How important is your help in managing your executive’s inbox?


Combing through an inbox for that important email is an ever-present frustration in an EAs life. Steuart Snooks is an e-mail expert that can solve your email problems.

These days, the volume of incoming email and the demands they generate for senior executives make it critical that they get strong control of this aspect of daily workload. Senior levels tend to receive the highest volume of email in an organisation, but it wasn’t always this way.

In the days before email, executives only got the information they needed to make decisions and move their organisation forward. The volume was relatively minor, like the top of a pyramid. But nowadays, the pyramid has been turned on its head and executives are drowning in the volumes.

Email is the mechanism that has made executives more accessible than ever before, to people both inside and outside of the organisation – to those who might rarely have reached them by phone (or got past you as the gatekeeper) and who almost certainly wouldn’t have knocked on their door.

The impacts of this paradigm shift in accessibility is that leaders, executives and managers struggle to find time to keep up with all the increased demands generated by email. These have a negative impact on their productivity, focus, decision-making, leadership capacity, psychological health and work life balance.

That’s why it is critical for you, as their EA, to help with managing their inbox, to use the well-known 80/20 Pareto Principle to filter out the 80 percent or so of emails that aren’t essential so they can focus on the 20 percent that are.

Most executives really would like to delegate management of their inbox but they either don’t know how to do this, haven’t taken the time needed to invest in working with an EA or haven’t established an understanding or agreement of the processes for doing this effectively.

Managing the executive’s inbox

There are three basic models for an Executive and EA to adopt in managing the inbox.

1. Chauffeur: You manage your Executive’s inbox.

You do all the deleting, filing, responding to routine emails, handling meeting invites and organising the calendar, leaving just the most relevant and important emails for your executive to handle.

2. Nominated driver: A partnership where you work together on the inbox.

This arrangement needs a clear understanding and agreement on when and what your executive wants you to with their email. It will require a strong and consistent system or methodology (see some ideas below).

3. Owner driver: Your executive looks after their own inbox.

With this model, your executive only seeks your help at times of peak volumes or when away on travel or holiday.

The model that works best for you will depend on;

  • how much access you have to their inbox
  • the degree of control you have over their calendar
  • whether or not your executive checks their email on a mobile device or at a laptop or desktop.

The foundation for handling your executive’s inbox is to discuss and review expectations, especially as the priorities of the day and week change. Obviously, the protocols and processes you agree upon will depend on a number of factors, such as their seniority, the amount of travel their role requires, the numbers of meetings and other demands of their workload, their accessibility to email and so on.

Keyboard competence and speed

One of the key considerations is the executive’s level of skill and comfort with using the email software. Some (or dare I say most?) executives are far less skilled than their EA (for a variety of reasons) and this highlights an obvious opportunity for you to be the first and main point of contact for all emails.

The primary goal of assisting your executive with their inbox is to ensure that all emails are handled well, and they are handled only once. This requires agreement on how reduce the unnecessary and low-value email traffic. Your aim is to reduce duplication of effort wherever possible, especially where you both receive the same emails or emails are reviewed and handled by both of you (eg: meeting invites and discussions in which you are cc’d).

You must also manage the risk of emails being overlooked by both of you agreeing on a process for highlighting important emails that need your executive’s attention.

The Chauffeur Model

This is often done by adding a flag to emails for their attention or redirecting emails to separate folders (eg; for Action, to Read, Approvals). Even better, you can add a category (or colour) to the email indicating the type of action or by responding to the email and forwarding the response to your executive with something in the subject line to attract their attention. Another approach (especially for executives who are highly mobile) is to send them a text with details of which emails need their immediate attention.

However, one of the breakthroughs I’ve helped clients to achieve is to set up an additional and editable column in their inbox, called remarks or next action. This is a great idea for all those who share a mailbox – customer service, administration and, especially an executive and their EA.

This way, you can type the exact words to describe the current status of each email; what has been done or needs to be done. There is no need to interpret or guess what a flag or colour means. No need to change the content of the subject line. No need to forward the email with a note. No need to go to a separate folder to find action items. It’s like speaking directly to each other – it provides great clarity.

The Nominated Driver Model

Where your executive wishes to stay ‘hands on’ in managing their own inbox, they should think and talk while you work the keyboard and asks questions to clarify and guide the action or response. The aim is for you to handle as much of the operational and administrative issues as possible so your executive is free to apply their time, thinking and talent to the higher order issues of their role that add real value to your organisation.

Meeting Invites

Another key area for clarifying understanding is in handling meeting invites. It’s important to move these out of the executive’s inbox so they don’t distract from important emails. Here are some ways that you could handle these;

  • send the meeting invites from your inbox and have the replies come directly to you
  • send the meeting invites from the executive’s inbox but have replies directed to you
  • filter out all meeting related responses using rules

Ideally, you should aim to establish a system or process that will outlive you. One that is not dependent on you personally and can be easily taught to someone else to facilitate. It is of little help to your executive and organisation in the long run if you become indispensable to the process as when you leave the organisation, your executive is left floundering.

By setting up a clear and well understood process, your replacement can easily be trained up and you will have added something of real value to the organisation in the long term. It’s also something you can take with you when you move along to another role. S