“As a leader it is important to set an example that although you may be an executive — nothing is permanent.” with Sheldon Yellen and Chaya Weiner

Earn your job, every single day. As a leader it is important to set an example that although you may be an executive — nothing is permanent. To remind myself that I need to earn my job every day, I do not hang any photos, awards or memorabilia on my office walls. When I walk in every […]

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Earn your job, every single day. As a leader it is important to set an example that although you may be an executive — nothing is permanent. To remind myself that I need to earn my job every day, I do not hang any photos, awards or memorabilia on my office walls. When I walk in every morning, I’m reminded that I need to work hard for this job and I can never truly “settle in.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheldon Yellen. Sheldon Yellen has built himself a robust reputation for his unconventional management style. As CEO of BELFOR Holdings, Inc. — a $1.5 billion entity which operates a number of companies including BELFOR Property Restoration, the global leader in damage restoration and recovery services — he carefully watches every penny spent yet doesn’t hesitate to hop on a private plane to visit a sick employee or customer. His rationale? BELFOR is his family. Abandoning traditional business proceedings in order to put more stock in his greatest asset — people — Yellen admits hating meetings, committees, and layers of corporate hierarchy, preferring instead to constantly grow the business in order to expand his family, which today includes over 7,000 men and women in more than 300 offices spanning 22 countries. Yellen received national acclaim for his deeply compassionate management style when he was featured in CBS’ hit series Undercover Boss, a show that provides corporate executives a glimpse into the inner workings of the companies they run. Yellen’s emotional journey through the everyday lives of four employees working on the front lines of his diverse business landed the series’ BELFOR episode an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Reality Program. Widely recognized as a preeminent figure in the restoration industry, Sheldon Yellen has developed an influential following of decision makers who love his unconventional management style. His presentations reflect his management philosophies through his personal journey as a leader and his intense belief in people from all walks of life. Failure is not in his vocabulary.

Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I first began in the restoration business, I was very naive and didn’t know anything about the business whatsoever — I’m talking not even knowing a two by four from a piece of drywall. When I was hired by my brothers-in-laws, their employees perceived me as a guy who just got a job because it was a family-owned company. This could not be further from the truth — but I needed to prove it.

When I started, we were a one office company in Dearborn, Michigan, with just 19 employees generating roughly $5 million in volume. In my own right, I was fairly successful in a lot of small business ventures. I knew that I had what it takes to be successful in this industry — I had a willingness to work hard and my drive was intense.

Still, times were definitely not easy when starting out. None of the crews wanted to work for or with me since I was the in-law. Now, I know there are much harder challenges than being liked, but for me, feeling I wasn’t being taken seriously made me even more determined to succeed in this new venture.

To prove myself, I went to work every single day in a suit and tie. If the first guy got there at 7:00 a.m., the next day I made sure I was there at 6:30 a.m. I quickly became the first one in and the last one out — seven days a week. If I went on a fire loss job at night, I would sleep in my car for two days if necessary, waiting for the crews to show up so no one would get my jobs.

After a while, this extra effort started to pay off. I soon realized that most sales people were making 5 to 10 client calls a day while I was making 25. Many of my colleagues were now seeking me out because they could see I was generating a lot of business and they wanted to make extra money — overtime, weekends, etc. I increased our business by almost 50% in my first year. During the second year, I surpassed their total income and brought in over $6 million through my own efforts.

Having earned the respect of the team, my career — and life — took a turn in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo, one of the country’s worst ever, ravaged the Southeast. I convinced my bosses to let me go down to South Carolina to help the community that was impacted by the storms and at the same time, expand our business. They thought I was nuts but shortly after, my wife Iris (pregnant with our first son at the time) and I picked up everything and moved across the country to South Carolina.

Hurricane Hugo was a major catalyst in our company’s history and there are many more tales and harrowing stories about that time to be told. Looking back, it is hard to believe that once an outcast in a small office in Dearborn, Michigan, today I’m the proud leader of world’s largest property and restoration company with more than 8,000 team members — and I couldn’t be more proud.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Working as a leader in this industry for more than 30 years, I have been onsite for hundreds of manmade and natural disasters. It’s hard for me to pinpoint one exact story in the shuffle of it all, but one common theme I continuously take away from these experiences has been appreciation for our country’s first responders. Working alongside such brave men and women every single day has been an absolute privilege and has shaped me into the leader I am today.

