Each year, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg gives himself a personal discipline challenge. In 2013, it was to meet a new person who doesn't work at Facebook every day. In 2010, he set out to learn Mandarin. And in 2011, he said he would only eat meat he himself had killed. (Yes, seriously.)
In 2014 — the year of Facebook's 10th anniversary, which it celebrated on Tuesday — Zuckerberg revealed that he is challenging himself to write one thank-you note each day.
While that might not seem like much of a stretch, or nearly as ambitious as learning another language or hunting wild animals, it may still qualify as a challenge for Zuckerberg. The 29-year-old, long known for his awkwardness, said in a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story that he intends to write what the magazine describes as "a well-considered thank-you note every day, via e-mail or handwritten letter."
His reasoning: “It’s important for me, because I’m a really critical person,” Zuckerberg told the magazine. “I always kind of see how I want things to be better, and I’m generally not happy with how things are, or the level of service that we’re providing for people, or the quality of the teams that we built."
Even if the promise of writing thank-you notes has all the strategic originality of motherhood and apple pie, it does stands out — particularly in a world filled with e-mail, 140-character tweets and, er, Facebook messages. Perhaps that's part of the point: Silicon Valley CEOs haven't exactly been role models of humility lately, called to task for their arrogance, their elitism and their tasteless remarks.
To get a sense of the discipline it takes to make expressions of gratitude a daily habit, I turned to a few avid practitioners of the art of acknowledgement for some insight. And by avid I mean avid. Douglas Conant, the former Campbell's Soup CEO, says he wrote at least 30,000 thank-you notes to employees over the course of his 10-year career leading the soup giant.
Conant, who did so to help improve employee engagement at the company, understands Zuckerberg's comment about being too critical. "It's not just Mark," Conant says, "but most senior executives. They develop this skill set that's largely based around critical thinking. They get really good at it, and tend to really develop that muscle" of trying to critique things more than compliment them.
Conant says he committed about an hour each day to writing thank yous, an eternity in a busy Fortune 500 CEO's schedule. He usually made time for it during his commutes or while traveling, and had a staffer who helped him scan their global workforce for success stories he could praise.
"You have to take a structured approach," he says. "It's helpful if you're very intentional about it." Conant, who says he averaged 10 to 20 letters a day, playfully nudges Zuckerberg to pick up the pace: "He can do better than one note."
Maybe, but too many isn't necessarily a good thing either if they come off as insincere, warns Lizzie Post, the co-author of Emily Post's Etiquette and the creator of a business etiquette e-learning program. "Three hundred and sixty-five people are going to receive a thank-you note from Mark Zuckerberg," she says. "Is it going to mean anything? Is he going to do this in a way that's meaningful? The potential to devalue the thank you is there. It needs to really be authentic, sincere and appropriate."
It should also be handwritten, says Tom Peters, a management expert. When it comes to thank-you notes, "barely readable scrawl is best. It really says you're being personal."
Peters, a big fan of the practice himself, points to both former General Electric CEO Jack Welch and George H.W. Bush as famous thank-you writers. (Peters says Bush once wrote him what might be called a meta thank-you note, thanking Peters for a column he wrote that mentioned Bush's devotion to writing thank-yous). Peters also says they're particularly effective when sent to low-level employees who will be more impressed to hear from someone at the top. "But we're all suckers for it," he adds.
If Zuckerberg really wants to get a bang for his thank-you writing buck, though, he won't stop at sending notes to employees, junior or senior. He'll take a page from PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who recently revealed in an interview with Fortune that she sends letters to the parents of top Pepsi executives. She began doing so after a trip home to India, where she witnessed her mother's pride at all the praise she received about her daughter's success.
"It dawned on me that all of my executives who worked for me are also doing a damn good job, but I'd never told their parents what a great job their parents had done for them," she says, admitting she's even used the tactic to help convince recruits to sign on with Pepsi.
In Silicon Valley's talent wars, it might win Zuckerberg not just happy employees, but new ones.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.