What a Birthday Card Teaches Us About Culture

“There is an inside joke with acquisitions that I ask prior to closing: ‘How many more people?'” he told Business Insider — meaning, How many more birthday cards do I have to write? —”since I am constantly calculating that in my mind rather than ‘What is the EBITDA?’”

That question was asked by Sheldon Yellen who is the CEO of BELFOR Holdings, Inc., a billion-dollar disaster relief and property restoration company. And since 1985, long before Yellen was chief executive, he has written a birthday card to every employee of the company every single year.

Today, as CEO, he says he hand-writes 7,400 cards annually — one for every employee.

The small things matters

This follows the mantra that I preach constantly. It is the small things that matter. Whether it is a card, a sincere hello, a show of concern, it does not matter, you have to connect.

Organizations sometimes go to great length with perks, etc. in an effort to “bribe their workforce.” Yes, I said it: BRIBE. In a prior role, when I would deliver results on engagement the conversation would always circle back to what are other companies doing so that we can use some of their best practices. That would cause my eyes to glaze over. I would tell them, “That is not how it is done. You can’t hijack someone else’s culture and make it yours!”

So do we ask all CEOs to begin writing cards? You know the answer to that one. Each leader has to find their own way to instill the culture with their personal touch. Unleash and empower your managers to become creative in building that high performing team.

As I read the Business Insider article I thought of a story about a CEO who was retiring and when word reached the employees, many of them were in tears. They did not want him to leave. When they were asked by a TV reporter why would they have this reaction to a CEO in these modern times, they told story after story of how he would show up at family funerals, sit in the bleachers at their kid’s soft ball games, and show up at hospitals to visit sick relatives of his employees.

That kind of leadership can’t be taught.

There is not a leadership development course or stretch assignment that will imbue a leader with those skills. That is authentic; it comes from the heart. That comes from lessons learned over the years; it could have come from seeing how parents, aunts and uncles, behaved. Those were the teachers that instilled that personal touch.

What is your filter for a leader?

Are we promoting people into leadership roles that have these type skills, whether it is called people skills, relationship building or communication skills? Are we developing our next level of leaders with these competencies?

One of the top priorities for organizations today should be “Building Engaged Leaders.” Teach leaders how to connect with their teams, and their role in being a manager for engagement. For the most part, our promotion process is flawed. We promote for hard skills while all research shows that soft skills are what is needed in a leader.

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This should start from the first step of the leadership journey, and that should start with first time managers. From the start, teach them how “we manage people in our organization.” Otherwise they are bringing all sorts of mindsets and are allowed to basically run free with your most important asset.

Would you trust that important asset to an untrained individual? Probably not, but that, in essence, is what organizations do. We relinquish control and then we sit and wonder why we have a workforce that does not give a crap.

It starts from the top

If we were able to go into Yellen’s company and have a conversation with his team and the managers below, we would see his cultural stamp at every level. They may not be writing birthday cards, but they would have figured out how to connect in their own way.

At dinner last night with a colleague here in London, she told me about her CEO. He regularly visits the branch offices throughout the US. However, when he shows up, he goes right into an office. No small talk, no greetings, no offline conversation. When the meetings start he has a laser focus on the numbers; just the facts is all he’s interested in. After a few days of discussion, he walks out without a goodbye and heads off into the sunset. The backdrop to that is that everyone is looking to get out.

People before the financials

How many more birthday cards do I have to write? –“Since I am constantly calculating that in my mind rather than ‘what is the EBITDA?’”

So, Mr/Mrs. Senior Leader, at your next leadership meeting start with people discussions first because that is your competitive advantage. Take care of that and the financials will take care of themselves.

Remember it is the SMALL THINGS THAT MATTER to that important asset!!

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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