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3 thank-you notes you should be writing

3 thank-you notes you should be writing Drew Grossman

During the 10 years from 2001 to 2011, Douglas Conant transformed the Campbell Soup Company. As CEO, he took "a beleaguered old brand" (Businessweek's words, not mine) and turned it into a thriving success in the global food industry. In 10 years at the helm, Conant cut costs, innovated, and increased the company's marketing efforts. He also wrote 30,000 thank-you notes.

A thoughtful thank-you is more than an Emily Post-ian platitude. Make writing thank-you notes a habit and you will improve your career. It worked for Conant. It's also a habit of titans like President H.W. Bush, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Welch, and James Thomas Fallon. You don't have to commit an hour each day like Conant does, but here are three thank-you notes you should be writing. Shoot for one a week.

Don't be the parent who never said "I love you"

Here are the metrics. When Conant took over at Campbell's, a Gallup poll found that employee engagement at the company was the lowest of any Fortune 500 firm ever polled.

  • 62 percent of managers considered themselves not actively engaged in their jobs

  • 12 percent of managers considered themselves actively disengaged in their jobs

"We had a toxic culture," Conant is quoted saying in a case study for the Harvard Business School. "People were understandably jaundiced with management. It was hard for me to imagine that we could inspire high performance with no employee engagement."

So Conant set about changing things. He created a leadership development program and a scorecard to evaluate each leader's performance. He ushered in new faces and said goodbye to old ones. In the first three years, Conant replaced 300 of the top 350 leaders at the company, according to a 2009 piece in Forbes. Conant also started saying "thank you."

Each day, Conant would write 10 to 20 thank-you notes to employees at all levels of Campbell's. It took about an hour each day. According to a 2014 piece in The Washington Post, he made time during commutes and while traveling. He had a staffer help him look for success stories he could praise. The notes were so appreciated that they were often hung in people's offices or above their desks, Conant told BusinessWeek.

"We're trained to find things that are wrong, but I try to celebrate what's right," he told the magazine.

In 2010, Gallup did the engagement poll again, and found that 68 percent of Campbell employees said they are actively engaged. Only 3 percent said they are actively disengaged. This gives Campbell an engagement ratio of 23-to-1. For context, Gallup considers a 12-to-1 ratio world-class.

Network to get work

"I approach business the same way my father has done for many years. He was a banker and he made his way through life really connecting to people."

That's a quote from one of my favorite salesman. His name is Patrick Blanchard. Full disclosure: He's director of emerging opportunities at Nebo, and he's a real mensch.

For Patrick, networking is part of the gig, but that doesn't mean it's disingenuous. The thank-you-for-your-business email is pretty standard, but Patrick also sends thank-yous when he doesn't win business. And those are the important thank-yous. When you don't win business, that's when the journey begins, Patrick says. After an unsuccessful RFP, he'll write to thank the company for their time and the opportunity to present. He'll address the recipient by their first name, because if you're not on a first-name basis by this point there probably isn't much of a relationship to grow.

"Ninety percent of people don't respond," Patrick says. But down the road those relationships -- even with the ones who don't respond -- can yield referrals, speaking engagements, new hires, and -- who knows? -- maybe friendships.

For handwritten thank-you notes, Patrick recommends no more than three sentences. The card should not be full of text. Don't worry about your sloppy handwriting, but be cautious of your spelling and grammar. Also, one of the good things about a handwritten note is that it doesn't require anything on the part of the recipient. They don't have to think of a kind way to say thank-you-for-saying-thank-you. It provides closure to all parties involved.

President George H.W. Bush was a big thank-you note guy. Some say it helped him advance his career. He wrote thank-yous to world leaders, politicians, and celebrities, but he also wrote thank-you notes to everyday people. You never know who will affect your career and how. Be kind to everyone. Thank everyone. People appreciate it. But there's a fine line between gratitude and ass-kissing. How do you ensure your thank-yous fall on the side of the good guys? Make yourself feel genuine gratitude. For help on that, we'll look to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

A gratitude adjustment

In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg wrote one thank-you note every day, via e-mail or handwritten letter. It was a kind of personal challenge for the young billionaire. He expounded on it in a January 2014 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek:  

"It's important for me, because I'm a really critical person. I always kind of see how I want to make things better, and I'm generally not happy with how things are, or the level of service that we're providing for people, or the quality of the teams that we built. But if you look at this objectively, we're doing so well on so many of these things. I think it's important to have gratitude for that."

Saying "thank you" forces a moment to acknowledge the great work being done around you. Not everything needs fixing. And when you get that, you become a better manager, leader, and person.

Hopefully, thank-you notes make the recipient feel good, but it's a meaningful exercise for the writer as well. Quid pro quo aside, write thank-you notes to practice empathy, humility, and joy. It's good for business and it's probably good for you too.

Drew Grossman is a copywriter at Nebo

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Drew is a key member of the copy team at Nebo, an award winning agency headquartered in Atlanta, GA. Before joining Nebo, Drew was one of the few journalists living in Washington, D.C. not writing about politics. Instead he focused on his true...

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