For good executives, it’s second nature to show appreciation toward clients and staff. But often, we overlook less obvious people who have made a difference in our professional lives. The other day, I was talking with a client about his growth plans for 2012 — which, he knew, would depend heavily on word-of-mouth. He wanted to strategize about cultivating new referral sources — but in the process, I realized a major chunk of his existing business was the result of one woman. A look of panic crossed his face: “I guess I’d better thank her.” Sending someone business is the highest compliment possible. Don’t throw away their goodwill by forgetting to acknowledge that trust. I have colleagues who — years later — seethe about people they helped who never acknowledged it.
Mentors are another category you might risk forgetting to thank. After all, you may only meet with them a few times a year — but it can be the most valuable time you spend. If you’re lucky enough to have a senior colleague who’s willing to offer you advice, watch your back, or trumpet your achievements, treat them like gold.
Also, think about people who helped you in the past. It may seem random to get back in touch with someone you haven’t talked to in years — but almost always, they’ll be delighted to hear from you. One friend wrote a thank you letter to a college professor, long after she’d graduated. He was touched she remembered — and in subsequent years, she won several prizes from organizations connected to him.
Finally, don’t forget the people around the people in power. It’s easy to heap praise on the kahuna and forget the people who make his efforts possible. I know someone who was feted by a New York magnate. She was sure to thank him immediately — but, months later, regrets not reaching out to his employees who coordinated the event. Often, they’re the power behind the power — so if someone has done you a good turn, it pays to express your gratitude.
What’s the best way to express your thanks? The classiest and most meaningful is a handwritten note, explaining — in specific, concrete detail — how that person made a difference to you (here’s a good “thank you” how-to).
If you’d like to acknowledge your gratitude above and beyond that with a gift, you should first be aware of any legal restrictions (if you’re a lobbyist and you’re really grateful to the Governor, you’ll have to settle for expressing your affection verbally, rather than with a nice Rolex). Next, think about that person’s unique interests. As Gary Vaynerchuk pointed out in The Thank You Economy, gifts matter a lot more if they’re pegged to someone’s hobbies or passions. They’re a football fan? Think about a pair of tickets, or an autographed jersey, or dinner at a player’s steakhouse. If they prefer arts and culture, try a gift certificate to an independent bookstore or NPR memorabilia. I once brought several of my female clients to a private lunch with Gloria Steinem that I bought at a charity auction. What’s most important is showing that you understand and value that person as an individual.
Who are you thanking this year? And how are you showing your appreciation?
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review blog.
Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. She is the author of Reinventing You (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). You can follow her on Twitter at @dorieclark.