One serious difference between your grandfather’s Navy and the fleet of today is the blessing and curse that is E-mail. The administrative convenience is remarkable, and the ability to instantly disseminate large volumes of information such as schedules or procedures is critical to the daily operational routine. What is also remarkable is the propensity for Division Officers to hide in their staterooms and fire off directives, expecting magic to happen. Don’t give in to this temptation–it’s completely missing the point of being a Division Officer.

Don’t ever be a tough-guy from behind the keyboard.

You’ve got to get in the spaces. You’ve got to talk to your sailors in real time, and listen to their feedback. If you’re tempted to use email as a crutch specifically to avoid feedback, that’s a strong indicator that something’s wrong with your message. If you just don’t want to hear the bitching, then make that known. A stronger backbone is one of the things you’re supposed to develop during this tour.

This can’t be considered a hard-and-fast rule, but if you try to stick to this as a principle, it will serve you well: Email should be used to promulgate detailed information. Orders should be given face to face.

The convenience is undeniable; it is certainly faster to shoot off an email than to corral the whole division. Sometimes giving orders through email can’t be avoided. When that happens, you need to back it up face-to-face at the next opportunity. This reinforces with your division that you have the backbone to give them orders directly and that you care enough to listen to their feedback, and it also removes their temptation to blow off your orders under the guise of not having seen the email.

iStock_000011864236XSmall-300x227Another thing that should always be done face-to-face is letting people know that their performance is not up to standard. Don’t ever be a tough-guy from behind the keyboard. It just screams passive-aggressive, and makes you look like a bigger weenie than doing nothing at all. Grow a spine and handle this stuff in person.

On that note, if you recognize that you’re in a highly emotional state (read: pissed) while writing an email, stop. You’re probably about to make a fool of yourself. Email is a permanent, easily accessible record, so before you click “send” in any capacity you should think long and hard about what it says about you professionally. If you’re having an argument, you should probably just get up and go talk to the individual. Consider what you’re communicating by avoiding face-to-face conflict.

If you do find yourself exchanging angry emails with someone, resist the temptation to “reply all” to show the world what an ass they’re being. Usually this kind of pettiness backfires and makes you look like the ass. Nobody wants their inbox polluted with your interpersonal conflicts.

Brevity. Keep your emails short. Think of it like this—any given message carries a finite amount of importance for its recipients. The more words there are in your email, the less likely it is that the most important ones will be remembered or even noticed. If you write a long speech in electronic form, most recipients will just skim it over for key points and then move on to the other twenty emails crowding their inbox.

If you MUST write a long email, make use of “white space” to emphasize your key points. Thick paragraphs get skimmed; bullets get read. Condense as much meaning into as few sentences as possible, then break them up or put them into lines or bullets. If the gist of your email can be summarized into one or two key points, put this “bottom line” at the top of your email.

Closing. Don’t get frilly with the signature. You may be tempted to add a quote, or a picture, or some weird fonts which highlight the vaunted status of your primary duty. Don’t– most of that stuff gets lost in the filter anyway. You may also be tempted to throw in all of your collateral duties like honorary titles as well. Nothing screams JO Insecurity like “Controlled Substances Inventory Board Senior Member”. This kind of silly self-aggrandizement translates poorly among your peers, who also have a hundred collateral duties but have the good sense not to advertise it.

While there is a certain amount of personal preference in how you handle email signatures, I recommend the following. For emails to others in your command (99% of the email you will send), a simple “V/R, (Your Name or Title)” will suffice. For emails to folks outside the lifelines, you should add your ship’s name and a phone number where you can be reached. (Note that the ship’s name is in all caps, as is LTJG if you’re an O-2 . Don’t write LTjg. That’s incorrect.)

As you should have learned in your commissioning source, V/R or Very Respectfully connotes deference and should be used when addressing superiors. R/ or Respectfully may be used with peers or subordinates. That said, I’ve found that R/ is sometimes mistaken to imply seniority, and thus can be insulting to peers or near-peers. I just keep it simple and use V/R with everyone, up and down, and I have yet to encounter a good reason to deviate from that.

3 thoughts on “E-Leadership

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