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Generosity in Business Communications: Four Stories

As an expert in communication, I am always struck by people who communicate generously. Perhaps, due to our busy schedules and propensity for communicating via email, text and IM, generosity in business communication has become rare. I’m happy to report, however, that in certain quarters, it does still exist!

Following are four stories of generous business communicators and the rewards reaped by both “donor” and “recipient.”  In fact, in such interactions, the donor becomes the recipient. Generous communication is indeed a virtuous circle.

Story #1 – The Former Client

I was spurred to write about generosity in communication by my friend Winston Ma, a Chinese expat attorney and MBA who now works for a major investment bank. Generosity has infused my relationship with Winston. We first met in 2001 when the large New York City law firm he was working for hired me to coach him in English speech and writing.

At the end of our official time together, I invited Winston to keep in touch. He did. In the years that followed, I regularly heard from him. He either asked for advice on some type of communication issue or for editing and suggestions on how to word short business documents.

This all took up a good deal of my time and as time is what I sell, I must admit that I thought about charging him.  Instead, I decided to be generous and now that generosity is being returned.

Understanding how I must continue expanding my network and my desire to meet and work with more people from China and Asia, Winston has invited me to many interesting and fun events where I can accomplish my goals.

Story #2 – The Airline Pilot

Anyone who flies (and that’s everyone, these days) will be heartened by the story of United Air Lines pilot Denny Flanagan. Profiled in the Wall Street Journal in August*, Captain Flanagan takes a unique approach to customer service through communication that is remarkable, unique and works wonders.

According to the article, Flanagan mills around the waiting area before flights, meeting and chatting with passengers. When a flight is seriously delayed, he has been known to order 200 meals from McDonald’s. The parents of children traveling alone receive personal phone calls from him to periodically update them on the flight status. Even owners of pets traveling in the cargo hold receive a cell phone photo of their pets from the captain to let them know all’s well. Flanagan writes personal notes on the back of his business cards to first-class passengers and elite frequent fliers.

“I just treat everyone like it’s the first flight they’ve ever flown,” says Flanagan. With all that regularly occurs when traveling by air, this type of communication from the captain goes a very long way toward alleviating stress, worry, anger and frustration. Are customers who have flown on Captain Denny Flanagan’s flights more likely to book with United again? I think there is an awfully good chance they would.

Story #3 – The CEO

Another story comes from Joe Santana, who recently stepped down as CEO of Timex. Joe told me about a situation in which a highly valued employee, who was very ill, was not receiving the best care. Joe put a plan in motion to transport, by private jet, the employee and his family to New York so he could be cared for by top specialists. Another, similar occasion called for helping an employee’s wife.

These gestures required significant outlays of time, money and resources well beyond what the company heath plan covered. Although the number of people directly receiving the benefits was small, the positive feelings that were generated radiated far and wide.

“It really pays off to treat people well,” says Santana. “At the end of the day, people will work much harder for you, put in more hours, be more productive if they think the company has a heart and cares about its people.”

Story #4 – The Small Business Owner

My final example come from my friend and colleague Diane Gargiulo of Gargiulo + Partners. Diane told me about senior executives who, when she was a corporate employee, opened their homes to staff from time to time. This type of outreach is especially appreciated when the workload is particularly intense.

Says Gargiulo, “Many times, in the midst of huge, complex transactions requiring round-the-clock work and negotiations, on a weekend evening, a senior leader would say, ‘Get out of the office.  Come to my house at such-and-such a time for a drink, and we’ll have a strategy meeting.’  It was a huge morale booster at a very stressful time.”

Today, heading up a small company, Diane is a big fan of giving her free time – a precious commodity – to support employees’ endeavors outside of work such as attending performances or volunteering for an employee’s pet charity. I personally attended a book party several years ago that Diane hosted for an employee and still remember it as an extraordinary act of generosity and kindness.

Empathy is the Key Ingredient

In all these examples, the key interpersonal communication skill of empathy is at work. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. There is, however, an important caveat: empathy is not looking at another’s situation through one’s own eyes; it is to attempt to see it through their eyes.

Winston Ma is clearly able to put himself in my shoes and help me make the kinds of connections that would be most useful. Captain Denny Flanagan looks at flying the way the average, harried passenger would. Joe Santana imagines what life is like for people farther down the pay and privilege scale. Diane Gargiulo understands that to really know her employees, she must make special efforts to support them beyond the workplace. This all requires extra thought and energy.

What Can You Do Starting Now to Communicate Generously?

This is a good time of year to get going on a plan to become a generous communicator.  Following are some examples of small gestures that have a big impact and are free or very low-cost:

  • If you’re a boss, make it a habit to thank employees and reports for a job well-done and acknowledge their ongoing work.
  • Send clippings of interest to clients and other stakeholders with a personal note; regular mail will get opened and read more quickly than email.
  • Send handwritten notes to thank, congratulate and express sympathy and well-wishes in the case of illness to people in your sphere.
  • Invite employees, clients and colleagues to lunch or dinner once in awhile; hosting them at your home ratchets this up several notches on the feel-good scale, but restaurants are fine.
  • Pick up the phone and call, just to check in and ask how someone is doing. In the age of email and BlackBerrys, this has enormous impact.
  • Freely and actively mentor junior employees.
  • Offer advice and counsel unreservedly to all comers; you never know when the favor will be repaid.

Remember that for such gestures to show results, they have to be done consistently and you must patiently give them time to catch on.

Whatever you decide to do, expect to reap big rewards. You’ll see that as you become known as a generous communicator, relationships will grow, cooperation will improve, business will run more smoothly and clients will be more eager to do business with you.

*McCartney, Scott. “To A United Pilot, The Friendly Skies Are a Point Of Pride.” The Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2007.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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