As founder of the Circular Board, a virtual startup accelerator for women, I am constantly corresponding with investors, founders, and mentors. Given that they are located around the world, much of this correspondence is conducted via email, and has provided me with a lot of insight on digital etiquette. Contrary to what Miss Manners may think, there are no hard-and-fast rules in the digital age, but in a world where relationships rule, the reality is some emails build my allegiance and others break it down.
Take Mary Barra, for example. Here's a woman who clearly has a lot on her plate. As CEO of General Motors, she's responsible for $156 billion in sales and employs roughly 216,000 people. I recently cold-emailed her regarding an initiative for women entrepreneurs that we are launching, knowing full well it was a shot in the dark to engage Fortune's Most Powerful Woman. I emailed her anyway, because I've built my career reaching for the impossible, and every once in a while I get lucky.
You can imagine my surprise when I not only received a timely reply, but an authentic one, at that. What really made me respect this woman, who I am a complete stranger to, was the personalization of her response. She not only acknowledged my request and respectfully declined, but she took the time to encourage my pursuit and commended me on my efforts. She validated my vision and affirmed my commitment. Truth be told, she built such loyalty in just a couple of paragraphs that I'm considering buying a GM car next time I'm in the market.
Email, like any social tool, is an opportunity to build relationships, and more importantly, build up people. A personal outreach merits a personal response, whether face-to-face or masked by a computer screen. When we hit "delete" or table an email for the indefinite future, we are not only breaking down relationships, but we're discounting the living, breathing human on the other side and potentially breaking down morale. Ultimately, it shows a lack of respect and reflects poorly on our own character.
Conversely, a brief but genuine response can fuel a recipient's drive toward change, and promote a culture of compassion. We are all overwhelmingly busy these days -- nobody gets this more than I do -- and as we expand our networks the demand on our personal time only increases. I'm guilty myself of letting correspondence drop to the bottom of my "to do" list at times. It's people like Mary Barra, however, who remind me that our words have significant value and an opportunity to impact others in ways we may never know.