Too Many Emails? Don’t Read Them.

If you want to get hold of Chris McCormley, a business unit leader at GE Power, don’t email him. You’re best to call (or wait for him to call or stop by your desk). Smart tactics like these seem essential given that experts predict by 2019, the number of business emails sent and received to reach 128 billion daily. Therefore, we must get savvy. In this interview-with-leaders blog series, McCormley shares how he reduced his inbox significantly and became more efficient and productive, too.

On a given day, how many emails do you receive and for what kind of issues?

Right now, as a unit leader, I’d say 1-200. The topics range from project updates to requests for help to people cc-ing me in when they’ve a problem they think needs a leader’s knowledge. The volume has gotten better; it once was 300+. Now the folks that know me and know my specific skill set will call me or meet with me in person.

How did you turn things around? Describe your strategy.

I’m task oriented and find excessive emails prevent productivity and take a ton of time. I feel that in business you can essentially create your role (and define who you are) if you complete your goals—yet, emails get in the way of that. While emails rack in all day long, I found if I check email from 6-7 a.m. and don’t look at it again until 5 p.m., I complete more tasks.

Did this strategy take some training of your team? How did you communicate your approach?

I trained my team and people now understand the best way to communicate with me is to call or visit me vs. email.

When I first started, I’d have a lot of emails. Instead of signing off with, “Cheers,”or, “Take care,” I’d add, “Please call me to follow up.” This meant a lot of phone calls, but phone conversations remain a lot quicker than a chain of emails.

I’d also walk the factory floor, call (or visit) people at their desk to respond to an issue they’d outlined via email. If they weren’t at their desk, I’d leave a hand-written response on a post-it note with my number and a request to call me to follow up.

Describe for us the effectiveness of this approach. What you describe sounds a lot like the Hewlett Packard Management By Walk Around style of leadership.

I’ve found my approaches very effective. The visiting people at the desk/post-it note system creates an obligatory response. I have never left a post-it note where I haven’t had a response. (That’s from IT to quality to engineering.  I always get a response.) I don’t always get a response when I send emails.

Machine-gun fire writers who copy in managers to ensure an action gets completed can create 100 emails a day, easy. When the writer is a direct report, I meet and ask of their intent. Then, I share I’d prefer they only cc me if they genuinely need me to intervene with the person they communicate with. I’ve found if I communicate to those writers (directly and politely) that I prefer phone or in-person conversations, they call, or they leave me out of the emails.

Walking around the floor becomes very effective in manufacturing. Those with quick-fix problems (or needing you to confirm or deny information) wave you down, describe the problem they may have outlined in an email; you discuss, brainstorm and relay a solution. That person then tells those involved what you just shared. It’s almost like the telephone game, but without the distortion.

When writing work emails, what advice do you have for brevity and gaining the quickest, clearest response?

Simplify your sentences and bulletize any lists, actionable requests and status updates. Avoid buffer words. Don’t use filler words.

Overall, you should cut all the fluff, unless you’re dealing with something sensitive requiring buffering. Otherwise, make it clear what you need from your audience by removing loose, unnecessary words. With bullets especially, even my own boss has responded how easy it becomes to relay my ideas to leaders.

What about your background helped you come up with this unique, savvy approach?

Part of my strategy comes from knowing who you are. I started off in manufacturing from working on the floor. I drove a forklift for a few years, worked on the assembly line and was a machinist, too. (I’m from Detroit originally.) When I worked on the line where no email existed, I saw you can solve issues (and deal with folks face-to-face) very effectively and not have to write an entire story with email. We can all learn from this approach.


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