Elizabeth Dunlap | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Elizabeth Dunlap


Indiana University Health is Indiana’s largest healthcare system and a partner of the IU School of Medicine, the nation’s largest medical school. Dunlap previously was chief people officer at Panera Bread, headed HR at auction house Christie’s, and worked in HR at Campbell Soup and at The Walt Disney Co. 

The Mistake:

About 15 years ago I asked for the opportunity to get a coach. While going through a lengthy process of both behavioral assessment and interviews, one of the pieces of feedback that I got was that I needed to do a better job of connecting with people on an emotional level.

I was given a number of ideas or tools that I could use to do that. One suggestion from my coach was writing a personal note to somebody could be tremendously impactful. The note could be for anything: a job well-done, acknowledgement of a life event, a “welcome to the team.”

So I thought, “OK, I’ll start my letter-writing campaign.” And I was absolutely blown away by the impact it had on people just by receiving a hand-written note from me.  I would say in probably 50 percent of the cases I got a return note back, thanking me for my note. So I knew it was making a difference, in that somebody took the time to acknowledge the receipt of it and conveyed what it had meant.

I was absolutely blown away by the impact it had on people just by receiving a hand-written note from me.

The Lesson:

One of the notes I shared that drove home what it means to people, was when I was working for Christie’s.  We had conference rooms that you would use when people came from outside to have a meeting with us.  The conference rooms weren’t always very well managed. Often you’d walk in at your appointed time and the room would be a disaster. There were no trash cans and you can imagine.

So I went to a team that worked nearby, our mail delivery team, and asked the manager if it would be possible for their team to check on these rooms a couple of times during the day and just make sure they were cleaned up.  We added something as simple as trash cans and made sure that the room was stocked so people had the supplies they would need. It made an unbelievable difference just having this team stop by to be sure that that those rooms were organized during meetings.

So I wrote the team a note and told them I appreciated that they agreed to take on this additional responsibility and what a difference it had made to me and to the impression of Christie’s.

The manager, after he got the note, called me and said that it was the first time in his career that anybody had ever taken the time to thank his team for something and that the power of that note to his team was unbelievable. It just made me feel so good that I had taken the time to write it and to send it, and to how well-received it was and the power that it had. That was just a really a lovely example of making that personal connection with people and acknowledging and appreciating their worth.

I was absolutely blown away with the power that simple act had.

I’m reminded of that whenever I’m walking the halls and I pass the office or cubicle of someone to whom I’ve written a note, and I’ll see the note tacked up on display. My coach was right. 

Follow IU Health on Twitter at @IU_Health.

Pictured: Elizabeth Dunlap | Photo courtesy of IU Health.