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Inbox Zero Principle of Leadership

Computer closed, work done

There are numerous ways as a leader to measure yourself, your progress, and your goals.  Not all of them are scientific, but they give you a way to move forward to improve yourself.  Sometimes you will have the benefit of measurable progress indicators, and luckily, your email inbox is one of them.  You can easily use your inbox to gauge several things, including when you need to delegate and focus on specific areas of the business.

Most of use our inboxes in similar ways.  Our incoming emails are tasks that need to be taken care of.  They might be related to any aspect of your daily duties, but all-in-all, your emails are your first measurable piece of information that you can use to determine how well you’re performing in the organization.  Since we pretty much all line in a world where leaders are expected to wear multiple “hats” in the company, this is perhaps one of your most important barometers for your personal success.

Inbox Organization

That said, we all use our inboxes differently.  Personally, I used to spend time going through emails, categorizing them, putting them into folders, building rules for specific ones, and so on.  I eventually found this to be an incredible waste of my time though.  Since then, I use a much simpler email organization system.  I have a single rule in my inbox for a specific type of email that I almost never need to even look at.  Beyond that, every single email I get goes into and stays in my inbox.  Anything “unread” is not yet complete.  Now, I never have any issues finding emails, and I spend a fraction of the time I used to in my email.

Inbox Zero

When you first begin at any organization, you can take on all kinds of responsibilities.  No one yet knows what you are supposed to do, including you.  What begins as a daily blessing of continuous inboxes of emails that are all processed.  Eventually, that scale unbalances itself though, and you find yourself overflowing with email.  On the rare occasion, you’ll find yourself able to “clear out” your inbox.  This is an exciting time for most of us.  We obsessively brag about having hit “inbox zero.”  Our inbox doesn’t have any leftover tasks.  On any given day, you’ll find an obscene amount of these people I’m describing on Twitter (#InboxZero).

It’s not realistic to get to inbox zero on a daily basis, but it should be happening often enough that it’s not a cause for celebration, and none of the emails in your inbox are people asking you if you got their email. 

Now that we are all on the same page with what inbox zero is, what does it mean when you can’t there? 

Why Inbox Zero Is So Important

Inbox zeroAt the end of the day, inbox zero is your measurement of how well you’re doing as a leader.  You should strive for inbox zero every day.  If you find yourself trending away from it, you need to make some changes.  Everyone within and outside of your company is one of your customers.  Your team and co-workers are your customers, and your customers are your customers.  Every time you’re not able to respond to one of them, or the longer it takes to do so, the worse you are serving your customers.  Unhappy customers mean bad business, no matter how you look at it.

The more you can get to inbox zero, the better your business is doing and the more you’ll be able to focus on aspects of your job and business that matter but are being overlooked.  Oh, and you’re quality of life will increase as well.

Here are some causes of not being able to get to inbox zero.  It’s very important to identify the reasons so that you can address the issue appropriately.

An Area of the Business is Doing Well or Not Well Enough

When things are doing excessively well or poorly in any area of the business, you’ll find the impact to be the same on your inbox.  Both are problems, but only one is a good problem to have.  You’ll be flooded with conversations and questions about how to fix the problems.  The fixes for these issues will all be unique, but at least you know that this is a problem that has a solution. 

You’re a Micromanager

There’s no two ways about it…  Many people that hold leadership positions are micromanagers.  The irony here is that most of those people don’t even realize it.  After all, your team wouldn’t dare tell you that you are.  I haven’t met a micromanager yet that would react positively or constructively to that kind of feedback. 

If you’re finding that you’re routing too many approvals and reviews through your inbox, it’s probably time for a change.  Either you’ve hired your staff poorly, or you need to learn how to trust the members of your team.  Both problems can mean the end of your business or department. 

If none of the other causes here resonate with you, I have news for you.  You’re a micromanager and you need to stop.  You’ll only hire and retain people that enjoy that kind of management (they’re not model employees), and the good people will eventually quit – no matter how much money you throw at them.

Your Training Program/Materials/Process Need Creation or Updating

Corporate trainingWhen you onboard new people, they’ll be a “time suck” for you and your team.  It’s inevitable, even with the most well-architected training and onboarding program in place.  However, if you don’t have an onboarding and ongoing training program, that time suck is never going to go away.  In fact, it will get worse over time, as your staff gets more and more responsibilities.  You’re constantly going to be playing goalie with issues related to your team.  I’m sure you have better things to spend your time on.

You need to have and constantly update training materials and processes for all levels of your organization and departments.  Not doing this is the equivalent of building a house without insulation.  You’re constantly going to be leaking energy (money).

Too Many People Are Reporting to You

We’ve all heard the saying, “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”  This refers to organizations whose management team outnumbers the other members of the company.  You might be suffering from the opposite, where you have too many managers or non-managers reporting directly to you.  When this is the case, you will be spending all of your time managing and none of your time working on leading the company through the next 2-5 years.  Ideally, you should have no more than 5-7 people reporting directly to you at any given time.  This allows you to spend the invaluable time with each of the people you directly lead.  Having any more than that almost guarantees that none of them will be as successful as they should be, and neither will you. 

You Are Doing Too Much

If you’re any good at what you do, it’s very likely that you’re trying to do as much of that as you can.  It’s difficult not to.  There’s an amazing amount of satisfaction in getting things done, and the more you get done, the more of that satisfaction you have.  This is because of the psychology behind gamification – our desire that’s generated through the constant feedback loop of accomplishment.  Like micromanagement, you need to stop this too.

If you’re doing too much in the company, then you’re doing everyone in the company a disservice.  Your knowledge and skill is not getting spread.  People in the company and outside of the company come directly to you for answers and direction.  Your team doesn’t know how to do what you’re doing, and they’ll never learn enough for you to trust them.

Forget your inbox, your company or department won’t be able to scale beyond you.  You need to begin to let go of some of the responsibilities that you’ve taken on, and trust your team to get them done for you.  Delegate.  Speaking of delegation…

You Need to Hire

Every company goes through growing pains.  Well, unless you’re not growing.  Assuming you are growing, you’ll never be rid of the pains that come with the different stages of your company’s growth.  Part of this pain is the recurring realization that you need more people to spread duties across.  When you find yourself dedicating too much time to specific areas of the business, or your department, it may be time to look for someone that specializes in that area.  This will allow you to focus on other areas that need your attention.

[Image: Flickr user hyperdashery]

This article is cross-posted from my personal blog.

About the Author

Will StrohlFounder & CEO
Upendo Ventures
Overall, Will has nearly 20 years of experience helping website owners become more successful in all areas, including mentoring, website development, marketing, strategy, e-commerce, and more.

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