Is email compromising your executive’s leadership skills?

Why do senior executives get caught up spending high value time and effort doing such low value activity as sifting, sorting, prioritising and checking their own email?

In the days before email, you would never have seen a senior executive sifting through the mail room. So, why do they do it now?

Research over the past five years shows that senior executives spend 75 days per year ‘doing email’. The dollar value of that equates to $55k per year. Most importantly, this time is often spent after hours (early mornings, weeknights and weekends), so now what is it really costing them?

How has this situation come about?

Firstly, it’s because executives are more accessible than ever before. They receive email from people who would normally be screened or filtered out if they tried to reach the executive via phone or in person. Along with that, executives, as decision makers in an organisation, are prime targets for a large number of emails from colleagues, subordinates, suppliers, and sales people.

As a result, they struggle to find the time, energy and mental capacity needed to cope with the triple impact of information, communication and task overload. Too much of their time and attention has shifted from using specialised leadership tasks that directly produce high value to a ‘busyness’ spent managing inboxes and non-essential administrative tasks that do not.

How do Executives manage their email now?

The way that executives manage their email usually fits into one of the following categories:

  • Owner driver: the executive manages their own email with a bit of assistance from an EA to manage meeting invites and calendar appointments
  • Nominated driver: the executive shares management of the email with their assistant in a partnership arrangement, especially when away travelling or on holidays.
  • Chauffeur: this is where the EA manages all incoming communication and filters it such that their executive only sees the small percentage of email that can only be handled by them. The EA is even able to write many of the replies.

Unfortunately, not nearly enough executives use the chauffeur model. One of the biggest complaints heard from EAs is lack of access to and control they have over their executives’ inbox.

How has this happened?

The reason we have this issue is because email seems to have escaped the systematisation and standardisation that has been applied to numerous other business processes in an organisation.

For example, regardless of the number of staff in an organisation, there is usually just one or two processes for things such as applying for leave, raising a purchase order, or paying an invoice. Yet why not email?  It’s simply a business process. As such, it too should be systematised across the organisation.

A major problem that most executives (and their EAs) have is that they are using a skill set they learnt when they started using email 12, 15 or even 20 years ago. However, since that time, email volumes, complexity, demands, workload and urgency have increased exponentially. Additionally, email is now deeply integrated with almost everything else that is happening in the organisation. Almost everything goes through an inbox at some stage.

It begs the question, how much time has been invested in developing the email skills of the executives and EAs in your organisation?

If there is one area of professional development that will pay big dividends and provide immediate benefits, it would be in this area of learning the latest ‘best practice’ email management strategies and skills. Because email is used all day, every day, any training will give significant, immediate and sustainable benefits.

As Forbes magazine has said, “Email is the leading cause of preventable productivity loss in organisations today”.

How can this issue be addressed?

I suggest there are three approaches:

  • Executives can upskill to manage email better, quicker and more effectively for themselves
  • The management of email can be outsourced to an internal EA
  • The management of email can be outsourced to a specialist external EA

Whichever option is chosen, it will involve an investment of time, energy, effort, and focus in the short term. But this investment quickly pays off and frees up enormous amounts of time, and  ‘headspace’ for higher priority projects and use of the executive’s cognitive and leadership skills.

In fact, latest research from the University of Michigan shows that when leaders get caught up ‘doing email’ and use high value time doing low value activity, they take time, focus and energy away from leadership activities.  When these leadership behaviours decline, it has been shown that staff task performance, work satisfaction, organisational commitment, intrinsic motivation and engagement all decrease.

How can an EA have an impact in this area of daily workload management?

EAs want to be able to help and most executives would actually welcome their EA taking the initiative in this area. This will obviously take an investment of time and effort to discuss and set up agreed procedures, protocols and processes but I believe you’ll find the amount of time needed is surprisingly small if it’s done correctly and with full commitment. Plus, it can only lead to a deeper level of understanding and trust in this key workplace relationship.

In the Executive-EA partnership, the aim of the EA is to ‘make life easier’ for their executive and the executive’s aim is to ‘make life better’ for their EA.

Of course, there may be some objections from your executive to making this change. The first of these is probably the fear of missing out—of not being across everything that’s going on. But that’s the point! There’s too much information, communication and data for any executive to be across it all. While it’s understandable that an executive wants to be accessible to their team, it simply costs too much to do so and seriously dilutes time, energy and focus from the higher priorities of the role. The enemy of the best is not the worst, but the second best. Every YES to a low value email is a NO to high value thinking and activity.

Another objection might be about confidentiality. Sure, there will be confidential issues that require careful handling. But this will only apply to a small number of emails (maybe 2-5 percent) and there are specific strategies that can be employed to manage these.

A third issue is that of trust. There is a great degree of trust needed between an executive and their EA. Of course, trust takes time to build up, and is easily broken, but it is well worth the effort when viewed from the bigger picture perspective. As Stephen Covey Junior has written in his book, The Speed of Trust, “Where there is high trust in a relationship, a team or in the marketplace, the cost of doing business goes down and speed of transaction goes up. But when trust is low, the cost of doing business goes up and speed goes down”.

How much can an executive benefit from addressing this issue?

The first step might be to measure the current impact of email overload and areas of challenge and frustration in keeping up with email volumes and demands.

An executive team of eight that I worked with recently found that they were spending an average of $130,000 worth of their time doing email. That’s $130,000 per person, per year! That’s over $1 million of executive time being spent on what is largely an administrative function.

When you consider that savings of 25 to 40 percent of this cost can be made by enhancing and better harnessing the skills and efforts of an EA, shouldn’t it be a high priority for any executive who wants to reduce their overload?


The role of an EA is to protect their executive not only from others, but also from the executive themselves. Maintaining absolute control of the executive’s email is the key to a truly effective partnership.

While the initiative for this will usually have to come from the EA, I think you’d find that most executives will be willing to relinquish control of email to their EA. If the EA is to play the proactive role that successful executive-EA partnerships utilise, making a change and upskilling in this area is essential.