There is absolutely no way I can narrow it down to ONE experience — no way! I’m truly honored to witness such heroic acts of the human spirit every, single day, around the world, 24/7/365! It’s not about one story, it’s about the sum total, global impact of these heroic men and women who put their own lives and needs on the line to help (often times) complete strangers. There are quiet moments, such as when a family who lost their home in a fire are standing on their lawn looking at their memories go up in smoke and watching a firefighter hand a little girl a teddy bear and then there are scenes where you’re standing in front of a pile of rubble after a tornado just devastated a town, and the first responders get to work, stick by stick. Those are images that I will always remember. Whether it’s a large-scale disaster that impacts an entire country or an isolated-incident in someone’s home; their stories and emotions are inspirational and I am grateful.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

BELFOR always has a lot of exciting projects in the works — but one we are particularly proud of is the premiere of our very first television show, “HEARTS OF HEROES” on ABC! The show features the untold stories of first responders and local heroes who display true bravery in the aftermath of manmade or Mother Nature’s most destructive events. Every episode highlights first responders who selflessly face catastrophic situations, like hurricanes, tornados and fires — truly showing that not all heroes wear capes.

Not only is this series inspirational but it also educates viewers about the science of extreme weather and how people and communities can properly prepare for disasters. In each episode, our host Ginger Zee, ABC News’ Chief Meteorologist, and I provide insightful tips to better prepare viewers and their families for future disasters. All too often, we are seeing disasters in large and small scales, so it’s up to us to be informed and prepared for the worst. Avoid the “it won’t happen to me” mindset and practice to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. The show airs every Saturday morning on ABC stations nationwide and full episodes can be found on YouTube.

According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I believe people across the country may be lacking a true sense of purpose and seeking immediate gratification, or may feel disconnected from their loved ones due to traveling for work, opposite time schedules, or simply not having enough time in the day to get everything done. My philosophy is that family always comes first, no questions asked. Even though the restoration business requires 24/7 services, I feel that it is my duty to ensure our BELFOR family knows that it is okay to take time to recharge and rejuvenate. Time spent well with loved ones can truly make a difference in people’s happiness.

Additionally, like many other CEOs, I find myself on the road more often than not. As this can certainly put strains on relationships and be a difficult lifestyle to keep up, one thing I personally like to do to stay connected with my family is to set my watch on “home time.” This gives me peace of mind knowing that although I’m far away, I can still be on the same time schedule as everyone back in Michigan feeling like I’m there with them.

It can be easy to get bogged down by ‘problems’ that are too big and ‘solutions’ are too small. If people can start to simplify and break down the ‘problems’ and come up with one or more actionable ‘solutions’ they will start to achieve success one step at a time. That success can only start to snowball — a mentor always told me, “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Happiness is vital for success and it starts with allowing people to take the time for themselves to do what makes them happy. The people at your company are the heart and soul of your business and keeping them satisfied is critical to the bottom line.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

When you do right by your people, your people will do right by your customers. In my experience, I know that if my team members aren’t happy — the business won’t be happy either. Leaders need prioritize the wellbeing of all their workers and foster an engaging corporate culture as much as sales and growth — because without them there wouldn’t be any sales or growth!

Not every day is going to be a positive one — especially in our line of work, since we typically meet people on the worst days of their life. During these moments, I always like to reinforce the importance of caring for your team members during the bad days and helping each other learn and grow from each experience. Encouraging positivity will go a long way for company productivity, profitability and individual’s health and wellbeing.

I also like to remind people that the greatest four-letter word in the dictionary is N-I-C-E. The best part is — it doesn’t cost a thing! Remember, you may never know the kind of day someone is having, but a simple “hello” or gesture, like holding the door open, can have such a positive impact. It’s also important to show gratitude — a simple “thank you” goes miles!

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

As a company continues to grow, it can be easy for managers to forget a few of the basics which create a great work environment and team focused culture. It is important for leaders to take the time to focus on employee engagement, individual needs and work values. Maximizing the time they spend with team members is crucial for progress and as the CEO of BELFOR, I’ve tried to embody the “people come first” approach to leadership.

Below are five ways that a manager can improve his or her company work culture based on personal experiences!

Be approachable. A while back when visiting one of our offices, I found out that one of our technicians was intimidated to formally meet me since I was dressed in a business suit. Knowing that one of my colleagues had this fear did not sit well with me — so I made the decision that day to never wear a suit again.

