In 1996 I began my career in the public sector as Program Manager for the Non-Traditional Careers Program/Career Directions at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Florida.
The job was literally a life changer for me. It was my introduction both to the world of public service as well as a true introduction to the professional world. This was because of the woman who hired me, Carolyn Strandquest, who was a mentor in so many ways.
One thing Carolyn taught me was the art of the thank you note. When I started, we’d meet with various players at the college and she’d always write them a thank you note. I remember commenting, “They’re just doing their jobs, why are you doing that?” I don’t recall her specific answer, but it didn’t take me long to learn the lesson: Sending notes of acknowledgement helped develop relationships.
Not only did some people respond more quickly afterwards, I also established some genuine partnerships — in some cases relationships — with people as a result of this very simple courtesy.
It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me throughout my career and a habit I’ve practiced regularly ever since (sometimes with less success than others).
Thanking others is just the beginning. I’ll sometimes write short notes recognizing something someone has done. Other times I’ll just write to say hello.
Recently, I’ve been the recipient of many of these small kindnesses (see the first photo above). I can tell you that they made me feel more connected not only to the people who sent them, and also to the community of people who do the work that we do. The notes above offered thanks and encouragement. Some just said hello. All meant a lot to me to receive.
I’ve recently achieved a pretty major goal that I had set for myself many years ago; this August I will graduate with my Ph.D. in Public History. Above are three cards I’ve received from folks, acknowledging the accomplishment. I treasure each of them.
As I sat down to write up Beatty’s Maxim #6, I recalled something people shared at my grandfather Al Coty’s memorial service: Granddaddy was also a letter writer. People from all parts of his life (including to friends of his adult children) fondly remembered the letters he would send to them. I received many of them too and it pains me that I didn’t think to save a single one of them.
A year or so ago, my friend and colleage Robert Connolly wrote his thoughts on the practice of sending these acknowledgments: An Often Forgotten Practice in Career Development. Here are some highlights:
1. Thank you notes and updates set a tone for future discussions.
2. Thank you notes and updates are just a civil part of social relations, showing an appreciation for the effort expended.
3. A thank you note also serves as a mnemonic device to keep the individual’s name and face in front of the faculty member or potential employer.
4. Generally, I find that the students who write thank you notes or send updates are the students who function in a professional manner in other respects and with whom I have the most meaningful conversations on their professional development.
5. And the point I consider most important, a thank you note or progress update simply lets the advisor know that the conversations, advising sessions, etc. are considered of value by the recipient…. Was it worthwhile? Then let them know. They will be more likely to assist both you and others in the future.
Regardless of your career stage, Robert’s full post is really worth a thorough read.
(Of the notes I’ve received lately, the ones above, from my friend and awesome museum professional Susie Wilkening’s family, are the most precious. They bring me back to a time when my own children would create these masterpieces for my wife and me.)
My suggestion is to keep a small stack of notecards with you and to set aside some time each month to regularly acknowledge those who have had an impact on you. To me, these are an important acknowledgment of others’ role in the grand scheme of our careers and our lives.
A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.