Respond or Perish

Last week, I received a letter from a well-known author. He had a fairly trivial question about foreign rights. Interestingly, his letterhead had no e-mail address. Nor did it have a phone number. I thought, How quaint.


I also thought, What a hassle. First, the letter sat in my inbox for several days. Why? Because I assume that anyone who wants a quick answer to something sends an e-mail or leaves a voice mail. About the only letters I get any more are direct mail solicitations or solicitations for charitable contributions. I assume that the only reason these don’t come via e-mail is either the sender doesn’t have my e-mail address or, even if he does, doesn’t want me to regard it as spam.

The only way to reply to this author was to send an actual letter. Talk about “blast from the past.” I probably don’t send more than half a dozen letters a year. Even then, it’s usually because it’s a legal matter that requires this kind of documentation. It’s hard to believe that in 2007, anyone is still sending letters. Snail-mail—at least for most business correspondence—is dead.

People just don’t have the time for an “inquiry-response cycle” that takes weeks. Even faxes are dead. In the 1990s, fax machines were cutting edge technology. Today, they are about as useless as an electric typewriter. I can’t even remember the last time I sent or received a fax. I still subscribe to, which allows you to send and receive faxes on your computer, but even that sits idle. In today’s world, even a fax is too much hassle.

E-mail has dramatically shortened the response cycle. Instant messaging is only raising the expectations. People send e-mails and expect a response within hours. In the 90s, when I owned my own company, my partner and I had an unwritten policy that we would respond to everyone within 24 hours. This always impressed our clients. They knew they could count on a quick response. But, by today’s standards, even that wouldn’t cut it. People want answers—and they want them now.

As the CEO of the company, I usually get quick responses from everyone. But I know this is not the norm. I’m spoiled. My employees know what I expect and fear what may happen if they don’t respond quickly. But I constantly hear stories of people within our organization who take forever to get back to their colleagues. What are they thinking? Don’t they know that this is career suicide?

One frustrated manager wrote to me this weekend and suggested that this is one cause of lingering cynicism within our company. He said, “I know if I need something from them [i.e., the non-responders], I’ll have to follow-up six to ten times (that’s a literal six to ten times, not figurative) to take the next step in whatever I’m doing.”

Occasionally, these problems back-up to me. Nine times out of ten, it is because the person with the problem couldn’t get an answer from someone else in the company. They’ve tried to be patient. They feel badly for contacting me. But they are at their wits end. They don’t know where else to turn.

This is not a very smart career move on the part of the person who didn’t respond. It is not a good way to get on the CEO’s radar. But it’s also not very smart when you fail to respond to your colleagues.

Here’s what people so often fail to realize: Your next promotion is not just dependent on impressing the boss. The further you advance in your career, the more your next promotion is dependent on the recommendation of your peers and key individuals within your company.

In my experience, the best way to build your personal “brand” within the Company, garner the respect and acclaim of your colleagues and direct reports, and have them speak well of you, is to be responsive. Answer their e-mails and voice mails promptly. Follow-up on your assignments. Do what you say you are going to do.

Here are four tips for becoming more responsive:

  1. Empty your inbox daily. If you have more than 100 e-mails in your inbox at any one-time, something is wrong with your personal management system. I get more e-mails than that every day. My goal is to empty my e-mail inbox daily. The key is to read the e-mail once, then make a decision and act. If you can’t act on it immediately, put the item on your task list and file the e-mail in another folder. Only unprocessed messages should be in your inbox.
  2. Acknowledge receipt. If you can’t act on a request immediately, then at least acknowledge that you received the e-mail. Be proactive. Stay in communication. If people don’t hear from you, they assume—and often correctly—that nothing is happening. By keeping people informed, you get almost as much credit as having fulfilled the original request.
  3. Set others expectations. If the request is going to take a week or two to answer, set the other party’s expectations. I find that most people are very reasonable as long as they know what to expect. Again, the key is follow-through. If you tell them it’s going to take a week, then do everything you can to get it done on time. If you experience an unexpected snag, then be proactive in informing the other party. Tell them the problem and ask for an extension. The key is to be proactive.
  4. Follow-up on assignments. To succeed in almost any position, you have to keep your word. You must do what you say you are going to do—without other people reminding or nagging you. People have enough difficulty managing their own workload without feeling like they have to manage yours, too. If you need a system, then read (or re-read) David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I highly recommend it.

In today’s environment, responsiveness is a competitive advantage. Nothing will advance your career more than this. Likewise, nothing will hold you back more than a failure to be responsive.

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