Being approachable is extremely important for managers — and all co-workers for that matter. People need to feel comfortable sharing their successes and failures with one another to keep everyone informed and business afloat. If people fear you, there will likely be lies or additional issues later on which could be avoided up front. While you should always be viewed as a leader, it’s equally important to also be viewed as teammate.

Also, for the record — jeans and sport jackets are way more comfortable than business suits anyways.

Put yourself in their shoes. As a manager of a company, you should never ask your team members to do a job that you wouldn’t do — a lesson I learned during my time spent on CBS’ Undercover Boss. No CEO is more important than anyone else at the organization and in order to keep business functioning properly, leaders need to understand what it takes to succeed in each role. I am a firm believer that having good company culture starts with learning employee perspectives and knowing the struggles and triumphs of each role.

At BELFOR, we don’t believe titles define who we are and thus we don’t put titles on our business cards — including mine. No one should ever say “that’s not my job.” While working for an organization, team members need to learn to jump in when needed and put aside any limitations job titles may create. Flexibility is key.

Earn your job, every single day. As a leader it is important to set an example that although you may be an executive — nothing is permanent. To remind myself that I need to earn my job every day, I do not hang any photos, awards or memorabilia on my office walls. When I walk in every morning, I’m reminded that I need to work hard for this job and I can never truly “settle in.”

It is important for colleagues to understand this mindset because if they start to get too comfortable within their positions it could lead to slow performance and potential errors. Mangers should be consistently be setting the bar high for themselves and company knowing that they are role models and should be working twice as hard to demonstrate the desired commitment to the company.

Provide visibility. As a manager or top executive, it can be difficult at times to not let your job title and higher rank status take over. It does not matter how big or small your company is, it is key to make sure managers are staying in the loop of what’s happening with employees and their needs. Even though you may enjoy the nice view from your office window, I encourage you to leave your desk every now and then to take the time and visit with your fellow team members, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

Providing executive visibility has a huge impact in positive company morale and people will appreciate face time with executives — especially if there are numerous office locations. Whenever I go to visit one of our 300 offices, I always make sure to go out of my way to greet everyone there with a warm smile and firm handshake. Remember your roots — you likely weren’t born or immediately given a leadership role so remembering your journey and a little humility goes a long way!

Build strong relationships. Making personal connections with colleagues goes way beyond sending texts or emails. Also as an FYI, I don’t “text” because if I have a message to convey, I pick up my flip phone and verbally deliver my message, so there is no misunderstanding in tone and so the recipient can feel and sense my emotion — and then get back to work! Showing appreciation for one another to let your team know you care is a great way to build strong relationships. It may feel difficult at times to personally express your gratitude — especially at larger companies, but it is crucial to develop and foster these relationships as often as possible.

One small way I like to show appreciation for my team members is by taking the time to write personalized birthday cards for them — yes, all 8,000. I feel extremely humbled to have connections with each BELFOR worker as they are truly the best people on Earth! I would never hesitate to visit a sick team member, attend a wedding or funeral or talk to someone who is down. I view my co-workers as my family and would drop anything for them because they deserve the world.

Now, I know my leadership style may be a bit unconventional and not for every manager, but recognizing the importance of good work culture and how to leverage teamwork should be a priority for every leader. Without team comradery it would be nearly impossible for a company to grow and be successful if team members aren’t happy and engaged. My philosophy is simple — if you take care of your people, your team will in turn take care of your customers!

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I truly believe that good leadership can absolutely maintain a strong, positive, feel-good, fun (!) rewarding company culture all while adjusting to the “new normal.” Identify, mentor and build strong leaders and they will make a difference — from the bottom up and from the top down. Also, keep in mind change isn’t easy and it takes time, but if we embrace change, the future is bright.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Most would likely describe my management style as energetic, compassionate and unconventional — but in all honesty, I just try to be myself.

Growing up on welfare I knew that if I wanted to land a good job someday, I’d have to work hard, stay motivated and earn the respect of my fellow colleagues and friends — which is exactly what I look for in my BELFOR teammates. When interviewing prospective workers, I don’t like to read resumes or talk about past job experiences because I want to get to know the person for who they really are — what motivates them, what life experiences they’ve faced, what their dreams are and what human traits they’ll bring to their work. Some may call this interview style a bit eccentric but it’s helped me to hire great people and enjoy getting to know our team members on a personal level.

To this day, we’ve done more than 90 acquisitions but have never closed a deal without me meeting them and shaking their hand and feeling their heart. Our motto is to not bring anyone into the BELFOR Family whom we wouldn’t invite over to Sunday night dinner!

