Sheldon Yellen, CEO of Belfor, an international disaster recovery and property restoration company, is perhaps most well known as being featured on the hit CBS show “Undercover Boss.” In an emotional scene of the show, Yellen “reveals himself” before the show’s end — a move that Yellen admits almost meant the show wasn’t going to air. But it did air and has been one of the most popular episodes in the show’s history. Part of that is thanks to Yellen, himself, a likable and genuine boss who really does want to make a difference for his employees. Yellen attributes his own success in growing the business to the billion-dollar company that it is today to his people.
When Yellen first joined Belfor — his brother-in-law’s company at the time — in 1984, it was producing $5 million a year. In his second year, Yellen alone sold $5 million, doubling the business. But it was with Hurricane Hugo in 1989 when Yellen got his big break. His brother-in-law had sent him to South Carolina where he was able to get $17 million in work signed up. He stayed there for the next year-and-a-half, overseeing its completion. And from there, Belfor grew – and grew. Today, as CEO, Yellen says the company is doing $1.5 billion. Having dropped out of high school (he later went back and obtained his diploma in 2011), Yellen says there are many days he has to “pinch himself” when he realizes how far he’s come. But he says it’s no magic how he got here. It’s all been about surrounding himself with good people. It’s come down to hiring good employees and treating them right.
Yellen, whose first-ever job was in the landscape profession, shares what he thinks it means to put his people first, and how that can make a difference in a company’s ultimate success.
Empower your people
When you hire people, you can classify them as a laborer — or even just the guy that cuts the lawn — or you can choose to empower that person. You can help that person take extra pride in what they do by taking their role more seriously. That can make all the difference. You want your people to look at their roles as more than just jobs. These are careers. They have to understand that you’re giving them opportunities to grow in positions and in an industry. Your goal is to help each person progress. A person may start out on a crew, but his or her goal should be crew leader. If he or she is already a leader, the next step for them should be manager. Your people need to know that you want them to grow. You can demonstrate that you really mean that by promoting from within.
Make them feel special
Make someone feel empowered and special the first minute you can. I fly around attending employees’ events that matter to them and their families. Early on, I started handwriting birthday cards to my employees on their birthdays as something small to build relationships. We now have 7,400 employees, and I still handwrite 7,400 cards. I think it helps people feel recognized and important. I call that “stickiness” because it’s something that sticks with them. I once walked into one of our 350-plus offices and one of my employees brings me into his office to show me something. He had 14 years worth of my birthday cards hanging on his wall. Your people really do pay attention to what you do.
Give them respect
Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I think about the fact that we are doing $1.5 billion a year. How did that happen? It happened because of our people. One thing I’ve hung on to is the fact that every person I come into contact with should be given the respect that I wished I’d have gotten. I didn’t graduate high school, but all I wanted to be shown early on in my career is a little respect. I wanted to be shown that I mattered. I wanted someone to take an interest in me. I was lucky enough to grow this business, so every time I brought on new people, I would go out of my way to let them know they’re important to me and that I respect them.
Get to know them
I challenge you to really get to know your people. Take the time out to do that. Take them out for pizza and don’t spend time talking about yourself while you’re there. They know all about you. You’re the boss. They’ve studied you. Let them tell you their stories. Do things to encourage people to be together outside of work.
You should know who you’re recruiting, too. It’s been a real challenge but even today I will not allow a manager to be hired without me sitting face-to-face with that person first. I will fly to London to meet a new manager we’re hiring because I want to look that person in their eyes and see what’s in their heart. I don’t believe you can hire wrong and still have a flourishing company. You have to have good hires and find good people. I’ve never read a resume. I only recently obtained my high school diploma, so I don’t care about a resume. I want to see someone and feel their heart. Then they can be hired. When I meet someone for the first time, I say, “Tell me your story.”
Don’t let conflicts fester
If there is an employee conflict, I immediately address it and bring the people together. Let’s start from the fact that we’re all here just a short while on this earth. We’re all trying to get through life the best that we can. Do you want to go through it by fighting the entire time? If you get wind of an employee conflict, you must find a way to make it work. Do not ignore employee conflict issues as they will only get worse. They must be addressed right away. Ignoring an employee conflict will only lead to a negative culture within your company. Do something about it.
Make them No. 1
I don’t spend a lot of time with our customers. In fact, I’ve been accused of being on the “anti-sales committee” since it’s my belief that customers come No. 2; your people come first. You hear people say all the time that the customer is No. 1, but I don’t believe that to be true. I believe that the amazing people I get to work with — who work with me, not for me — are No. 1. I believe that if we take care of our people, our people will take care of our customers. You must put your people first.