How to Write Emails that Executives Actually Respond To
Completing your work often depends on receiving information, sign-off, or a simple Yes/No from your higher ups.
And yet, when you seek this response, how many of your emails get a timely reply?
This is a common problem for many leaders, and yet it seems to be a particularly common issue for IT professionals, who are never formally trained on how to communicate effectively.
Case in point: Just yesterday I received an email from my developer that was three pages long without a single clear question in sight! A busy executive can’t send a timely response to a message as long and confusing as this one.
I don’t mean to pick on my developer here. Early in my career, I was also guilty of writing epic, meandering emails. I felt like I had to explain everything to the n’th degree. When I over-explained like this I had a hard time getting responses from my stakeholders— especially my senior stakeholders. And when I did get a response, it was often too late to be useful.
The One Insight that Got Me Responses
This all changed when I realized one simple fact…
Different roles respond to different kinds of emails.
Not to be too hierarchical here, but communication needs really do vary by role, and the higher up the ladder you send your email, the more you have to adapt your message to the unique communication style of the role you’re trying to get a response from.
To help you get started—and to increase your email response rate starting today—I compiled a few of the concrete, hard-won guidelines I use that help me communicate effectively—and get fast responses—with different senior roles within the organization.
How to Email Busy Administrators and Managers
These people often have a lot on their plate, and are bombarded with requests. They often approach new demands by asking “How or why do I prioritize this?” followed by “What do you want from me?”
They often prioritize requests based on a combination of urgency, and how good they will feel helping you. They want to feel both professionally respected and personally appreciated, which means your communication goal is to be clear and concise, while adding a human touch to make sure your busy admin or manager doesn’t feel like she’s just a ticketing system processing demands all day.
To accomplish this, follow these guidelines:
- Open with a friendly line that establishes a kinship.
- Follow with the problem.
- Finish with your heartfelt request.
Hi Bob— Hope you had a good weekend at your mountain cabin.
Can you help me with a quick request? It probably only needs 15 minutes of your time.
The XYZ project is already delayed 3 weeks. To fix this, we need A, B, C.
Can you look into this and let me know if it can be done any sooner? It’s really important to my boss, Susan.
Thanks very much for your help,
If you don’t know the manager, the same framework applies. Instead, use a shared reference or referral point to warm your introduction:
Hello Sarah – I was referred to you by John Smith. Can you help me with a quick request ? ….. etc
Maybe it’s because I was raised in the South, but I continually find that a pleasant but direct request reduces resistance and builds relationships. I find this is particularly true in email, where too many people hide behind drama and bullying.
(A quick note: If you’re feeling a gag reflex and think this is about being ‘nice’, you should reconsider the point of this warmth. It isn’t about getting people to ‘like’ you. In leadership competencies, this warmth is part of “getting things done through others”. When it comes to receiving a fast response, a little email charm goes a long way. )
How to Email Senior Executives
Senior executives have one primary job—they make a lot of quick decisions all day long. It’s your job to set them up to do this as quickly and easily as possible.
Which means, unlike admins and managers, senior executives want the punch line first, followed by a limited summary of the situation. They ideally want to provide a Yes/No answer, and they expect you to provide the recommendation they can say “Yes” or “No” to.
Louise— Will you approve $1,500 in travel expenses to meet with RST Vendor in order to get our contract terms finalized?
RST is responsible for maintaining our data warehouse. They have exceeded SLAs for the past 18 months, and we want to retain their services. Our contract expires next month. Our negotiations are stalled and I think a face : face meeting will get everything completed and ensure continued service levels.
Crisp and succinct.
Your Senior Executive can quickly make a decision without reading beyond the first line.
How to Email VP+
Much of the “Senior Executive” rules apply when you email a VP+, with one additional insight—formality plays a bigger role with a VP+.
Overall, formality in communication varies between corporate cultures. I’ve worked for companies where “Hi” was a sign of weakness or immaturity. I’ve also worked for Fortune 200 companies where “Hi” was the standard, expected opening for all emails.
Regardless of individual company culture, I find it easiest to just omit the “Hi” when emailing a VP+. In general, “Hi” isn’t used much in those circles. They may use “Hi” when addressing their team, but rarely among each other. If you’re looking to get a response, follow their lead and leave “Hi”—and other casual greetings—out.
What to Do When You Still Aren’t Getting a Response
No matter how well you craft your initial request email, there will be (plenty) of times you don’t receive an immediate response.
When this happens, and the clock is ticking on the usefulness of the response, don’t send a second email—pick up the phone.
Human-to-human interaction remains the best way to get the timely response you need. When you face tight deadlines and silence from your stakeholder, get as close to them as you can—pick up the phone, knock on their door, stop them in the hall.
Sometimes the best email is no email.