Our Greetings of Grace

At the end of another challenging year, leaders should make sure to express their appreciation to their colleagues, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of The Five Graces of Life and Leadership.

Years ago, when our company was smaller, I used to carry around a tote bag full of greeting cards. I’d start in the middle of October, and whenever I had a spare moment, I wrote out a few cards. After several weeks, I had sent them to hundreds of colleagues.

Then, as our company grew to 11,000 colleagues, this tradition became no longer practical nor possible. To be honest, it’s something I miss—a tangible connection to a tradition I remember from growing up.

My mom would set up a couple of folding tables in the living room where she wrote and addressed more than 500 cards by hand. She took great pride in writing out each one. Not just a few lines—full-blown notes.

No matter the design, each card conveyed timeless and universal messages of joy, hope, and love. Each was a greeting of grace.

Flash forward a few decades—to one particular card I received from someone. It came from a retired colleague of a firm our company had acquired. She sent me a hand-written card, thanking our leadership team for continuing the benefits package that the acquired company had always given to its employees.

At the time, we saw it as the right thing to do. But clearly, these benefits were very personal to this colleague—and had meaning for others, as well. That card touched me so much—I read and reread it many times, and even carried it with me wherever I went. It was a reminder of grace—not of us, but rather of this former colleague who paused and said, “Thank you.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, I received an email from an executive who recounted what his mother had always said: “Son, there are two doors that open any room: ‘Please,’ and ‘Thank you.’” How simple, but how profound—always, and especially at this time of year. They are investments in others: I see you. I value you. You matter. You make a difference.

Another executive recently shared a story with me about an experience he had a few years ago while leading a global client and sales group. Facing bitter cold temperatures, the sales reps went out to in-person meetings (remember those good ol’ days?)—and not one meeting was cancelled. Impressed by their efforts and commitment, the executive suggested that the head of the division send all the sales reps a thank-you note. But this boss disagreed; as far as he was concerned, there was no need to thank people just for “doing their jobs.”

Undeterred, the executive sent the notes himself—and they were incredibly well received. As he told me, “The sales reps were appreciative of the acknowledgment of their effort.” Months later, many of them still recalled this small gesture.

At this time of reflection, we cannot underestimate the simple, yet profound power of our greetings of grace—whatever form they take. Some are paper and ink. Others are kind words of appreciation—said personally or sent digitally. And if ever there was a time to convey them, this is it. Here are some thoughts:

· The gift we’ll never return. No doubt we’ve all had this experience, especially at this time of year. We give someone a gift and wait anxiously for the wrapping paper to be removed and the box opened. Suddenly, we’re having second thoughts about what had seemed like such a good idea…. Nervous and a little uncertain, and even to hedge our bets, we lean over and whisper when no one else is listening, “If you don’t like it, there’s a gift receipt at the bottom if you want to take it back.” Not so with a heartfelt greeting that conveys how much we appreciate others. These sincere expressions are the gifts that no one will return.

· Hope 2.0. A few days ago, while out walking my dog, Charlie, I spied a message emblazoned on a light pole along a walking path. In yellow chalk, someone had written in large letters, “Empathy is humanity’s only hope.” I seriously did a double take. Here was the last thing I expected to read. Immediately, I was taken back to another time—and another message. It was surreal. Twenty months ago, at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, I had been walking with Charlie, just steps away from this light pole, when I came across childish handwriting scrawled on a stretch of pavement: “Everything will be OK.” It simply conveyed a promise of hope. Now, this new message provided further context and texture for this time of year. Maybe it’s Hope 2.0—and it’s our gift that we can give to others.

· Our guiding light. A few years ago, my family and I went stargazing in a remote location. Without city lights to obscure our view, every tiny dot of brilliance shone crystal clear. As we looked through a telescope, we were awestruck by the countless stars and swirls of the Milky Way. In that moment, we felt connected to something bigger than ourselves. Today, we all need this same cosmic shift in perspective. We need to look for the glimmers of hope around us that, together, converge into a beacon of possibilities.

There is a greeting in all of us, waiting to be sent. And if we’re willing to look, we can find recipients everywhere—our families and friends, colleagues and clients. Indeed, it’s our greeting of grace—conveying joy, hope, love, and gratitude.