Managing Email with an Assistant

Let me be honest. I am actually better at writing about delegation than actually doing it. This is especially true when it comes to email. I have always prided myself in being super-responsive. As a result, I like to process my email myself. However, that has become increasingly difficult.

Emal Hitting a Computer Screen - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/mipan, Image #665423

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/mipan

For starters, I now have more than one inbox. (Please don’t tell David Allen.) In addition to my physical inbox and my email inbox, I now have a Twitter inbox and a Facebook inbox. My volume of incoming messages has risen dramatically, primarily as a result of my blog.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Catalyst One Day Conference in Chicago. I was particularly challenged by Craig Groeschel’s talk on “Creating Personal Spiritual Momentum.” (My friend, Ron Edmondson, provides a great recap here.) I realized that my current workload was not sustainable. I could no longer process more than 300 email messages a day in addition to my other responsibilities. Something had to change.

I decided that I was going to delegate more of my email processing to my assistant, Vicki. She is more than capable, and I was simply under-utilizing her by insisting on processing all of my email messages myself. However, in searching the Internet, I could not seem to find any good resources for managing email with an assistant. So, I decided to experiment.

The first thing Vicki and I tried was creating a secret email address for me. I know several leaders that use this method, because I have their secret address! The idea is that Vicki would process my email inbox and forward the messages that required my personal attention to my secret address. I would also give this address to my direct reports. I would then delete my main inbox account from my email program.

This approach lasted about half a day. I soon realized that eventually:

  1. Too many people would have this address, rendering it ineffective; and
  2. I couldn’t easily reply from this address without blowing my cover.

Next, we tried creating a special inbox folder called “Mike to Handle” under my main inbox. The idea here was that Vicki would go through my inbox and drag the messages I needed to handle to my special folder.

The problem with this was that I couldn’t seem to refrain from viewing the messages in my main inbox. It was just too tempting to “sneak a peek.” This method lasted about two hours!

Finally, we reversed the process. We settled on creating a separate subfolder for Vicki called “Vicki to Handle.” I then set up several email rules that would automatically process the email that hit my inbox, so I would only see the message I needed to see.

Here are the email rules I created:

  1. In reply to me. This ensures that anyone who replies to a message I have initiated comes directly to me. In Apple Mail, the rule looks like this. (You could use the same logic in Outlook or almost any other modern email program.)

    Email Rules: Reply to Me

  2. Direct reports. This ensures that my direct reports get directly to me. The rule looks like this:

    Email Rules: Direct Reports

  3. Important contacts. I’m sure this will grow over time. Right now, it operates like a kind of “white list.” I have to specifically add people to the rule for them to get through Vicki. The rule looks like this:

    Email Rule: Important Contacts

  4. Move remaining messages. This rule moves every other message to Vicki to process. If she thinks I need to respond personally, she drags it back to my main inbox.

    Email Rule: Move Remaining Messages

This has worked remarkably well. It has dramatically reduced the volume of email messages I am handling on a daily basis. In addition, Vicki has taken my standard email templates and modified them, so that they are coming from her. This ensures a consistent response to the usual requests I get.

In addition, I can move email messages from one of my other accounts (my public BACN account or my personal accounts) to Vicki to process. I can do this with a single keystroke using Mail Act-On. The email rule looks like this:

I automatically “flag” the message, so that Vicki knows I have reviewed the message and want her to handle it.

I realize that not everyone has an assistant. If you are in this situation, you might want to read my post, “How Do You Delegate If You Don’t Have a Staff.” Nevertheless, hopefully, this will give you a place to start. If you have a way to improve on this system, I would love to hear it.

Question: If you have an assistant, how do you work with him or her to manage your email?

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