Melissa Miller of Gratitude Investors: “A good company is profitable, has room for growth, and is expanding”

A good company is profitable, has room for growth, and is expanding. It has a well-thought-out business plan. The potential for greatness is there. A great organization achieves excellence in three areas — people, product, and purpose. It possesses exceptional leadership, engaged employees, and a fantastic work culture. Great businesses attract top talent and encourage innovation. They […]

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A good company is profitable, has room for growth, and is expanding. It has a well-thought-out business plan. The potential for greatness is there. A great organization achieves excellence in three areas — people, product, and purpose. It possesses exceptional leadership, engaged employees, and a fantastic work culture. Great businesses attract top talent and encourage innovation. They focus on what they can be the best at and simplify processes. Employees share a strong passion for the company and have bought into the purpose — they “run it as if they own it.”

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Miller.

Melissa Miller is the owner of Gratitude Investors, a business focused on increasing engagement and happiness for individuals and companies through gratitude-based appreciation programs. They use science-based research and positive psychology to increase employee retention, productivity, and performance for leaders and corporations. Melissa’s educational background makes her uniquely qualified to work with companies that want to take their recognition programs to the next level and attract top talent. Melissa holds B.A. degrees in Economics and Psychology from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Growing up on a family farm in Danville, Kentucky, I was blessed to have a close-knit family. We loved sports and gathered at my grandparents’ house every Sunday for lunch. I had uncles who loved playing practical jokes and aunts who were incredible inspirations. I learned everything from the rules of football to my love of books from my family. The women in my family all had wonderful traits, and I like to think I took a little from each of them. My Aunt Susan was like an older sister to me before becoming an amazingly successful businesswoman and entrepreneur. Aunt Pam is a psychologist who brought fresh ways of parenting and navigating relationships into our family. A few years ago, the three of us created The 180° Letters, a letter-writing kit to make sharing gratitude simple. I loved working in appreciation and was drawn to the business sector from my professional life and education. Helping companies foster happy, fulfilled individuals is my company’s mission. I would not be involved in this industry or have the confidence to build a business without my family.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I approached starting a business in the same way as I do most things in life. I am a “doer,” love a good task list, and when you give me a challenge, I will try everything in my power to find the solution. It was important that I surrounded myself with positive messages and knowledge to motivate me. The hours that I spent reading, listening to business coaching, and self-work were countless. I also learned to limit the negativity that I invited in. If I didn’t think someone would be supportive, I made the conscious choice not to discuss the business with them. It was not that I didn’t want to hear from people that disagreed with what I was doing, but I knew there was a time and place to take in their criticism. When you are doing the hard work of starting something new, you can’t let the people with negativity plant doubts in your head. I kept pushing forward and tackling each day in chunks. The intrinsic motivation to create my future, and the freedom that comes as a result, sustain my drive.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

The devil is in the details. And my geography skills are abysmal. I have verified both of these statements to be true. One snowy winter, I was booking a private plane for a client to fly to islands south of Florida. I called the aviation company, gave the name of the destination town, and booked the flight. The day before takeoff, I was going over the itinerary and noticed a Mountain Time Zone reference. When I called the company to clarify the seemingly impossible fact that the Caribbean is actually in the Mountain Time Zone, they explained the plane was set to fly to South Dakota. There is apparently a shared name between a town in South Dakota and the islands. Who knew? I could not stop imagining the nuclear bomb my life if I hadn’t caught that mistake. I could envision this group of people deplaning in shorts, flip flops, and cover-ups into twelve feet of snow. And the blowback that would result from my error. Now when I get swept up in moving quickly, I try to remember to slow down and go back over the details.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Gratitude Investors implements employee appreciation programs based on gratitude. I think the power of gratitude surprises people who are stepping into it for the first time. Their stories of how gratitude is changing things in their lives are heartwarming, and you can often hear a sense of wonder in their voices. Almost like “I didn’t expect this, but…”. Gratitude and appreciation are catalysts for changing work cultures and how we show up in our professional lives.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

