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Faculty Viewpoints

How Leaders Can Fend Off Unwanted Email Introductions

Leadership expert Jeffrey Sonnenfeld offers advice for CEOs who are repeatedly ambushed by former associates playing online matchmaker.

A hand holding an envelope coming out of a computer screen
  • Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld
    Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management

This commentary originally appeared in Chief Executive.

What’s with the rising tide of surprise third-party online introductions? Most CEOs are very social, friendly people interested in hearing from genuine friends and wide-ranging constituents. As achievement-oriented people, they’re eager to learn how they’re doing and how they can learn to do better. But there are limits.

Frequently, I hear from CEOs complaining about email assaults similar to those I receive several times a week. CEOs sometimes feel lonely in high office, wondering whom to trust. Yet, few are looking to fill their 12- to 16-hour, fast-paced days engaging with strangers presumptuously demanding informal access, often to push commercial agendas, new causes or undesired partnerships.

It is easy for CEOs to have their palace guards protect their precious time and privacy from hourly hucksters and pushy pitchmen. It is much tougher, however, when past associates bypass the gatekeepers and exploit having direct access to the boss. These unwanted ambushes often link leaders with strangers—exposing the contact information of all parties in the process. Doing this without prior clearance, consultation or homework creates awkward situations where all parties are likely to emerge offended.

First, there may be a direct conflict of interest, such as when past associates invite third parties to a CEO’s upcoming event. The invitation might be inappropriate for any number of reasons—competing sponsorships, lack of relevance to the event’s purpose, skirting a rigorous selection process or the presence of rival parties. The CEO’s management team colleagues will likely be furious by this undermining of policy, protocol and purpose.

Second, this introduction may, in fact, be a second or third attempt at entry by someone already screened out due to integrity, character or personality—something the “friend” of the CEO did not know. The board may already have considered and nixed an engagement—a proposed merger, investment opportunity or business transaction—with the party in question. This will likely lead to an unpleasant confrontation if not an actual cease-and-desist demand by the CEO.

CEOs resent the coercive “forced date” meeting, “bear hug” or “shotgun wedding” style introduction where his or her friend announces that both parties will “love each other” and have endless convergent interests.

Third, the CEO may not be interested in opening that door to an exploitative commercial agenda or cause not of interest to the company or inconsistent with its strategy.

Fourth, CEOs are not looking for new pen pals to fill their already overpacked days. The pace of business life is so intense these days that even with reduced travel time, they still cannot always reach all their current colleagues, constituents and family members. They may be unable to make even a cursory reply for months, crushing expectations.

Fifth, CEOs resent the coercive “forced date” meeting, “bear hug” or “shotgun wedding” style introduction where his or her friend announces that both parties will “love each other” and have endless convergent interests. The likely realities of differences and distance ensure disappointment.

The next time a friend or associate does this, apologize and explain that you do not operate this way. Suggest that they check with you before giving your personal email to anyone. Warn them that it is intrusive and off-putting to presumptuously put all parties on-the-spot with pronouncements of certain instant friendship. Even parents have learned that surprise playdates are not a recipe for success. Perhaps even send them a copy of this article. Better yet, sing the final verse of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof.

“Matchmaker, Matchmaker,
Plan me no plans
I’m in no rush
Maybe I’ve learned
Playing with matches
A girl can get burned
Bring me no ring
Groom me no groom
Find me no find
Catch me no catch.”

Department: Faculty Viewpoints