I recently received an email from a woman who had worked for me almost 15 years ago. Hearing from a past employee was already motivating. But it was the picture of a rock she had attached to the email that really put an ear-to-ear smile on my face.

I had given her that stone in a meeting years earlier. In those days, I managed a relatively large branch program and was fond of telling people "you rock" when they shared a branch success story or reported exceptional results. After I noticed just how much I was saying those two words at one particular meeting, I had an idea that I hoped would motivate branch staff.

On my way home that day, I bought a large bag of river stones at a garden supply store. At my dining room table I then wrote a large "U" on one side of each rock in magic marker, and signed my name on the other. At the next manager meeting, after one of our top monthly performers finished giving his results, I grabbed a "U Rock" out of the bag and slid it down the table to him without saying a word.

The cost of that personal gesture was next to nothing. I didn't even turn in the receipt for a reimbursement on the bag of rocks. But I found that the symbol of acknowledging a team member's contribution paid dividends.

When it comes to recognition, monetary incentive plans are vital. Your best employees will become someone else's employees if they aren't competitively compensated. I have found, however, that some banks fail to get as much excitement and impact as they should for the money spent on recognition programs.

Even relatively small-dollar expenditures can create a big impact when management becomes personally involved in a gesture. A senior manager taking small groups of top performers to lunch or dinner creates connections and long-lasting memories. Tapping top managers to attend a high-level management meeting to share successful strategies typically motivates and educates all involved.

Simply picking up the phone during a management meeting to call a top performer and acknowledge him or her in real time — on speakerphone — in front of the management team will make an impression like few things can. I once found out that an employee in a branch was moved to tears after the managers in our meeting gave her a round of applause via telephone.

After I handed out that first "U-Rock", it started a buzz. Twenty or so managers in the meeting began badgering me about whether or not they would get their own rocks. I realized the silly stunt was working.

When I got to my next meeting in another region a few days later, several branch managers approached me to ask if I was giving out U-Rocks that day. It took on a life of its own. Managers began lobbying for their teams to be recognized. Some even asked if it was okay for them to give their rocks to their best employees since it was really those individuals who deserved the recognition. The U-Rock theme lasted about three months. It wasn't intended to be a new permanent pillar of the bank's incentive program. Eventually, I left that bank and returned to the consulting and training world.

Then five years later a former employee approached me during a break at a seminar I was conducting in Houston. Before I could say anything, she told me she had been one of my branch managers many years ago. As I shook her hand and asked how she was doing, she said, "You know, I still have my rock."

"It's still in my top drawer," she said. "When I'm having a bad day, I take it out and put it on my desk to remind me that … sometimes … I rock." She added that another former manager had kept her rock, too.

I have no doubt that if I had offered those individuals a choice between a $100 bill and a U-Rock to acknowledge their performance, every single one of them would have taken the money. But I seriously doubt they would have remembered it a year later, let alone five or 15 years later.

When I share that story and idea with managers, I joke that I'm not suggesting they scrap their incentive plans and turn employees into a bunch of Charlie Browns with bags full of rocks.

That said, a senior manager telephoning or emailing a front-line employee costs nothing, and the impact can be incredible. Personal gestures resonate.

Increase your efforts of personally calling out your team members who do the big and small things that help your organization succeed, and make sure your supervisors are aware of the contributions of the people who work for you. You will increase the likelihood that they will stay motivated and continue to be the rocks of your own institution.

Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief development officer at Financial Supermarkets Inc. He can be reached at dmartin@supermarketbank.com and on Twitter at @instorebank.