A common misconception of burnout implies someone is simply overworked. The definition of burnout by Herbert Freudenberger is a little more revealing. Burnout is “a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.” Yes, burnout can mean you are working too much, but it also has a component of disillusionment at its core. Burnout typically strikes people who are highly committed to their work. And yet, you feel like your work doesn’t make a difference or have meaning. Fantasies about quitting run through your head every day. Other symptoms include dread of going to work, trouble sleeping, aches and pains, and experiencing low energy levels. How can you find joy again? Focus on addressing the disenchantment with your work. There are things you can do to create more time for rest. Unplug, even if just for a few hours. Don’t check email. Block time for you like you would a meeting. Look for ways to delegate what drains you. To truly thrive, dig deeper into finding meaning in your work again.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My Aunt Susan was like an older sister to me before becoming a super successful businesswoman and entrepreneur. She is the most enthusiastic cheerleader you could hope for — with a hefty dose of smarts and good sense. Susan actually led me to this career path in many ways. She helped to influence and shape the woman I am today. Susan lives life with gratitude at the core, and it rubs off on everyone around her. She also created The 180° Letters that launched me on this path. I would not be involved in this industry or have the confidence to build a business without her.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

A good company is profitable, has room for growth, and is expanding. It has a well-thought-out business plan. The potential for greatness is there. A great organization achieves excellence in three areas — people, product, and purpose. It possesses exceptional leadership, engaged employees, and a fantastic work culture. Great businesses attract top talent and encourage innovation. They focus on what they can be the best at and simplify processes. Employees share a strong passion for the company and have bought into the purpose — they “run it as if they own it.”

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

There are lots of good companies who deliver what they promise. They check off all the boxes for customer service, quality of work, and follow-through. Despite that, good companies will continually lag behind great companies because becoming exceptional requires innovation and creativity. Those qualities are generated by engaged leaders and employees, which too many companies lack. How do you create engagement for success?

  1. Appreciate your assets. We all want to know we are seen, valued, and liked. Our primary need as humans, after safety, is to feel appreciated. It confirms for people that what they do is meaningful. What is the difference between recognition and appreciation? Recognition is about what people do, and appreciation is about who they are. Great leaders recognize this and build a culture of trust and respect. Employees know they are valued and vital to the company’s success. Leaders communicate their gratitude to workers. Workers are given the opportunity to learn and grow professionally. When great companies have an engaged, happier workforce, the results are seen in the bottom line. According to researcher Shawn Achor, a decade of research shows employee happiness raises nearly every business outcome. Companies see their sales increase by 37%, productivity jumps 31%, and accuracy by 19%, as well as a myriad of health and quality of life improvements.
  2. Pursue your purpose. Companies that identify their purpose and simplify it into a single, organizing idea have the chance to build a loyal following. People can get behind a mission that unifies and guides all decisions. One philosophy is that it’s better to recognize who you are as a company than where you are going because your destination will likely change. A great comparison is found with Apple versus Microsoft. Apple’s manifesto in 2009 was specified as “We believe we are on the face of the earth to make great products and that’s not changing.” Microsoft’s original purpose, which has since been modified, was “A computer on every desk and in every home.” Which company has room for growth and expansion into multiple product lines? Creates an emotional reaction? Atomik Research found 85% of the happiest workers identify with their company’s mission. 80% of employees feel more engaged and confident in the workplace when their work is consistent with the company’s values and mission (IBM). Make sure your company has a clear, powerful purpose statement that is shared frequently with employees.
  3. Clarify goals. Great companies are strategic and laser-focused toward their objective. There is a clear understanding of everyone’s role in the company and what they are working toward. Teams have short and long-term goals broken into weekly, monthly, and quarterly targets. To quickly assess and pivot, great companies use frequent feedback to communicate progress. It connects actions to goals and can prevent huge setbacks when given promptly.
  4. Practice change. Fear, anxiety, and discomfort frequently surround change. Yet, we know the best companies must constantly adapt to stay ahead. Great companies “rehearse” change by doing it frequently, even when all cylinders are firing. Most organizations wait too long to make adjustments because everything appears to be working. Then when a crisis hits, they are forced into change, kicking and screaming. Instead, great companies regularly induce and normalize change instead of waiting for it to happen to them. Change becomes not something to be feared but an opportunity to grow.
  5. Encourage risk-taking. Innovation requires taking risks which also opens the door for the potential to fail. How great companies encourage and respond to these missteps is crucial. Instead of punishing failure, they celebrate employees who dare to think differently. They praise the intentions and thinking behind the idea and encourage more of it. They talk about the failures company-wide so everyone can learn from them. Advertising company Grey presents a monthly “Heroic Failure” award to workers who take ambitious risks and fail. Embracing failure changes the company culture from one of shame to appreciation. Calculated risk-taking pushes boundaries and changes how we do things.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Cut through the noise and provide laser focus by asking your leadership and workers, “What are we fighting for?”. Why does your company exist? Purpose is bigger than your mission statement. At a basic level, purpose expresses what your company aspires to be and do. More advanced levels of purpose demonstrate how an organization intends to evolve and transform itself.

