When Thank-You Notes Aren’t Enough

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

thank-you noteIt’s January, that time of year when I hover over my children while they scrawl thank-you notes for their Christmas gifts.

I don’t need to tell you to send thank-you notes. And of course, I’m not talking about thank-yous for holiday gifts (which I hope were awesome), but about the professional gifts that came your way. Perhaps a last-minute fellowship opportunity came up, and faculty went above and beyond to furnish your recommendation letters. A more advanced student in your Ph.D. cohort invited you to join a reading group that gave you entirely new ways to think about your research. Someone other than your primary adviser made time in their schedule for an extended mentoring conversation. Perhaps this was a faculty member in a different discipline who shares your interests, or a professional working beyond the academy who talked with you about work and career choices.

I have no doubt that you sent timely thank-yous for these gifts. They were probably thoughtfully written emails, although exceptional favors may have earned written notes. (A small box of decent-quality thank-you notes is always a good investment, by the way—preferably ones without hedgehogs or ladybugs on them.)

In some professional situations, however, a thank-you note is essential but not sufficient.

Right before the holidays, I sat down to lunch with a dear friend who works in a senior leadership role in higher education. Over the past couple of years, I had connected her with two or three Duke doctoral students, and she graciously made time in her calendar (the sort that other people are hired to manage) for these networking conversations.

She had enjoyed talking with all of the students. They were smart and delightful and wrote the appropriate thank-you emails. But something didn’t sit right with her, and she felt compelled to say something.

After the initial conversation, she never heard from any of these students again. “What happened to them?” she asked. After having extended conversations with the students on their lives and possible career choices, she was genuinely curious to know how things had turned out. And she was just slightly miffed. She had invested time and effort in their success, and felt at least a modest stake in the outcome.

I can easily imagine students assuming that my friend was busy, and had much more important things to attend to and worry about than what they finally decided to do after graduation. Perhaps they felt timid to email again, considering it an imposition on an already overloaded inbox.

And even though my friend understood this as well, she was left with a feeling of insignificance or irrelevance in relation to someone’s career journey.

Here’s the thing: the gift of a first mentoring conversation is not the same as an Amazon gift card from your grandma. The gift card (ideally) generates a thank-you note, and the transaction is done. But that’s okay. You have an established relationship with your grandma. And the thank-you note means, “I really enjoyed the gift and appreciate that you gave it to me.”

After a mentoring conversation with a new professional contact, a thank-you note means pretty much the same thing. But a brief, thoughtfully worded follow-up email or note sometime later (anywhere from a few months to a year) means something else—and much more. You may have continued pursuing the plan you initially discussed with your new contact. Or perhaps your course has shifted. In any event, sending that email implies the following:

  • Your help and advice had a significant impact on me.
  • Having engaged you in my story, I value you enough to tell you the rest of the story.
  • I welcome further conversations with you, if you are interested.

And this is how networking, at its best, should work. Not all conversations will turn into relationships, and that’s okay. Some of the people you talk to might be perfectly fine with a transactional exchange and aren’t interested in follow-ups, but don’t assume that’s the case. If you want to emerge from a series of networking conversations with an expanded professional network, the responsibility for nurturing and sustaining that network rests on you.

Sound like a lot of work? It is. But it’s not just about your career success. It’s about being a thoughtful and generous person in all of your professional interactions. One of the prevailing diseases of our time is that “I’m too busy” has become a valid excuse for nearly any behavior or choice. When it’s a simple matter of things or activities, a “microwave” mentality can make sense. But when it comes to people or relationships, a slow-cooker method is best.

Building relationships take time. Taking time to look about, and cultivating presence of mind will also help you identify opportunities to serve as a mentor to others. Pay it forward.

Resolve to join the “slow networking” movement in 2019. It’s a resolution I myself have renewed (as I stare at a bunch of blank thank-you notes on my desk), but I’ve seen enough benefits from this approach to promise a great outcome for you.