Scripps' CEO Chris Van Gorder on the power of inbox-zero

Communication is arguably the most essential leadership skill. As the head of an organization, a CEO makes decisions for and on behalf of the organization he or she leads. Effectively communicating these decisions to the rest of the organization is critical for ensuring buy-in and trust. On a more granular level, a leader must demonstrate this ability to communicate with others on a daily basis.

When I emailed Chris Van Gorder to comment on this topic at 7:45 pm PST, he replied three minutes later.

This is not unusual. Mr. Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps Health in San Diego, is notorious for his ability to remain in constant communication with his senior leadership team, employees across the organization and even those outside of the Scripps system. He is a remarkably accessible and responsive CEO.

Email is "the best tool ever invented," Mr. Van Gorder said at the Becker's Hospital Review annual conference in May. "When I go back to my hotel room, I will answer every email that has come to me while I was making this presentation."

At the time, Mr. Van Gorder was actively communicating with Scripps leaders and clinicians who were stationed in Nepal to provide aid following the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that caused more than 5,000 deaths and 10,000 injuries. He debriefed with the Scripps emergency medical response team twice a day and shared their photos and stories in systemwide daily emails.

Similarly, Mr. Van Gorder said email was a critical tool for communicating with the rest of the organization when Scripps deployed its emergency medical response team to Houston after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010.

"What a powerful tool it became to let everyone know we were safe and doing good work," says Mr. Van Gorder. "I can honestly say those moments contributed to changing our culture."

It is a culture in which individuals see communication as a top responsibility, as well as a valuable tool. Scripps is not the only organization to value communication. According to a recent Interact/Harris Poll survey of roughly 1,000 workers, 91 percent of respondents said communication issues can lower an executive's standing. A survey administered among 412 millennial workers, administered by Virtuali and Workplacetrends.com, found the millennial generation believes communication is the most important skill a leader should possess.

In today's technology-driven era, in which a majority of communication happens through email, texting and video conferencing, the ability to stay connected and respond promptly to others is critical. While this is true for employees at virtually all levels of an organization, it is most pertinent for leaders and managers.

Responsiveness signals respect

Mr. Van Gorder holds himself to a high standard of responsiveness all the time, not just during crises, though he stresses communication is doubly important in periods such as these.

"My strategy [for communication] is simple. Being responsive is a sign of respect, which is one of our core values as an organization. I've always thought that if someone takes the time to send me a note, I should take the time in return to respond in an appropriate way," he says. "Since we are a 24/7 organization, the first thing I do in the morning before I even head to work is answer any note that came to me during the night, and the last thing I do before going to bed is make sure I didn't miss any during the day."

Because Scripps is such a large system — five hospital campuses, 16 clinics, 12 medical centers, 23 specialty clinics and two wellbeing centers — it is impossible to connect with everyone physically. Through email, Mr. Van Gorder connects with executives and managers across various locations, in addition to individuals with whom he communicates regularly. Some of the most valuable information he receives comes from physicians, managers, volunteers and other frontlines workers. It is this type of communication that allows Mr. Van Gorder to understand the true pulse of the organization.

"I have some employees who email me regularly, which gives me the chance to ask them personally how it is going in their hospital or unit. That's information I could never get in a report or probably even in a group discussion," he says.

Leaders are on the receiving end of a constant stream of reports and information, but sometimes the most important information is filtered out — either intentionally or unintentionally, according to Mr. Van Gorder. The best way to access this information is to go out in the field and talk to people face-to-face, which Mr. Van Gorder does at least once a week. However, when more frequent communication is needed or when something is pressing, email is the most effective mode of communication.

Can connectivity to email become too much?

The ability to reply to emails promptly throughout the day is important and even required in many jobs. However, there are different philosophies regarding the need to write and respond to emails after work hours.

A substantive amount of literature discusses how a high degree of connectivity or compulsion to respond to emails promptly, even after work, leads to increased stress. For example, in an article in the Harvard Business Review called "Your late-night emails are hurting your team," Maura Thomas, a TEDx Speaker, author of Personal Productivity Secrets and founder of RegainYourTime.com, says never disconnecting from email causes people to skip out on essential "down time" necessary for rejuvenating and producing fresh insights before returning to work the next morning.

"Creativity, inspiration, and motivation are your competitive advantage, but they are also depletable resources that need to be recharged," Ms. Thomas wrote.

Mr. Van Gorder notes that the level of connectedness he practices is not for everyone, but it is what works for him. "For my personality, I'd probably be more stressed if I was out of contact or unavailable."

All leaders must determine the standards they hold for themselves for communication, as well as reasonable standards for others. Mr. Van Gorder points out that his personal standards for communication do not indicate a lack of trust in his staff or Scripps' internal processes. He simply enjoys corresponding with the people he works with.

"To be honest, the greatest joy I get in this job is connecting to patient care and the frontlines of the organization. It's my roots and I find great comfort and motivation being right where the important work is taking place." 

More articles on leadership and management:
The common mistake bosses make — and a tip to avoid it
Leader to leader tip: Engage people at all levels to cultivate trust
Teaming up: The symbiotic relationship between sports and healthcare

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