CEO Inbox Observations

By Bill English, Partner

Three times now, I’ve been asked to be the CEO of a company in which I have inherited the former CEO’s email inbox. In two of those situations, the CEOs were underperforming, and their email inboxes provided insight as to why.

They demonstrated a lack of attention management, a concept I prefer over time management or email management. That to which you pay attention gets your emotional, mental and other cycles. The examples that follow reflect how their attention was focused on personal success and how this negatively affected their companies.

They were subscribed to more than 100 email lists

Each CEO was receiving thirty or more marketing emails each day from personal services to which they had subscribed: personal attire, vacations, education, politics and creature-comfort emails seemed to dominate their inboxes. Most of these emails offered products and services which personally benefited the CEO but held little value for the company. It was clear they viewed their role as being about them rather than their customers or employees. Usually, the best run companies have “quiet” CEOs who take a servant-leadership mentality. These CEOs were at the other end of that spectrum.

This created clutter and unnecessary noise in their inbox. But noise is hard to ignore. When it comes to subscriptions, what we don’t realize is that every email we receive requires a decision on our part – even if the decision is nothing more than leaving it in our inbox. I find this process, however short, to be tiring when executed every day 30, 50 or perhaps 100 times. Therefore, I unsubscribe to marketing emails as often as possible. They create wasted cycles. These underperforming CEOs (apparently) didn’t mind getting all this noise in their inboxes.

Neither took the time to delete or file emails

In both cases, the CEOs had almost no email management skills in terms of deleting unnecessary emails or filing emails that pertained to ongoing projects, discussions or legal issues. They simply left everything in their inbox and, I assume, relied on the Search function to find old emails.

Email PhotoWhat many don’t realize is that after a build-up of over 50,000 emails, findability is injured. You can’t find important emails quickly because a keyword search across a wide corpus is often inadequate to producing a good result set. For example, if you search on the term “horn,” are you looking for a horn (trumpet), a horn (car horn) or a horn (the horns on a ram)? Are you looking for a resume’ or resume?

When people don’t delete unneeded emails and/or don’t file them into folders when it is appropriate to do so, they create unnecessary noise in their inbox. As a result, even if these CEOs wanted to give attention to the discussion history of a certain topic, chances are good they were unable to do so because they could not find the relevant emails.

Neither CEO Tried to Loop Themselves Out of Discussions or Decisions

I continue to be amazed at how many business leaders tend to involve (insert?) themselves in nearly every dimension of their business. When the business is small, this is necessary. But as the business grows, the CEO/owner needs to step out of many decisions, leaving them to trusted managers who make good decisions.  Growth stagnates as the CEO becomes the bottleneck by being involved in nearly every facet of the business and sharing a strong opinion about everything. Successful CEOs know when to insert themselves (rarely) and when to let others “run with” an idea or decision (should be often). But if you look at the Sent Items and see all the opinions and comments on what these two CEOs looped themselves into, you get a glimpse into why their staff never took risks, rarely made decisions and for sure, hid their mistakes as much as possible.


What you pay attention to as a leader dictates what receives care and feeding. Look at your email inbox. What is coming into your inbox? Does it help you run your business better? Do the emails coming into your inbox give you critical information you need to make sound decisions? Or are you paying attention to the latest offerings from a fancy Hotel in Paris?

By looking at a person’s inbox contains – how it is organized – what is retained and what isn’t – you can learn much about how a person thinks and what s/he gives their attention to.

How does your inbox look?

Bill English, MA, LP, Partner, Platinum Group, works with family businesses and privately-owned businesses to resolve conflict, address leadership development and transform toxic cultures into thriving workplace environments.