As we become increasingly connected through the internet, consumers are now aware of the purpose behind your brand. Social media marketing has played a significant role in boosting awareness and encourages public engagement with your company. Love Your Melon knitted hat company is an excellent example of a business that has created a loyal following through its social branding. The company was founded with the aspiration to brighten the day of children battling cancer by providing them with stylish, fun hats to wear during chemotherapy. Every hat purchased sends 50% of the profits to organizations fighting pediatric cancer. If you take a look at its social media, it expresses its story incredibly well across all channels. Its purpose is evident and is the focus of the business. As a result, it doesn’t matter what new hat it launches; people are committed to the objective and support them.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Imagine going to the doctor with a list of ailments and her addressing only one of them while ignoring all your other concerns. All businesses will hit “inflection points” where an event results in a momentous change in the company’s progress. It will likely happen more than once, and businesses must respond to the disruptive change or face the consequences. When companies reach a standstill, treat the entire system and not just the individual symptoms. Examine your business model, your finances, and your employees. For the sake of this question, let’s focus on how your employees can slow or boost your growth. Complacency sneaks in even at great companies. On average, Gallup has found 50% of your employees are disengaged, and 14% are actively disengaged. Employees that aren’t engaged do exactly what is asked of them and nothing more. They stop learning and pursuing growth possibilities. They become apathetic and cut corners. Complacent workers don’t take the initiative and will wait to be told what to do. If you see these characteristics when you look at your workforce, complacency may be slamming the brakes on your growth. Invest in engagement by implementing an employee appreciation program that changes your company culture.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

To grow in a challenging economy, you need all aspects of your business running well. Employees need to be engaged and loyal to your purpose. This is vital for them to do their best work and move the company forward. I realize I keep going back to employee engagement, but it is imperative to running a successful business. As I mentioned previously, studies by Gallup have found, on average, 64% of your workforce is not engaged. Imagine a crew team of eight people where only two people actively row the boat. That team will have less efficiency, productivity, and agility. The outcome will be far different than if the whole crew pulled their weight. It is not an exaggeration when we say employees are your greatest asset. Engaged employees will show up and find new solutions for generating business. They create 20% more sales, 18% more productivity, and 12% higher customer ratings (Gallup). They will invest themselves in getting your company through challenging times.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Companies are clearly in the business to make money. With a heavy emphasis on the bottom line, some leaders believe that profit and financial success will generate a great culture. Yet, much more goes into creating a work culture that produces engaged employees and revenue. Labor is a company’s biggest investment, but many leaders focus on KPIs and not their employees. They underestimate the importance of their workers’ satisfaction and work culture. Organizations recognized in the top 25% of employee experience report almost 3x the return on assets and 2x the return on sales compared to businesses deficient in employee experience. Great companies’ first priority is their people, and success follows from there.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Just like your company needs a purpose and goals, your website does as well. What is the primary action you want people to take on your site? Envision specific steps you want them to do: sign-up, call you, order something, or click on a button. Now evaluate your website. Are your headlines and page layout driving them to that action? What is your offer, and how enticing is it? What is your value proposition? Customers need to know why they should buy from you. Strengthen your value proposition by differentiating it from competitors’ offers and showing why your product is unique. Give people ways to ease into purchasing your item by building trust in your brand, offering advice, and providing clear reasons why they should buy from you. Finally, overcome potential objections by crafting a list of possible friction points and then addressing each one on your site.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

