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What I Learned From Handwriting 850 Birthday Cards in 12 Months

I've always aspired to be a very people-oriented leader mostly because of my core belief that companies succeed when their employees are healthy, inspired, engaged, and productive. As such, I've spent years studying, applying, and refining learnings from books like The Servant by James C. Hunter; The 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player and Everyone Communicates, Few Connect by John C. Maxwell; and How Full is Your Bucket and Strengths-Based Leadership by Donald O. Clifton, Tom Rath, and Barry Conchie. So, it's no wonder that I had some definite ideas for how I wanted to engage the organization and show up as a leader when I started in the biggest operational capacity of my career after assuming the role of General Manager of GSK in Indonesia.

But there was one resource above all others that would influence my ambition for employee engagement in my new operation - Smile Guide: Employee Perspectives on Culture, Loyalty and Profit.

Written by Beryl CEO Paul Spiegelman AND several of his employees; Smile Guide is a deeply impactful treatise on the power of what Spiegelman calls the “Circle of Growth”:

Employee loyalty driving customer satisfaction, which in turn drives profit.

This revolutionary and highly actionable book provides five principles toward building sustainable employee engagement: open communication, the personal touch, maximizing resources, getting everyone involved, and valuing fun. I was significantly impressed when I learned that Mr. Spiegelman personally hand wrote a card to each of his 350 employees on the date of their employment anniversary with the company. He did this because, "employees need to know that we care about them. It’s easy to lose sight of the value of building relationships through personal connections."

Inspired, I knew I had a proven template to adopt as I entered this new career challenge. I decided to write birthday cards instead of employment anniversary greetings because I felt that recognizing birthdays connected the employee with their outside life as well. With that decided I enlisted the support of my expert assistant who procured the birthday cards, employee birth date lists, and home addresses (for the 92% of my organization who were field based). Next, I had to learn how to write my planned birthday greeting (congratulating the colleague for their birthday and thanking them for all they did to support GSK's mission and make a difference in the lives of Indonesian patients) in Bahasa Indonesia. Then, around the beginning of June 2015, I initiated my journey.

Over the next 12 months I crafted 850 personalized birthday cards and during the process learned a ton about connecting, supporting, leading, remaining disciplined, and focusing that I’d like to share with you now.

1. Reduce the power distance: Having never been an enterprise leader I had not truly reflected on just how far away I was from the day to day concerns, challenges, and worries of my front liners. To them I must have seemed about as connected and useful as the man on the moon. But by taking the small action of writing a card to each person, I went from my executive office suite and into their cubicles, homes, (and hopefully their hearts). And I noticed that as the cards got around the organization, people began relating to me with more openness, and this openness ultimately led to greater understanding of the challenges we faced on the ground, which then led to more precise actions to resolve these and move the organization forward. It doesn’t take a hand-written card to create this environment either – just managers tapped into their people’s lives and trying to help them be successful which leads to my next learning…

2. Be a success enabler and not a boss: Bosses are the true monsters of the corporate realm. They resemble Donkey Kong’s perched on top of the organization tossing flaming barrels of work and challenge down on people trying to make progress and get things done while doing their best to evade the bosses ire. No one in today’s workplace should aspire to “boss hood”. Success enablers in contrast focus their attention on what it takes to achieve the mission and therefore are obsessed with understanding the challenges of people and eliminating these to the best of their ability. Writing birthday cards was a powerful psychological reminder for me of why I existed (improving the lives of patients) and who I principally served (my value creating sales organization). It kept me honest and humble and focused on what really mattered which was to orient the entire organization in support of our value creators.

3. Lead by example: I’m sure some of my fellow organizational leaders viewed what I was doing as unnecessary and ultimately not impactful, but it definitely set a tone for who I was, what I was about, and what I valued. As a leader, there should be no ambiguity in these areas but there sometimes are not enough tangible ways to truly walk your talk. The birthday cards were an example taking up a small portion of my employee’s real estate that demonstrated the degree of personal energy I was willing to expend to try to connect with each one of them. And as my quest continued, I witnessed almost all of my leadership team adopt some regular method of personal recognition from anniversary date messages to birthday celebrations to pregnancy gift giving. In addition, I had the support of the team to embark on what was recognized as one of the most comprehensive and systemic employee engagement programs within the whole company – one which has positively transformed the operation from bottom to top and vice versa.

4. Procrastination is a killer: One area where I did not set a good example was my ability to stay on top of getting the birthday cards signed, sealed, and delivered before or on each respective colleague’s birthday. As the month’s progressed and the daily workload and whirlwind took hold of my agenda, I began to slip first a bit and then a lot until I would find myself on the last day of the month writing 65 late birthday cards for that month’s lot of employees. I was signing birthday cards past midnight, carrying and signing birthday cards on flights, and in hotels. I was dreaming about signing birthday cards! I became deflated, demotivated, and quite down on myself as a so-called people oriented leader at this point. Eventually, I had a stern talk with myself and applied some necessary discipline into my routine so that the final week of each month was dedicated to signing all the next month’s cards. As with any worthy pursuit, without discipline nothing positive can be manifested.

5. Don’t miss the forest for the trees: After 10 months or so of card writing I received some feedback from some of my senior leadership team members that while the cards were definitely a very nice thing to do, there might be other employee engagement initiatives on our agenda that required more of my attention and that would ultimately drive a higher impact. So, after completing one full year cycle of birthday cards, I stopped the activity in favor of focusing on some of the more big-ticket initiatives. And my staff was right – there were other ways that I could connect to each employee that would accomplish similar goals in a more impactful fashion. But I can tell you now that I still miss the fact of knowing I was going to put a smile on someone’s face that day just by sending a simple birthday message and the significant energy boost I got from serving people in this small way. What I learned was how important it is as a leader to put energy into driving positive emotions in your organization and how by filling up the buckets of others you truly receive an overflowing bucket of energy to power through all sorts of situations.

That's my journey and I don’t regret a single second I dedicated to making a connection with my employees because that connection is vital to organizational success. The senior leader is no better or no more deserving of feeling good, special, and valued than anyone else in the company. And from their vantage point, the senior leader has an obligation to spread positive vibes throughout enterprise so that an environment of inspiration, energy, engagement, and productivity pervades.

What are some other employee engagement efforts that you have applied or have experienced that really work? Let’s discuss in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this article please give it a thumbs up and share with your networks. Also, please feel free to follow me on Linked In, keep the conversation going on twitter, and share in my journey on Instagram.

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