Why Great Leaders Say Thank You

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By Jas Singh

The Sunday before last, I received a call around 6pm in the evening UK time. It was from a US number – not one that I recognised.

At the time I was putting my son to bed, whilst my daughter was also having a melt-down in the same room. My wife had gone out for the evening so I was having to cope with two – trying my best, but predictably struggling.

I answered the phone, expecting it to be someone I knew – I do a lot of work in the States and travel their monthly. However, it wasn’t what I expected.

“Hi Jas, it’s Sean from New Jersey. Hope I haven’t disturbed you on a Sunday. Do you have a minute?”.

I recognised the voice immediately. It was the CEO at one of our clients, a large technology company. A new firm we’d just been working with the last 6 months, and for who we’d just placed a CFO.

I did what any self-respecting businessman and father would do in the same situation. Left my kids to fight it out whilst I scrambled for some privacy.

I’d only met Sean once. Right at the beginning of the search – when we had been qualifying the requirements. Since then, my sole point of contact had been the COO and SVP of Human Resources. I know Sean had been very interested in developments and hands-on where possible but he’d been very busy. Travelling, dealing with shareholders, busy with the year end. Other than the first meeting, I had not spoken with him much.

“Hey Sean” I tried to respond casually. “How’s things?”.

“Great. Busy, but great. Look Jas, I know I’ve been difficult to catch and I don’t want to take too much of your time on a Sunday, but just wanted to drop you a line to say great job in finding us Scott. We’re really excited to have him on board. I know it was a tough search but he is exactly what we need right now. Especially with the IPO coming up. I just wanted to call to say thanks.”

A few seconds later our call was finished.

Wow I thought. What a great guy.

I’ve been lucky enough to make quite a few placements over the years – many at executive level, but rarely do I get a high profile CEO call me up on a Sunday night just to say thank you. Especially those I hardly know and who haven’t been driving the recruitment process.

Two minutes. That’s probably the maximum our call took. But it’s impact on me was massive. I’ve never spoken to Sean since that day (other than exchange a few emails) but every time I discuss his company with potential candidates, I can’t help but emphasize what a great guy he is. I’ve got clients who have paid me over a million pounds in fees, some who I’ve known for ten years, and others who I know inside out. Yet the impact he had on me in the 2 minute call was huge. A different class.

Simply because he said thanks.

In our target driven business world, it’s my experience that leaders rarely get to say thanks when it comes to performance. Nowadays, performance is expected – a minimum standard. After paying us a retainer fee and working with us for 3 months, I would have expected my client to have expected us to do a good job. A “well done” maybe. A “thank you” probably not.

It’s almost like it’s OK to say “well done”, but saying “thanks” is almost a sign of weakness. That as a leader you are relying on someone else – almost showing vulnerability.

But great leaders are different. They understand that saying thank you and expressing genuine gratitude is a powerful tool in successful leadership.

Here are a few reasons why great leaders love saying thanks.

1) Everyone craves appreciation

As social creatures, we are motivated by acceptance. To fit into the group, to be recognised, to offer value. Everything our species has ever achieved has predominantly been driven by the motive of being appreciated.

When our daughter was born, my son was two years old. Anybody who has had more than one child will know that for some reason, when another sibling enters the frame often the older child can change behaviour. AKA become a nightmare.

In our case, big time. Tantrums, attention seeking, wanting to take the baby back to the hospital. Try what we may – disciplining, explaining, ignoring – the boy was on a mission.

The changing point was about 8 weeks in when one day we had to change the baby’s nappy. Without thinking, I asked my son if he could pass a new one to me. Apprehensively he waddled over and brought one back to me. At that point, being the opportunist she is, my wife jumped on the chance.

“Well done baby!. Thank you soooo much. You are SUCH a good and useful boy!”.

Game changer. From that moment, anything became an opportunity for instant appreciation. Making the milk feed. Giving her a bath. Even making her laugh. All of a sudden, as if by magic, his little sister was his best friend.

This human trait never leaves us. As social creatures, we are driven first and foremost by appreciation – over time even things like money, career progression and job title are less important.

Great leaders understand that by saying thanks, they are fulfilling a basic human need that we all have. That makes creates a great feeling. The feeling that drives performance.

Great leaders feed our craving for appreciation.

2) You get back what you give

Perhaps one of the most interesting traits of humans is to reciprocate. Study after study has comprehensively proved that we are likely to reply to a positive action with a similar positive action, and conversely return a negative action with a negative action.

This applies extensively when receiving thanks. It’s why people who win awards almost automatically by default start thanking all the people that have helped them achieve success.

Great leaders understand this is an immensely powerful tool in leadership. And what’s even more interesting is that often people don’t just have to return a verbal thanks with another verbal thanks. Often, employees want to return the compliment with interest – by showing the leader that they are truly grateful – by working harder, co-operating more and even being prepared to make personal sacrifices for the good of the overall team.

Give a little, you’ll get back more.

3) Gratitude stands out

But perhaps the most important aspect of leaders saying thanks is simply because it stands out. In the highly pressurised world of business, it’s rare. And there is value in all rarity.

People want to work for the best. Leaders that inspire – that are different. Not only does continuously emphasising gratitude foster a great working culture of respect, it attracts the best people. In today’s competitive hiring market it’s no longer about your market cap, market share or market opportunity. Those are a dime a dozen. People want more – especially the best people who are not looking. And near the top of this list of modern day differentiators is a great culture, built on gratitude, respect and appreciation.

Think about some of the modern day leadership greats. Warren Buffet. Richard Branson. Bill Gates. Go back and check nearly any of their interviews on how they achieved their success and almost every time they lead with how it’s all down to the people around them.

In fact, Buffet himself often quotes how one sentence from Dale Carnegie’s world famous book “How to win friends and influence people” was key to his success.

The key to leadership, to quote Carnegie is to be:

“Hearty In Your Approbation And Lavish In Your Praise.”

Thanks Mr. Carnegie.

Conclusion

Expressing thanks is a highly powerful tool for leadership in any calling.

Hiring managers can find the leaders of the future by focussing on those who are “hearty in the approbation and lavish in their praise.”

People who are genuinely thankful to others.

Thank you so much for reading.

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