Birthday wishes. It is more than a wish.
After the effusive praises (I am sure I am deserving of far less) Jenny Nash showered on me for wishing her a happy birthday, I got thinking first thing in the morning – how did I even get started? I greet over 2000 people happy birthday every year and sure enough, it had a very interesting beginning.
In 1995, I was promoted to be a manager – for the first time in my life. I was to be development manager of a few UI developers. I asked myself how could I differentiate myself? I already knew – with occasional reminders from well wishers like Bob Hart 🙂 – that I was not much of my developer myself. (I guess that is why I got promoted? 😉 ). I had resolved to see if I could excel in Customers and People. And it was that thirst to be known to be a great people manager that drove me to understand how to recruit talent, build talent, develop talent and so on. And in the process also how to get to know people at a deep level.
One of the tools I had developed was to greet my teammates on two days of the year – their birthday and their anniversary day (in our company). It was fairly uncommon in those days – at least in my company – so much so that most believed that I had a cron job (automated; those days I worked in Unix) that I had set up. Eventually, the feedback to this practice was so overwhelmingly positive that I enlarged to include team members from outside my team, then customers, personal friends and now just about anybody I meet.
I had had some hilarious bumps on the way. One of the early ones – and this has happened multiple times – was when I became a higher level manager. Every time we had a new employee, I would write down their joining date and then ask for their birthday. More than one employee had complained to HR about this. Lady employees were uncomfortable sharing their age and elderly employees were afraid of discrimination if management knew their age!! This, inspite, of clarifying that I was seeking just month and day!!!
This continued for a few years. Year after year, I would send birthday emails out. And no, they were not copy pasted. And then technology like FB came and messed me up. First, everybody started to wish everybody publicly on FB about their birthdays. This had two issues. When I wished somebody, many felt I picked up their birthday from FB – which I thought diminished the value of the effort I was putting. (I write it in my calendar). And the whole unique value prop was under threat.
So, after a year, I had to improvise my strategy. I realized that FB had made it easy for people to send wishes (and also for the recipient to send mass Thank You in one message). To create a niche, I had to focus on quality. And that thought has now started a process where I am moving away from email based wishes to actually calling people up.
I am in transition. I am still settling in the new process. Given my travel schedule and the different time zones in the world, I do not often make it every day – in which case, I will wish by email at the end of the day. Long commute hours is something I do not hate any more!! Also, I leverage FB to send personal messages to wish if email and phone number bounce back. (For whatever it is worth, I hate wishing people publicly. I still think of it as a very personal one-on-one message).
And then FB royally extracted its revenge on me last year. Made the mistake of connecting FB to my address book. It quickly overwrote my painstakingly gathered birthdays with the self-declared birthdays of the person in FB. (Without asking me how to resolve the conflicts!!!! 🙁 ) It is often that people purposely give a wrong birth date. (This is a good practice, in my opinion, given the amount of identity theft in the world). And that started the process of me wishing somebody on a wrong date, finding it the humiliating way that I had messed up and then correcting my address book 🙂 And promising never to connect my address book directly to the social media 🙂 A few of those errors are still taking some time to work out the kinks. My friend from Dallas – Badri – knows very well how I have raised wishing him on the wrong day to a level of fine art!!!!
That said, I have had some positive outcomes too!! In December 2004, a birthday wish to a sales guy I had not met for a long time led him to get me to meet his client and one thing led to the other and that January, he signed a rather large deal. And yes, he, as well as the two key guys on the client side still get birthday wishes from me annually!! Another story – in October 2012, I left a voicemail for an executive at a customer wishing him happy birthday! When he returned the call, one thing led to the other again, and in a few months, he switched jobs to work in my current company!!!! There are numerous such experiences I fondly remember.
So, I am often asked, where do I get the energy to do all this? Well first, I think this is a great way to network with people. Once a year, this forces me to think of my people in the network and talk / connect with them. You never know when I may be of help or they might be able to help me. As Jenny said, “paying it forward”.
I also have found this as an excellent way of keeping my address book updated. Beats the business model of Plaxo 🙂
But the real reason is that I feel indebted greatly to people who have touched my life. In so many ways, I am the end result of all the cumulative influence people around me have had over the years. While I say “Happy Birthday”, I guess, what I am saying is “In this short journey of life of yours and mine, I am delighted that we had the opportunity to walk together for a few steps. Every step in that journey has enriched me and made me a better man. Thank you for that. My call today is to let you know that I have not forgotten you nor what you meant to me. Because today is special to you, it is special to me too. Thank you again and I certainly will seek more intersection points with you in my path.”
And to be able to convey that heartfelt “Thanks”, I can always find the energy to get up a little early to make sure I make time to wish you on your special day!
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I wish you a Happy Birthday!!!