Five Questions With: Carole Ann Penney

Carole Ann Penney is the founder of Penney Leadership LLC, and a strategic career coach based in Providence. She develops mission-driven leaders, transforming them, so that they can lead with purpose and resilience. Technology can be a help or a hinderance toward this goal. Here, Penney discusses email, and the challenges in managing it. For example, according to a 2019 McKinsey analysis, the average professional spends 28% of their day reading and answering email — that’s 2.6 hours a day.

PBN: How should executive leaders view email in terms of their regular work routines?

PENNEY: In this time of uncertainty and remote work, I’m hearing from professionals at all levels who are tethered to their inboxes around the clock. They’re managing more complex challenges and collaborating across distance. Transparent communication is more essential than ever, and boundaries between work and personal time are virtually nonexistent. All of this adds up to stress, overstimulation and burnout. In order to be effective leaders who are prepared to take on these pressing challenges, we need to cultivate sustainable leadership practices — and that includes how we manage our email.

PBN: Without a concentrated focus, what can email become for these leaders?

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PENNEY: I talk with leaders all the time who feel overwhelmed. Their inbox dictates how they spend their time and their days are overshadowed by frantic efforts to dig themselves out. They’re constantly operating from a reactive state. As a result, they feel ineffective. Email is supposed to be a tool to get our work done more efficiently, but often it becomes a distraction or impediment that slows us down. Leaders need to intentionally take charge of their email workflow in order to proactively focus on what’s truly important.

PBN: What are some effective email practices for CEOs, managers and others?

PENNEY: Some key ways to take control of your time and attention:

· Hide notifications those enticing dings and badges alerting you to new messages are constant distractions. You decide when you look at your inbox, not the other way around.

· Set expectations for response timing in your email signature it communicates your workflow to others, and it’s also a permission slip to set your own priorities.

· Use templates for common messages fill in the blanks, personalize and send away. It’s like a gift from your past self.

· Unsubscribe from lists that don’t serve you your inbox is like your desk; the only thing better than clearing it off is making sure that clutter doesn’t land there in the first place. Hitting “unsubscribe” preserves your valuable attention for what matters most.

PBN: One of the tips you mentioned recently that you had made in your own life may be considered controversial by some. Can you share?

PENNEY: I reached a point earlier this year when I felt controlled by my email. I checked it constantly, mostly in the two minutes between Zoom meetings or when I was with my kids —when I wasn’t in a position to reply. I tricked myself into thinking I was working when I was really just adding to my stress. I’d watch the messages pile up and the mounting anxiety would take me away from my all-important time to recharge or focus on family. It was time to make a change. I deleted the email app from my phone entirely. Now, I’m committed to only checking my email at my desktop when I’m in a position to respond. I haven’t looked back.

PBN: How does a leader’s email practices affect others?

PENNEY: Leaders may not realize that how they manage their communications isn’t just a personal choice it sets the culture for the entire team. If you respond to emails on vacation, on the weekend, or late at night, it creates a norm that others will feel that they need to match (even if you tell the team that they’re not expected to do the same). Leaders need to be clear with their teams about their communication expectations and model sustainable work practices.

Sometimes, as a working parent, 10 p.m. is the best time for me to focus on replying to email messages. If your workflow extends outside of the standard 9-to-5 workday, consider using the feature to schedule your messages to send first thing on the next business day. This enables you to honor your own timing for getting things done while also supporting healthy work/life boundaries for others.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.

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