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Doug Burgum has numerous speaking gigs around the country each year, but there is often a common denominator. Big bold letters fill the first slide, spelling one word: Gratitude.

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“It started a long time ago,” Burgum said. Back in the early days of Great Plains Software, the company Burgum built and sold to Microsoft for $1.1 B, they began to experiment with the new idea of “e-mail.”

“I had this feeling that everyone was working so hard and everyone was doing amazing things – the industry was so competitive and moving so fast,” Burgum said. “I decided to send out a note on Thanksgiving to everybody and just express the gratitude I have for everyone on the team.”

That one company wide e-mail started a trend. It became one of the biggest internal communications of the year, Burgum said. It’s part of what he calls “institutionalizing gratitude,” a practice that not only increases happiness, but economic success as well.

“I came to understand that… while happiness is an emotion that is a result of something, gratitude is a choice. You can choose to be grateful. You can build it into your routine, and your organizations, and your companies,” Burgum said. “There’s so many things in the world that you can’t control. You can’t control the weather, and you can’t control competition, and you can’t control a lot of market forces. But in the middle of chaos and adversity, you can always choose to be grateful. And that’s an amazing thing.”

It’s because of this he decided whenever he gives a talk, gratitude will be the starting point. Sometimes he’s even asked to give whole talks on the subject of gratitude alone.

To that end, Burgum has developed what he calls the three-legged stool of gratitude.

1.Gratitude is a positive spiral.

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The first is that gratitude is a positive spiral. This article is an example, he said; it comes inspired by hearing Burgum speak about gratitude, which then triggers others to think about it, to write about it, and spread it around.

Another example can be seen in social studies that Burgum cited, wherein people experiment with acts of gratitude when holding doors for people. Some people cut others off, some hold open the door. What they found was that when you hold a door open for someone, they become much more likely to hold the next door open for you.

“It’s a pay-it-forward thing where if you have received something like that, you are designed to want to pay it forward to someone else,” Burgum said.

2. Gratitude leads to success.

The second leg to the gratitude stool is that it leads to success. This is particularly relevant for entrepreneurs, Burgum said.

“Grateful people see a more positive world. They are also better equipped to deal with adversity,” he said. “If you’re a startup or an entrepreneur, you’re going to have all kinds of adversity thrown at you. If you’re someone who says this adversity is beating me down…then you don’t have the energy, and you miss chances to thank your team, thank your customers. Gratitude is one of those core skills that can drive success.”

As co-founder and partner at local venture capital firm Arthur Ventures, Burgum said gratitude is a characteristic they look for in founders as well. It is closely linked to another admirable quality in a leader: humility.

“We look closely at the CEO and we try to assess the level of humility that people have,” Burgum said.  “Humility drives a ton of gratitude. It’s about shrinking your own blind spot. It’s key to successful leaders.”

Part of being a leader who practices gratitude is recognizing you’re not the smartest person in the room, Burgum said.

“There’s an expectation that as a leader, you’ve got to be seen as someone who is smarter than everyone else,” he said. “I think that constrains their ability to be grateful. Because if I’m thanking people all the time for the great job they’re doing, that might show weakness in myself or seem like they know more than I do.”

This is arrogance, Burgum said, which is something they distinctly avoid when investing with Arthur Ventures. But the antidote for arrogance is humility, he said. By practicing gratitude, one is able to maintain a humble attitude that will ultimately lead to being a better leader, Burgum said.

3. Gratitude is a powerful economic force.

Not only does gratitude fuel more happiness, but it also often yields economic benefits for your company, Burgum said.

“There’s a big correlation between customer satisfaction and employee/team member satisfaction,” he said. “And that is often driven by how appreciated they feel by the entity they are working for. It again starts with leadership, and starts with driving that positive spiral.”

This goes back to the idea of institutionalizing gratitude, he said. Burgum has built this into his companies by creating company-wide events centered around thanking others, as well as peer-to-peer nominations for employee awards.

During the years at Great Plains Software, they brought this model into the relationships with vendors. By treating vendors as “vendor-partners,” they were able to both focus on a model of growth rather than spend time badgering for lower prices, he said.

“We just flipped the whole model around and had a vendor appreciation day,” he said. “We invited everybody in, from Delta Airlines to UPS to FedEx to people who were printing our manuals, our discs, our media – everybody.”

By operating from a position of gratitude and mutual growth, they were able to save time and create a more positive relationship, he said.

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Another example is the give-back model seen in many companies today. While some might argue that a businesses job is to make money for shareholders, engaging in philanthropy is actually appealing to customers who are increasingly looking for “companies with a conscience,” Burgum said.

Whether you show gratitude by giving back through constructs like the 1% pledge (giving 1% of your company money/product away) or internally through sending a few thank you notes, Burgum stressed that practicing gratitude is a wise economic decision.

“You have to take the time to invest in these award and recognition programs,” Burgum said. “As Gladys Stern said, ‘Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.'”

Final challenge.

When he does talk about gratitude, Burgum said he always closes with a challenge: Write down three things you are a grateful for. And then, act on it.

“Write that letter,” he said. “You had that thought in your head, but write that letter to someone who helped you out years ago.”

In fact, Burgum encourages people to do this every night. It’s something he asked his kids to do each night, and it’s a tried and true method for increasing happiness.

“Call it your daily gratitude list, and write three things you’re grateful for. It helps set you up for the next day,” he said. “There’s a lot of material things that don’t drive the happiness scale. Turns out gratitude is something that does.”

 

Feature photo courtesy of Arthur Ventures.

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Marisa Jackels