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Successful CEOs radiate the image of being in control, but leadership is a juggling act between several factors and somewhere along the way, it’s entirely possible for a few balls to slip. One of these is responding to emails in a timely manner. Many CEOs don’t reply to emails that arrive in their inbox and the reasons for this are manifold – they haven’t actually seen the email, they have read it and dismissed it, they are still formulating a reply but forget to actually do it, or they are not bothered.

Ignoring cold emails is understandable, but what about emails that come from people they have already interacted with, with whom they have a business relationship? Leaders and CEOs are indeed busy people but what is the cost of digitally ignoring someone? One of the important aspects of communication is that it is a two-way street and the expectation of a response is valid. Not responding to emails gives out signals that might impart a negative impression of the leaders.

What message does it give?

Standard face-to-face communication has other cues to complete meaning, such as visual expressions, tone of voice and body language. When it comes to written communication, especially email, understanding such metamessages can be hard to track. When a CEO doesn’t respond, it sends out a metamessage of its own that impacts its reputation negatively.

Senders can assume that the CEO is indifferent or that they devalue the sender’s time and effort. The longer it takes them to get back, the deeper this perception becomes engendered. To the CEO, not replying might be because they are not interested or forgot but it can have deeper repercussions. From reputation to reliability and trust, all of this is affected when there is no response to an email. Some people might argue that ‘no response is the new no’ but truthfully speaking, this is passive-aggressive behaviour and also rude.

What can be done?

Understanding that there is a need for change is the first step in shifting away from this new disturbing culture of communication. It’s reasonable to believe that CEOs are busy people with hardly enough free time on their hands. They are deluged by emails which can keep multiplying until addressing it seems like an insurmountable task. Here are some of the ways in which CEOs can prevent this from happening

  • Give themselves a deadline – Sometimes, a deadline is what works best. If they have all the required information to respond to an email, they should give themselves a deadline of 24 hours at least. Inbox Zero is possible with the right amount of effort.
  • Make it part of their to-do list or task – Being organised is important and CEOs especially have tasks and to-do lists to get them through the day. When answering emails is included in this list, it makes it easier and doable.
  • Save time with text expanders – Answering time can be reduced to seconds with the help of text expanders that can be used to send standardised responses.
  • Delegate – Sometimes, none of these options might be feasible and will undeniably add to the CEO’s workload. Maybe, then it’s time to delegate the task to an assistant or a subordinate.

Communication has evolved over the decades but the expectation of receiving a response to an email is natural. Responding to emails or not, might seem like a small issue especially for an important personage such as the CEO but in the larger picture, it is invaluable in creating the right impression about leadership.