This post first appeared on LinkedIn.
The other evening I attended a small dinner party here in New York City. After a heated conversation about politics, a gentleman I didn’t recognize approached me and said, “You don’t remember me, but we met in 1995 when we were both looking at a deal,” (which, as it turns out, neither of us did). He went on to say how much he had enjoyed meeting me years ago, and hoped that we could, in the future, compare notes about the election.
I’m not sure if you have been in business long enough to have this happen to you, but it seems that hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t stop me on the street or before a meeting to say, “You don’t remember me, but….“
And every time I hear that phrase, a brief anxiety pang shoots through my chest! Why? Because I can never be quite sure how the speaker is going to finish the sentence. During the course of a career, we meet many people, for often only a brief period. And whether it’s been 40 years or 4 years or 4 months, if you are a concerned person, you hope that whatever the interaction was, it ended with the person recalling you as someone who treated them fairly.
The interaction could have been any number of things—an employee interview, a business meeting, or, more often than not in my profession, a person seeking funding for their company. Now I’d like to say that every interaction ended positively. But of course in the business and investing world, that is not always possible. Still, in delicate situations, particularly those in which someone is going to face rejection, it is important to deliver the news with tact, grace, and if possible, constructive criticism.
This is not easy, but it is important. In fact, it is among the most important of things in business and in life. Much has changed in the investment world since I began my career, but the fundamental significance of cultivating and maintaining human relationships has not. It is today all too easy to fire off an email, shooting a stinging rejection like a bullet: You can send a message quickly, but the impression you leave could last years. Often I find that nuance is completely lost in a two-sentence email message. Email is wonderful for confirming lunch meetings or dental appointments; it cannot and should not be depended upon for delivering important information or news. In the end there is really no substitute for a face-to-face meeting or a phone call in which you can really try and understand a person, and make sure they understand you.
In my own career, I have established a few simple goals for interacting with others. This isn’t rocket science but it does get back to the basics. On the most fundamental level, I try to return every phone call the same day if possible, and always within 24 hours. I aim to be on time for appointments. Email, given its overwhelming volume, presents its own challenges. Most of my daily email flood is junk or spam but nevertheless must be tackled so as not to miss something important. I do try to respond to each personal email received (although I admit I’m not as timely as with telephone messages). Still, I think email in general is a dangerous form of communication; in particular e mails composed in anger or frustration can backfire and are better written, minimized and looked at again the next day before they are sent when cooler heads prevail. Even better, in my opinion, is to simply pick up the phone and talk. As Geoff Colvin says in his book, Humans are Underrated, “When two people talk to one another face to face their brains synchronize.” In other words, our expressions are vital to effective communication.
But on another level, I also try to keep in mind something that requires me to see the world through a broader lens. The instances that stick with me the most are those times when I or my firm came to a decision not to invest in a particular situation—no doubt a rejection to someone. I always try to remind myself that, to the person facing that rejection, no matter how absurd or improbable their proposal may have been, his or her efforts were sincere, and perhaps as close to them as their own children. Moreover, if they had not been let down gently, it would be as if you had criticized their child! The key is to learn how to say no gracefully and, if possible, with constructive comments. Anyone can learn these skills. It starts with treating others the way you’d like to be treated. And of course the old axiom prevails: the next best response to “yes” is a quick “no.”
These goals also take on a practical application. Though it may sound selfless to treat others the way you’d like to be treated, it is in everyone’s interest to do so. There follows the notion that life is long and the world is small: You simply never know when the tables will turn and you find yourself the supplicant, making a request to the same person you may have once rejected for a job, an investment, or a political or charitable contribution. Respect and dignity for others, one would hope, is like a boomerang: Take the time to give it to someone, and chances are it will come back to you.
Some of the world’s most successful people understand this implicitly. One has to wonder if their success stems, in part, because of the way they respond and relate to others. For example, once or twice, I sent a letter to Warren Buffett, who responded with a hand-written note in his reply across the corner of my letter. Bill Clinton and his former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, both often hand-write messages in the margins of otherwise typed, formal letters. (Just for fun, I very often run a wet thumb over the handwriting, just to see whether the message has been pre-printed or not!) I am even told that George H. W. Bush sends handwritten thank you notes in response to thank you notes sent to him. These are busy, successful people, and yet they take the time to personalize their own correspondence. Adding a hand-written “Dear so-and-so” at the top of a letter, or a P.S. down below, their message is clear: I am glad to know you; your relationship matters to me. It’s amazing that even when I am in disagreement with someone, a hand-written note can go a long way towards smoothing things over. In the vast sea of emails, texts and tweets, these notes become much more meaningful. Coincidentally, as I was writing this article, there appeared in the New York Times an article about Mark Zuckerberg who apparently each year commits to do something to improve himself. In 2014 he promised himself to write a daily handwritten (or emailed) thank you note!)
Which leads me to why, whenever someone approaches me with the comment, “You don’t remember me but–“ no matter how hard I’ve tried to leave a good trail behind me, there is always the concern over those with whom you may have slipped up. In a way, writing this Blog post may bring one of these instances out of the woodwork.
Still, for better or worse, I pass these thoughts along to others who may want to make changes in how they deal with others, and more specifically, how they may handle situations involving delivering bad news. You never know when someone may remind you of even the smallest of interactions, and you hope that you can stand confidently, knowing that you treated them with dignity and respect.