the subject line. If you're sending something to someone that is not urgent and requires no action on their part, but is simply for their information, say "FYI" at the end of the subject line. If you're starting a discussion thread, put DISC at the end of the subject line. If the decisions have been made and it's time to give instructions, put TODO at the end of the subject line. Doing this will help your employees manage their time more efficiently. They will jump on the TODO emails right away, and will also make sure they open the DISC emails fairly soon after they receive them, so as to get their 2 cents into the discussion as it is occurring. And they will save the FYI emails for those more laid-back moments, such as while they're eating lunch, wrapping up their day, or even checking their email in the evening from home.
3. Never, ever say anything nasty about anyone in an email. When you're talking over a personnel issue with another manager, it's easy to rant. It's also a very dangerous practice. At the very least, the IT guy might be that person's best friend, and your emails could get back to the person. Emails can also be seized in the case of a legal dispute, and that late-night profanity-laced venting email is the last thing you want showing up in court. One good rule of thumb: As you are typing, think to yourself, "What would I be saying if I knew that the person I was writing about was going to see this message?" Another good rule of thumb: Have those discussions on the phone or in person, not via email. Just tell the other manager via email that you'd prefer taking the discussion offline, or better yet, just pick up the phone. Which brings us to Rule #4.
4. Know when to stop the email thread and call a meeting or pick up the phone. Email is great for sending information and giving instructions. But there are times (as Mark Taussig mentioned in response to my last email article) when it's time to ditch the email thread and address the issue with a conversation. Also, some people follow written instructions well, while others need to talk things over. I was working with two graphic designers recently; one of them followed written instructions to the letter, and the other simply didn't. In her case, sending even a very specific email just didn't work. It was far more efficient to pick up the phone and talk through the issues, so that her brain could "own" them and then act on them properly. Train yourself to recognize when it's time to stop emailing and to start talking.
5. Respond, even if it is just with a subject-only email: "Got the plan, thx, will get back to you - EOM." All day long, we use email to send things to our bosses, employees, vendors, and customers. And they send stuff to us. Let them know you got it, so they can rest assured that you'll be getting back to them (and then, of course, do it).
6. Don't think out loud to your staff or vendors via email. If you are thinking something through, and want their participation, call a meeting. If you have thought it through and come to a conclusion, write a "TODO" email that tells them the conclusion/decision FIRST, explains why the decision was made and then assigns responsibilities. You cannot imagine how relieved - and more productive - your employees will be if you do this one thing right. Employees want you to lead, not muse out loud. They can't do anything with your musings except fret about them anyway - or come to the wrong conclusions based on the things you have written.
7. Write very crisp and logical instructions. Write your instructions in outline format - numbers and bullets. Include everything they need to know to get started on the job. If something still needs to be determined or decided, say so - and in your next email, the subject line should be: "Project X - Shipping decision."
8. Keep your subject lines consistent. The best email managers preface their project emails with the name of the project, then the actual subject describing what's in the email. That way, when employees go looking, no matter who the email came from - you or another employee "replying to all" - all of that project's emails will be in one place, when sorted alphabetically by subject line.
9. Never "reply to all" unless they all really need to know. The bigger the company, the bigger the CYA factor. People hate to make decisions without "consensus," so they feel they must include other people in the email thread. The result is that managers can spend half their email time opening and scanning emails that are "fyi" only, and don't require any action on their part. While this does keep them in the loop, I estimate that at least 70% of those emails shouldn't have landed in their inboxes in the first place. In smaller companies, the company founder often sends "interesting" emails around to "everyone" without realizing how much he's disrupting their day. These emails are usually articles that resonated with the boss, but won't mean as much to the employees - and may even make them come to the wrong conclusion, which brings me to the last Golden Rule.
10. Think about the real message they'll get, before you send the message you think you're sending. Let's say a company owner has just read an article about how one company merged with another, and managed to handle the merger successfully using particular work processes. The boss likes those processes. So he sends out the email with a subject line "Interesting article about X/Y merger" - thinking the employees will find the same work processes interesting. The employees get it and start wondering out loud, to each other, "Are we going to merge with another company?"
When the CEO sneezes, the whole company gets pneumonia. As the leader of your company, with lots of people looking to you for leadership, everything you say - every expression, every reaction, every offhand comment - is magnified and can be easily misconstrued. The best managers - via email or just in general - understand this, accept it, and behave accordingly. They are, in a word, careful. It's easy to shoot your mouth off when you're the boss, because you have an ever-present attentive audience. But it's a terrible, revenue-slowing practice, whether you do it verbally or via email.
Email is one of the most efficient vehicles for getting work done. Use it well and you will far exceed the efficiency of your competitors.