The Email Defense

SAC Capital Advisors is one of the largest and most bigstock-Spam-computer-screen-9492458influential hedge funds in the world. It is also in the middle of a multi-year investigation by the SEC into improper trading practices. The Feds are a bit suspicious about SAC’s ability to post out-of-the-ballpark returns year after year, especially when the competition was not so lucky. Did its well-known strategy of getting better information, sooner than the other guys, cross the line?

At the heart of the firm, and the controversy, is SAC founder Steve Cohen. Cohen’s trading prowess has amassed a great deal of wealth for him. He is a member of the Billionaire’s Club; houses in Greenwich, CT and the Hamptons, a multi-million dollar private art collection, philanthropic work…you get the picture.

Now that the Feds are turning their attention directly to Cohen, claiming he traded on inside information and presided over an organization that used its market influence illegally, how does he defend himself?

By saying the controversial 2008 trade in question – the “smoking gun” in the case – was never read by him. He claims to receive about 1,000 emails a day. How can he possibly read every one and still perform at work?

At first blush, this is a bit laughable. The guy is hugely successful and runs a hedge fund whose moves make Wall Street hyperventilate. He is exceedingly smart and driven. How can he hide behind a defense of too many emails? A guy like this can’t find a way to better manage his Inbox?

But Cohen may be on to something. Not from the perspective of leadership accountability. It’s not just one email that led to SAC’s problems. It was a supposed culture of pushing the envelope to beat the competition. We all know that without a strong ethical backbone, an organization can find itself pushing the proverbial envelope with a bit too much force.

Cohen’s defense highlights the downside of email as a primary information tool. Every professional, no matter the role, finds him/herself inundated with emails on a constant basis. It takes a lot to cope with such volume. There are only a few ways to deal with the deluge:

1)   Ignore the emails and only deal with the ones that capture your attention.

2)   Ignore the emails and wait until someone pings you a second time.

3)   Only read those from people with bigger titles than yours.

4)   Have someone else cull through them and bring the ones that matter the most directly to you.

5)   Consciously and consistently manage them yourself.

Bloomberg Business Week, tongue in cheek, offered some suggestions up this past week to cope with a hyperactive Inbox.

I personally think you can tell a lot about a person by how they manage their Inbox. I try to manage my scrupulously. Akin to having a firm handshake, managing emails speaks to connection, respect and civility. It reflects how an individual feels about their professional peers and their own reputation. It can also be a stark indicator that you have too many disconnected demands on your attention; a sign that something is out of balance in your job that prevents you from being really present at work.

The truth is, email tidal waves are here to stay. How we manage them, professionally, personally and, in the case of Mr. Cohen, legally, is deeply important to how we show up in the world. It’s not enough to claim being overwhelmed by too many emails. The professionals who cut through the tide successfully are the new wave of information leaders.

What about your experience with an overstuffed Inbox? How do you manage? Do you wish you could manage it better? Let me know.




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