Most people on planes spend time napping, reading, watching movies, or working on their laptops. If your seatmate is a man writing stacks of birthday cards on his tray table, chances are you’re sitting next to CEO Sheldon Yellen.
In 1985, Yellen began writing birthday cards to every employee in BELFOR Holdings Inc, a disaster-relief and property-restoration company. Since then, he became the chief executive, but he never stopped his cards. In fact, this CEO handwrites 9,200 cards every year for each employee.
“There is an inside joke with acquisitions that I ask prior to closing: ‘How many more people?'” he told Business Insider’s Chris Weller, “since I am constantly calculating [birthday cards] in my mind rather than ‘What is the EBITDA [earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization]?'”
Yellen began to write birthday cards after he was hired by his brother-in-law. Many of his fellow employees felt he was being singled out for special treatment. To diffuse any bad blood and create peace in his workplace, he began sending the cards. He hoped at the very least the well-wishes might encourage his workmates to visit his desk to say thank you.
“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.”
Gratitude in the Workplace
Now Yellen packs his suitcase with stationary every time he travels to optimize the flight time. He’s not just writing birthday cards anymore; he added thank-you notes, anniversary cards, holiday cards, and get-well cards to his employees’ kids when they are sick.
It’s time-consuming, sure, but Yellen found that his cards have formed an atmosphere of compassion and unity throughout his 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.”
Many experts agree with Yellen’s approach. They say that the best managers are encouraging and give positive reinforcement to hard workers, and their employees often admire bosses who notice their accomplishments and show interest in their well-being.
Surveys show that good workers are likely to quit their jobs if their efforts and excellent work isn’t recognized. As the saying goes, “People don’t quit a job — they quit a boss.”
Other reasons people quit include feeling stuck in an unenjoyable job, their talents aren’t being utilized, and they weren’t growing in their careers. These three points can sometimes be negated by an attentive boss who wants these employees to stay by assigning work each person enjoys, encouraging them to use their strengths, and creating a roadmap to develop their careers.
Yellen not only brought compassion to his workplace, but he has inspired other managers to write cards for their team, clients, and family members.
While other CEOS dismiss writing cards as a waste of time, Yellen is quick to defend his practice. He claimed that his experience with his tradition keeps proving its worth.
“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.” 
What Makes a Great Boss?
So many people have horror stories about demanding, unempathetic, micromanaging bosses, and wish they work under a person with a different set of traits. CNN Business ran an informal survey to their readers to determine what characteristics create the perfect boss.
- They trust their employees to do their jobs. In other words, they don’t micromanage, the most hated item on this list.
- They respect their employees and value their input. Workers who feel acknowledged and encouraged are more likely to work hard.
- They are a mentor who supports the success of their employees and has their backs during difficult times.
- They are open with their employees, and above all, they are listeners.
- They show compassion rather than aggression, and that bonds the workplace. 
Every person is different and every boss will have their own way of managing their employees. This list includes desirable characteristics, but how they will be practiced is up to the individual. Yellen’s tradition of writing cards is a unique method but perhaps he will start a trend of bosses giving individual attention to their staff.
- Lori Goler, Janelle Gale,Brynn Harrington, Adam Grant. Why People Really Quit Their Jobs https://hbr.org/2018/01/why-people-really-quit-their-jobs January 11, 2018
- Allana Akhtar. Business Insider. A CEO who writes 9,200 employee birthday cards a year explains the value of gratitude https://www.businessinsider.com/ceo-writes-7400-employee-birthday-cards-each-year-2017-6 Oct 9, 2019
- Jeanne Sahadi. CNN Business. We asked CNN Business readers what makes a great boss. Here’s what you said https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/26/success/how-to-be-a-great-boss/index.html March 27, 2019