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September 24, 2015

How does inbox-zero make you a better leader? One hospital CEO explains

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on May 2, 2018.

Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder calls email "the best tool ever invented." He tells Becker's Hospital Review's Tamara Rosin about how his email philosophy helps him be a better CEO— and has played a big part in developing the system's culture.

Van Gorder has a reputation in the industry for being in constant contact with his leadership team, staff, and peers.


And with five hospital campuses and dozens of other care sites, Van Gorder has a lot to keep up with. Email gives him a way to keep up relationships and get direct insight into how individual hospital units are performing. "That's information I could never get in a report or probably even in a group discussion," he says.

Van Gorder makes email responsiveness a priority: He typically zeroes out his inbox at least twice a day—once before he heads in to work, and again before he goes to sleep.


A leadership tool

More broadly, Van Gorder explains his approach to communication this way: "Being responsive is a sign of respect, which is one of our core values as an organization," adding, "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."

In essence, Rosin writes, Van Gorder has become an expert at using email as a leadership tool.

For instance, earlier this year Scripps sent a team to provide aid in Nepal after the country was hit by a massive earthquake. Van Gorder debriefed with the team twice a day and shared updates and photos daily via system-wide emails. He used a similar strategy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010.

He says email was invaluable in leveraging those moments to push Scripps forward and "let everyone know we were safe and doing good work." Van Gorder adds, "I can honestly say those moments contributed to changing our culture."

Finding the right strategy

Van Gorder acknowledges that his obsessive email habits are not for everyone. But data suggest responsive communication is incredibly important for senior leaders. A recent Interact/Harris Poll survey found 91% of workers said communication issues can hurt an executive's reputation. And another survey by Virtuali and revealed that millennials think communication is the most important skill a leader should possess. 

Email helps Van Gorder excel at communication, but he doesn't think it is a replacement for face-face interaction—he gets out into the field at least one time a week. "To be honest, the greatest joy I get in this job is connecting to patient care and the frontlines of the organization," he says (Rosin, Becker's Hospital Review, 9/22).

Learn more: How to be an inbox ninja

Inbox Ninja Graphic

So, what does it take to be an inbox ninja? Check out our infographic to get best practices for email-specific writing and email management. You'll also find tips for email formatting, scripting, and structure, plus approaches to collaboration and decision-making over email.

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