–  James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA

My first management job was as a supervisor trainee in a Minnesota-based retail music company. At that time—1966—their strategy was to place each trainee in a succession of departments as the temporary supervisor to begin to learn the company. I began work there in 1960 as a part-time employee in their first branch store. I was recommended to the company by my band director at Robbinsdale High School.

My training boss in 1966 was a seasoned senior executive. He and another executive herded trainees around to make some sense of how we learned things about the company. My first assignment was in the Stereo Components Department in their main retail operation in Minneapolis. The department consisted of four of the most seasoned and successful audio component salesman in America.

My boss had only two rules for supervisors of departments. The first was that there needed to be a sales meeting at 7:30 AM every Tuesday morning.

The sales meeting idea was daunting. In 1966, I was just 24-years-old. The youngest salesperson in the department was in his late 30’s, Andy Anderson. He had already won most of the national sales awards available from brands like Fisher, Koss and a variety of other major U.S. brands which were important at the time.

After two sales meetings, I realized that it really didn’t matter what I said; whatever I told them, they would make it work. These men were champion salespeople. If I told them, for example, that using a blue pencil was a way to get more orders, Andy Anderson would be the first in my office on Wednesday afternoon to tell me just how successfully he used blue pencils for writing more orders.

The second task was even tougher. I was to write a brief note to each person at least once a month calling out something specific that they did that was exemplary, helpful or interesting. By the fourth week of the first month, I had managed to write such a note to each of the four salespeople.

During the second month, one of the four salespeople passed away, I’ll call him Richard. It wasn’t my fault. My boss came down to the second floor and told me that I needed to clean up the salesman’s desk because his family was coming in to spend a few minutes in the space where the salesman had spent a good part of the last 25 years. I was to go through his desk and make certain that there was nothing embarrassing to him or to the company for the family to find. In addition, I was authorized to offer his family members the opportunity to take anything and everything from his desk home with them.

He had a huge olive drab, surplus army desk. It had a large lockable central drawer, large dark green work surfaces, four huge, deep inside drawers. The central drawer seemed to be for small stuff and junk. Mostly I found just a lot of boring sales material and the detritus of being at the same desk for 25 years, and a carton of papers in the rearmost part of the lower right-hand drawer. It took me a few minutes on my hands and knees to pull that box out and take a look at it.

It also took a few minutes to figure out what the box of papers was all about. There were letters, notes, memos, sales literature—all kinds of documents in perfect chronological order from the oldest to the most recent. As I kept trying to figure out what this box was about, it suddenly struck me. Every piece of paper, every document, every brochure had some kind of positive note written to Richard by someone else. There were old memos dating back more than 20 years, some from the founder of the company. One simply said, “Great job, Dick. You saved the Wilson’s business for us. Thank you,” signed PAS the company’s founder.

What took my breath away was finally looking at the box full of notes as a whole. And there, in front of all of the notes, was the one I sent him just the week before, thanking him for teaching me something about selling stereo components and for taking the time to do that. I teared up a little bit.

When I told my boss about it, his response was, “So, what have you learned?” “Thank you’s are really important,” I stammered. “And pretty rare, too,” my boss chimed in. This was true. In this person’s case there were 205 thank you’s from more than 25 work years, times 12 months, times four weeks, times five days, times 8 to 10 hours each day.

I’ve continued this practice to this day and added a couple of additional rules:

1.  All such notes need to be hand written, preferably on separate sheets of paper or cards, or directly on documents that the writer can count on the recipient saving.

2. Thank you’s by email have little if any value.

3. The three crucial ingredients of these thank you notes are:

a. A brief opening, meaningfully specific and constructive thank you statement.

b. A short phrase or sentence as to why the cited work, behavior or activity is valuable, interesting or important to you and what you learned.

c. If you can mail it, mail it. Meaningful snail mail is even rarer and therefore more memorable and valuable.

It’s highly likely that the two words “thank you” are among the most personally, powerful words in any culture and language. I’ve learned that thank you’s are always on time, always appreciated, always remembered and often talked about with colleagues, family and friends, sometimes for a very long time. As I work with senior executive leadership, I teach and consider the consistent thanking of people to be one of the crucial ingredients of leadership, and being remembered.

Even in his passing, Richard taught me one of the most important lessons in my life. Thank you, Richard, for teaching me the enormous power of these two words.