If you happen to sit next to Sheldon Yellen on your next flight, chances are he’ll be writing birthday cards. Lots and lots of them.
Yellen 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 handwrites 7,400 cards annually — one for every employee.
“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 [earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization]?’”
Yellen started the practice 32 years ago. He says he started doing it after he was hired by his brother-in-law, since many of the current employees felt he was being given special treatment. If nothing else, the birthday cards would encourage people to stop by his desk to say thank you, he thought.
“And it worked,” he said. “It got people talking, we started to communicate more, and I like to think it helped me earn respect within the company.”
Fast forward to today, and Yellen is now bringing stacks of birthday cards with him on every plane trip he takes. But the practice isn’t just for the thank you. Yellen has found taking the time to write out a card for each and every person has created a culture of compassion through the whole company.
“It’s also something that doesn’t have to cost a thing,” he said. “When I learn of random acts of kindness being performed in the field, I take it upon myself to again, reach out in writing, and send a thank you card so that person can know they are appreciated and that their efforts don’t go unnoticed.”
Often, Yellen said he’ll try to include in the card a personal touch. He’ll refer back to a memory he and the employee shared, or a conversation they had. He can’t craft the most heartfelt message for everyone, he said, but he’s been doing it so long, people have come to expect a card regardless of their rapport with Yellen.
“It’s woven into our company culture,” he said.
Over time, the gesture has made for a more compassionate, gracious workplace, Yellen said. People feel appreciated and reciprocate those good feelings outward. Some managers have even taken up the habit themselves to write cards for their team members, clients, and loved ones.
Other CEOs may consider the gesture frivolous or a waste of time, but Yellen is quick to disagree. He said his experience has taught him that the value keeps coming back in spades.
“When leaders forget about the human element, they’re holding back their companies and limiting the success of others,” he said. “Focusing only on profit and forgetting that a company’s most important asset is its people will ultimately stifle a company’s growth.”
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