Earlier this week, I was in Anne’s office when she received a call from a distressed colleague. Anne listened intently as her colleague; we’ll call her Madeline, told a tale of how she was offended by an email she had received from a mutual acquaintance.
Madeline felt she had been wrongly accused; the writer had jumped to conclusions without checking the facts. Madeline was both hurt and angry, and she was at a loss on how to respond appropriately.
“I am sorry that happened,” said Anne gently and calmly. “Let me tell you about my experience with a similar situation.”
And then, Anne shared this story from her time running a subsidiary of Reader’s Digest.
In the days before email, people wrote letters and sent them via the postal service; executives had two open-topped boxes on their desks; one marked “in” and the other marked “out.” Anne often emptied the correspondence from her “in” box into her briefcase for reading on the plane when she traveled.
This particular day, Anne was on her way to meet with her boss, Ralph Hancox, Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Reader’s Digest Association (Canada) Ltd. On the plane, she opened a letter from someone who had received an invitation to attend the open house event Anne was hosting, at her Toronto office, and the writer was offended.
The writer pointed out that she and Anne had never met, so how could there be anything “personal” between them. She objected to Anne having addressed the invitation’s envelope “personal,” and no, she would not be attending the open house event.
Anne was crushed. It had never occurred to her that her efforts to ensure that the invitation reached the invitee's desk could be offensive. For the rest of the flight and during the ride from the airport, Anne stewed on this situation. She felt wrongly and unfairly accused!
As soon as Hancox welcomed her to his office, Anne blurted out, “I need some advice.” She handed over the letter and held her breath while he read the letter.
“What will you do differently as a result of receiving this complaint?” he asked.
“I don’t think I will do anything differently,” said Anne. “Our objective was for the invitation to reach the invitee’s desk, without being opened and discarded by their assistant, and for them to open and read it.
Clearly, we achieved our goal, or she would not know the envelope was marked “personal,” and she would not have declined the invitation. But I am not sure what would be an appropriate response.”
Reaching for his personal stationery, Ralph said to Anne, “Let me show you how I respond to letters like this and, believe me, as the head of this magazine, I get plenty.” He took out his gold-nibbed fountain pen, and in his eloquent hand, he wrote,
Thank you so very much for taking time to bring your concern to my attention.
Yours most sincerely,
Ralph Hancox, Chairman
Reader’s Digest Association (Canada) Ltd.”
He addressed the envelope, put the letter inside, and, with a flourish, he tossed it into his “out” box.
Anne was astonished!
In his brief response, Ralph did two things:
1. Let the writer know her message had been received.
2. Acknowledged and appreciated the time the writer had spent.
But, here’s what he did NOT do:
· He did NOT apologize or accept blame for the writer’s feelings.
· He did NOT promise to take any action in response to the writer’s objection.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“Anne," he said, "you are not responsible for the writer’s feelings, and you have no obligation to change your behavior. In fact, a minute ago, you told me you would do the same again. You even have the option of ignoring the writer’s letter altogether, of course. But you and I, we are the kind of people who take the high road, and that is why we send a polite, appreciative, and brief response.”
“Now, let it go. We have important work to do!”
Anne was silent, letting her colleague absorb the story and the lesson. Her colleague thanked her and signed off.
As she put down the receiver, Anne smiled as she said, “Thank you for that valuable lesson, Ralph Hancox! I have passed it on many times.”
 Ralph Hancox served as Chairman, President, and CEO of Reader’s Digest Association (Canada) Ltd. from 1983 until his retirement in 1999.