"I got boxes and boxes of notes," Blake recalls. "They are my most important mementos from my time at Home Depot."
Those notes brought the spirit of gratitude full circle.
During his seven-year stint as CEO, Blake set aside several hours every Sunday to hand-write notes thanking standout employees for their service. He estimates he wrote more than 25,000 notes to everyone from district managers to hourly associates.
"I'd see the notes framed at the stores," he told me. "So I knew it mattered."
Science confirms it mattered. Studies show that employees who feel appreciated are happier, more engaged, more productive, and more likely to contribute in positive ways.
And it's not just the recipient who benefits. Studies show that people who express appreciation are more optimistic, as well as physically and emotionally healthier.
In other words, gratitude stays with those who give it.
So, as we head into Thanksgiving, here are four tips for using the lost art of letter writing as a way of expressing appreciation to your employees.
1. Be specific about why you're thankful.
When Frank Blake thanked me via email and phone for writing about this particular topic, it made me smile. We all want to be appreciated for what we're doing, and when you're recognized for something specific, it's even more of a motivator.
Blake says when writing his notes, he stayed away from generalities. Instead of simply thanking employees for their customer service, he told me he'd write: "I heard that you did xyz for a customer recently. Thank you for setting a great example of customer service."
Lydia Ramsey, a business etiquette expert and author of Manners That Sell - Adding the Polish That Builds Profits, suggests mentioning the specific effect on your team or organization. For example, "Thank you for coming in on your day off. You helped us finish our project on time and set a great example for everyone involved."
2. Set up a system.
When Blake sat down every Sunday to write his notes, he had a process for identifying the recipients: Each store would collect specific examples of great customer service. The store would send those names to the districts. The districts would send their top picks to the regions. And the regions would send their top picks directly to Blake.
"I figured the advantage of this is that it created an atmosphere of people being on the lookout for recognizing great behavior," Blake says.
Regardless of the size of the company, he advises bosses to develop a mindset that focuses on identifying employees who put in extra effort, and then a system to recognize those employees.
3. Keep note cards handy.
In this digital media age, it's easy to skip the pen and go straight for the keyboard. But when was the last time you put a text or an email in a keepsake box? There's just something about a handwritten note that creates a more meaningful connection.
To avoid the temptation of dashing off a digital thank you, have fun picking out some note cards that reflect your personality, and stash them in a convenient place in your desk. That way, "you don't have to hunt them down, and you can write that note immediately, while the act is still fresh in your mind, says Ramsey.
4. Go beyond gratitude.
Making employees feel appreciated goes beyond thanking them for a job well done. It can also include recognizing and acknowledging significant events in their lives like birthdays, engagements, work anniversaries, kids' graduations, and even family illnesses.
Regardless of the precipitating event, Ramsey calls handwritten notes "a chance to build positive relationships with employees."
And since fewer and fewer people are putting pen to paper these days, you'll stand out with each letter you write.
Letting people know you're thinking of them creates a chance for meaningful connection. It also creates a keepsake they can look back on and remember that you took the time to reach out.
"There's something so powerful about the written word," says Blake.