In this week's feature, FTdynamo present us with a challenge to understand both the nature of management and modern communication if we want to get ahead
Salesmen used to be told to "smile before you dial". Today the dictum runs: "Think before you send". The seductive ease of e-mail as a method of communication has lured many, sometimes quite senior executives, into despatching messages which, on reflection, should not have been sent at all.
Neal Patterson, the 51 year old (and thus, you might think, fairly grown up) chief executive of the US Cerner corporation has achieved an unwanted and unexpected fame through a robust e-mail sent to his colleagues only a month ago. Patterson's vituperative memo was soon being shared on a public message board. Cerner – a health-care software development company – saw its own stock suffer a distinctly funny turn. It has now fallen to around $30 from a $44 high.
But at least Patterson had already made it to the top. For the rest of us, struggling lower down the corporate food chain, e-mail could offer a fast-track to the boardroom – if only we learned how to use it properly.
New research by David Owens, associate professor of management at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, has shown that our use of e-mail reveals as much about our career prospects as the most ingenious psychometric test. (School teachers and others of a sensitive nature should stop reading now.)
The fact is, the worst grammar and spelling in corporate e-mails is found in the missives sent by the top executives. Those of us who carefully spell-check and refine our e-mails, or who produce long, thoughtfully worded messages and arguments, just don't get it. We are mediocre, middle management fodder at best. Busy successful people don't have time for quaint niceties such as spelling words out in full, using capital letters or punctuation, or even bothering to reply at all to messages that seem somehow beneath them. E-mail silence is the modern equivalent of the dreaded words "return to sender" written on the envelope by the lover who has rejected you.
New technologies demand new approaches. The telephone forced us to reconsider how we conversed with our neighbours and colleagues. The fax brought instant delivery of letters. Now e-mailing, a new and hybrid form of communication, has made us think again.
Is e-mailing more like a letter or a phone call? Well, it's like both, but crucially, of course, it is written down… somewhere. It is permanent, it can be printed off, or forwarded to millions of other people (a secretary in a London legal firm won global notoriety only a few months ago when her – in truth – not entirely innocent tales of socialising with a colleague made her for a time every male e-mailer's fantasy).
E-mail is new, and we need to master it. We need to take care, remembering that our words may be used in evidence against us. But the killer virtues of e-mail are its speed and the access it grants you to previously inaccessible people. Why, I might even e-mail my CEO immediately after finishing this article.
The message for all of us is clear. We need to think, but also to get faster, fast. Thts al flks.
FTdynamo features writing and research from leading business schools and management consultancies.