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Want to be a better manager or leader? Learn this invaluable lesson of emotional intelligence, courtesy of Maya Angelou.

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Poet and author Maya Angelou speaking during an interview. Photo: Getty Imagesa

“That’s a lot of thank you notes.”

This is the thought that ran through my head as I researched the story of Douglas Conant, an American business who accepted a job as president and CEO of Campbell’s Soup in 2001. When Conant took over, he had a tough job ahead: Campbell’s was a grossly underperforming company with a toxic culture. Yet, in less than a decade, Conant helped lead a remarkable turnaround in which employee engagement–and company earnings–increased dramatically.

How did Conant do it? He began by “running” the company–actually, it was more of a brisk walk. Conant’s goal was to log 10,000 steps a day, making meaningful connections with employees, to better understand their challenges and personally inspire them to buy into the company’s renewed mission.

Which brings us to the thank you notes. “Most cultures don’t do a good job of celebrating contributions,” Conant told Fast Company. “So I developed the practice of writing notes to our employees. Over 10 years, it amounted to more than 30,000 notes, and we had only 20,000 employees. Wherever I’d go in the world, in employee cubicles you’d find my handwritten notes posted on their bulletin boards.” 

Conant’s story is more than inspiring, it’s a key lesson for business leaders in emotional intelligence, the ability to make emotional connections with others. Specifically, it’s an example of what I like to call “The Maya Angelou rule.”

What is the Maya Angelou rule, and how can it help you become a better manager and team leader? Let’s break it down. (And if you enjoy this rule and lesson, consider signing up for my free seven-day course, which delivers a similar rule direct to your inbox every day for a week, each designed to help you build your emotional intelligence.)

How to lead better: Focus on how you make them feel

What I call the Maya Angelou Rule is actually a quote that is often attributed to the famous author, and it goes like this:

“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Interestingly, research says this quote may have originated from someone other than Ms. Angelou. But whether or not she came up with it, she definitely exemplified it. If you’ve ever read one of Angelou’s poems, or watched an interview, or simply listened to her speak–you know what I mean: You don’t just hear her words.

You feel them.

So, how does the Maya Angelou manifest itself in real life?

Well, think of your all-time favorite boss or teacher. Where they went to school, what kind of degree they have, even their previous accomplishments–none of this has any real bearing on your relationship. 

But what about the time they took to give you a listening ear? What about their willingness to roll up their sleeves and work right beside you to get a job done? What about all the thank yous, the words of praise, the check-ins to see how you were doing?

Each word of appreciation, each moment you take for another person, every one of these acts strengthens your relationship with others–like the countless, delicate brushstrokes that make up a beautiful painting. They lead to an environment where your people feel safe, appreciated, and respected, which produces a culture that inspires each person to be the best version of themselves.

So, how can you do that for your people?

If you’re in a position of leadership, whether it’s as a business owner, manager, team lead (or at home, a parent), ask yourself–and your team–the following questions:

How do I make my people feel?

  • Am I available to listen? To hear about their challenges, problems, and successes?
  • Do I offer support for those challenges? And do I celebrate the achievements?
  • Do I say thank you? Yes, because it’s the right thing to do, but also so I encourage them to keep doing it?
  • Do I make them feel safe? Cared for? Appreciated? Trusted? That they can count on me, too?

Remember, you don’t have to get hung up on saying things in just the right way, or on speaking with eloquence. Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of making an effort.

Because if there’s one thing Maya Angelou taught us: It’s not the words they’ll remember anyway. It’s the way you make them feel that really counts.