My grandparents were married for over fifty years. Building a trusted brand is a lot like creating a marriage that goes the distance, with some marketing sprinkled in. They share the same ideals. Begin by being authentic and super clear while defining your purpose. Consumers are savvy and will see right through you. Always tell the truth. Use clear communication to answer all the questions. Be responsive and timely on social media. It only takes one public relations disaster to ruin all your hard work. In 2017, a video of a 69-year-old man being drug off an overbooked United Airlines flight went viral and unleashed a PR catastrophe. In those moments, it is how companies handle themselves that makes all the difference. United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, failed and added fuel to the fire by issuing an initial lacking response. When you hit a rough patch, be transparent and own your mistakes. The best approach is to be open about your strengths and weaknesses and what you are doing to address them.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Envision you are on a Delta flight that has been rerouted to avoid storms, and you will likely miss your connection. When you land, a Porsche SUV pulls up to your plane, and the flight attendant tells you the car will shuttle you to your next gate. That’s a Wow! customer experience that exceeds expectations. It’s the type of event that you tell your friends about. Great companies empower their employees to anticipate customers’ needs and satisfy them. Herve Humler, the co-founder of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, which built intense brand loyalty by focusing on the customer experience, said that the company’s employees “have total power, and all the resources of our organization, to create these moments, these stories, on their own, without needing to ask permission, without needing to involve management, without needing to worry that they’re going too far.” You don’t have to be a million-dollar corporation to create Wow! moments. Those handwritten notes you frequently get with Etsy purchases expressing gratitude for your patronage develop connection and brand loyalty. Give employees the agency to create the type of customer service experience they would like to receive.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Our digital world makes both wins and failures glaringly obvious. This can impact a company’s shareholder value and reputation. There are two main ways it can play out. Imagine your organization experiences a crisis like when hackers posted messages on McDonald’s Twitter account criticizing the president in 2017. How will your company fare a few months down the road? Social media amplifies what happens to your company in the year after an event. If you’ve come through the crisis successfully, social media helps your company gain 20% in value, according to an analysis by Aon/Pentland. On the other hand, if your company handled the situation poorly, social media could increase your losses by up to 30%. This is compared to the 15% loss companies experienced in 2000 before social media was prevalent. Organizations are right to be concerned, but there are ways to mitigate your risk. Conversations should be had within your business to create policies for social media and operating models for crisis management. Train employees on how to use social media responsibly. If you find yourself in a PR disaster, control the narrative and respond immediately to the public with transparent answers. Decisive action to address the problem is better than indecision.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

You’re passionate and excited about your product — that’s why you’re starting your company. Too often, people are so enthusiastic about their idea that they jump in without a solid business plan, market research, or strategy. There is a less sexy side to running a business, depending on what your strengths are. I hate Quickbooks. I can’t pretend I don’t and I will never get excited to do accounting work. Meeting with attorneys and reviewing legal documents isn’t what I call a good time either. For other people, this is exactly what they love doing and fuels them. I believe, by recognizing your strengths and hiring for your weaknesses, you can successfully navigate launching a company.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One-third of our lives are spent working. Shouldn’t we enjoy it? An outdated model of thinking is unprofessional to bring gratitude or compassion into the workplace. However, studies show appreciation and gratitude are vital to creating the very type of workplace environments people actually want to work in. One of our most fundamental needs as humans is to feel appreciated. Leaders and companies who understand this principle, and practice gratitude, create productive, engaged employees. I would love to see a corporate mentality where leaders implement this approach in all phases of work-life from the hiring process until retirement.

How can our readers further follow you online?

We would love for you to stop by and learn more about our gratitude-based employee appreciation programs. Catch up on daily information regarding gratitude in the workplace on Facebook and Instagram at @Gratitudeinvestor or LinkedIn at You can also find daily inspiration on all things related to gratitude @180degreesgratitude on Instagram.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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