February 21, 2012
Your company's culture springs up based on the conversations leaders lead and actions they allow. "How are things done around here?" is the most important question you need to manage if you want to build a positive and strong culture.
Think of communication tools, then, as culture-building devices. Meetings, casual conversations, phone calls, email exchanges and letters/documents - all of these comprise The Conversation. But among them, one stands out as the 800 Pound Gorilla: email. It's anywhere from 1/2 to 90% of your conversational life both inside and outside the company.
That's why entrepreneur and Tech Stars teacher Mark Sullivan advised all new CEO to "not suck at email." Get that part of your leadership life wrong, and bad things will always cascade down from it. It amazes me that very few companies have an "Excellence Area" for email. Most don't even offer Email Etiquette Training.
Most companies have an Obscenity Avoidance policy to prevent harassment suits, excessive foul language, etc. They teach Duh' level techniques, like "Don't Always Hit Reply To All" when email is flooding everyone's Inbox like a tsuanmi. But that's reactive.
Email is either your secret weapon or achille's heel. Here are some examples:
1. Customer Mangement - When you receive an email from a ticked off customer, what's the policy? At broadcast.com, Mark Cuban had The Two Minute Call Rule. For our business services group, every one of us was expected to phone a ticked off or disappointed customer withing two minutes of reading the email from them. It made us very accountable, and usually, the ticked off customer was somewhat apologetic about the tone of his email! It separated us from other companies, where the email was socialized around for the 'best response' (read: cover your butt!). The gap in time between the Send and your live response almost always simmers the customer to the boiling point. And email reads horribly unless you are saying YES! to whatever they are demanding.
2. Talent Management - Is your email policy a benefit or a penalty for your talent? At top-rated employer SAS Institute, it's how they attract top talent and keep them for life. Dr. Jim Goodnight believes that we should turn off our computers around 5, go home and live our life. And weekends should be ... weekends. His Email Only During Professional Hours policy is a recruiting tool and also ensures top quality work and less meltdowns. Do you think your 11:30pm missive, a product of sipping and sending, is really that coherant?
3. Conflict Resolution - When I worked at Yahoo, we brought in Reader's Digest veteran Greg Coleman in 2002. He was appalled at how much he had to manage complaints between his reports. So he required anyone with a complaint about another Yahoo, to tell the other Yahoo to his/her face or phone if they aren't local. If they still needed him involved, he'd consider it. It created a culture of courage, where you dealt with your issues with real-time conversations among grown-ups.
But many companies have an email culture where you copy bosses and other influencers to get your way. Or even worse, you use email to disagree, criticize or talk about emotionally weight things ... so you don't have to have a live conversation. This can only lead to problems, as email is a terrible way to convey our intentions. If you've ever received an email from a boss saying, "that is stupid" and boiled about it for weeks - you know what I mean.
Here's more posts on how to turn Email Into Your Secret Weapon