Four Steps to a Culture of Gratitude

The phone rang. Caller ID, that wonderful invention, revealed a number I didn't recognize. Thinking the worst (aka Telemarketer), I ignored the call.

I didn't notice the voicemail until later that day. The call was from a colleague I'd introduced to a couple of people. His message was a simple thank you. He'd been able to sign one of them as a client and he wanted to thank me. The call made me smile and immediately made me wonder what other introductions I could make.

It also got me thinking about gratitude in business, and how it can make the difference between success and failure.

Over 18 years of consulting, I've worked with 10 startups. Each of them was incredibly passionate about their idea and supremely confident in their potential for success. They were founded by brilliant people and staffed by employees who shared their vision. Their vendors and partners were excited by their vision and potential. Their shareholders confidently bet serious money on them.

As of today, only two are still operating. That number is a little better than industry statistics, but it still gave me pause. What was the difference between the two that survived and the others?

The two still kicking all experienced the same challenges of the others: never enough money, not enough customers, supply chain breakdowns and unrealistic expectations. But they had one differentiator in common. They were continually grateful for every day, whether they closed a strategic investor or lost a major contract. Each day they survived was a day to be grateful.

They lived Buddha's guidance: "Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so, let us all be thankful."

They did four things, in particular, the other ten either failed to do, or didn't do consistently:

  1. Regularly thanked their shareholders. All of the companies did the required thank you at the annual shareholder meeting, but the founders of these two companies called their shareholders every couple of months just to say thanks. They didn't get into what was going on in the business or call to tee up a future ask for more money, they just said: "thanks for your faith and confidence in us." This acknowledgement and appreciation of the risk the investors were taking bought time when the business didn't grow as fast as hoped.
  2. Built relationships with strategic suppliers/vendors. Both companies went through pretty tough times. For one, it was questionable they would survive. In both cases, the founders had built close relationships with their suppliers and partners, centered on gratitude. They realized that their companies were so small in the beginning that they were more of a nuance than a revenue stream. Acknowledging that, and being grateful for the partnership, created the good will capital necessary to get them through the tight times.
  3. Never communicated in bulk with customers, vendors or shareholders. Yes, they used bulk email engines and it was often a form letter, but it was never a "Dear Shareholder / Vendor / Customer" letter. The extra step to write the code to insert the first name, as simple a step as it is, was a step the other ten companies didn't consistently take. That simple step communicates recognition and gratitude.
  4. Viewed their attorneys/accountants as team members. Attorneys & accountants are expensive. They take cash that could be used for marketing or another engineer. They are often annoying because their job is to keep the company out of trouble. Because of that, often the attorneys and accountants are brought in at the last possible minute or left out of the loop entirely. These two companies treated them as partners. They included them in strategy meetings, regularly gave them updates and sought their advice. They regularly expressed appreciation for the experience and expertise both brought to the table. Their firms treated them with equal respect. The relationships moved beyond billable hours to strategic partnerships, enabling both companies make much smarter decisions.

You'll notice I left off thanking customers and employees. That is critical, but also two things the other ten companies did. It just wasn't enough to infuse gratitude through the business.

The sum of these four activities created a culture of gratitude that gave these companies the extra oomph they needed to push past the start-up stage into success. The studies all make it clear that the practice of gratitude improves mood, enhances decision making, increases productivity and makes us feel good. It's also very good for business.

In today's increasingly competitive marketplace, what does your firm do to create a culture of gratitude?