Additionally, I believe that showing emotion is not a sign of weakness…it’s actually a sign of strength. I consider every co-worker — whether a field technician or office associate — a member of our BELFOR family. It is an honor and privilege to lead the best team every day and I like to continuously find unique ways to say thank you, like sending personalized birthday cards, as it’s the least I can do to recognize the people who are representing BELFOR across the world each and every day.

I truly stand on the shoulders of giants and from that vantage point, I gain an unbelievable perspective so we all move together.

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 about that?

I credit much of my success to the life lessons I learned from my mother. There was a lot of love in our home growing up, but very little money. Despite the struggles of being a single mother in Detroit, my mother did an amazing job at teaching us four boys the importance of being accountable for your actions and the value of having structure in your life — even though some of these lessons came at the expense of a little humiliation.

For instance, one evening after a date, I arrived home 15 minutes past my curfew and found myself locked out of the house…by my mother. After pleading with her to let me inside, she still refused. I had broken her rules, and — as we usually learn the hard way — breaking rules has consequences. I was left to sleep in my car that night and quickly learned the importance of obedience and accountability.

Another example came in the seventh grade, when I left for school without my bed made…big mistake. My mother was very stern about her sons cleaning up after themselves, especially the daily task of making our beds. To my surprise, my mother showed up in my classroom and announced to all my classmates that I had to go back home to make my bed and would return once complete.

Despite some embarrassing moments, these early life lesson reinforced the importance of having structure and completing responsibilities. To be honest, I think it’s perfectly normal for every mother to embarrass her children once in a while if it’s for the greater good of helping them grow. I am eternally grateful for my mom for tough love mentality and strict rules — I know for a fact that I would not be in the role I am today without her. Even to this day, I make my bed, even when I’m in a hotel — for fear my Mother is going to show up!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Since most of my world unfortunately revolves around disasters, I try to spend my free time bringing awareness and showing appreciation for all the heroes who assist during the devastating times as often as I can. These brave men and women are literally running into life-threatening situations while everyone else is running out. They save our loved ones, every day and do it with so much humility. I make it my mission no matter where I go to ensure people are thankful for their local first responders — whether police, fire or EMT across the United States.

At BELFOR we love to set up various local first responder and veteran community days and support awareness nights as often as we can. We dedicate specific days annually where every BELFOR office provides a meal to their local first responding agencies to show just a small token of our appreciation. Supporting the members of our country’s first line of defense will always be my passion and life goal. I will never stop bringing awareness to their importance and the goodness THEY bring to the world for all of us. For their service, we are humbled, honored and forever grateful.

As a company, we are fortunate to give back every single day in the communities where we live, work and play. We’ve grown to become part of the community and we share a passion for doing good and giving back. We are fortunate to donate to local and national organizations who truly make the world a better place, and we’re thankful to be able to support their efforts.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do The Right Thing, Even When No One Is Watching” (“DTRT”) is a mantra we promote and encourage at BELFOR and live by each and every day.

As you can imagine, we show up many times in situations where people’s precious belongings and prized valuables are left exposed to the elements. We humbly take pride in inventorying, salvaging what can be saved, and then restoring our customers’ memories.

I also believe everyone has a little HERO in them, and we see Random Acts of Kindness happening constantly. Whether our crews stopping on the side of the road to help change a flat tire or hearing of an office who raised money to help a co-worker’s kid who is sick; when I learn about these stories, I love to handwrite the hero a card to personally thank them for what they did. I hope that they can cherish and remember how that Random Act of Kindness made an impact, and hopefully inspire them to keep doing good.

I am reminded daily of the value of hard work and always Doing The Right Thing — in your career, but more importantly in your everyday actions. This mentality is not always easy — believe me, it can be extremely hard — but being an honorable person behind closed doors is more important to me than any dollar value investment. I can promise that if you follow this mantra in life, it will never guide you wrong.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

If I could inspire a movement, I’d create one to show GRATITUDE for those who make our communities a better place by putting their lives on the line each and every day: first responders and military heroes.

Along with being NICE — it doesn’t cost a thing to show THANKS and GRATITUDE for our brave men and women in uniform. It’s a simple gesture but I honestly believe it’s the absolute least we can do — so I encourage everyone: when you see a first responder or member of the military, reach out and say THANK YOU.

Additionally, something people may not recognize is that there is a stigma around mental health and depression in this industry due to the intense and tragic situations they’re faced with every day. Many men and women may feel the need to bury these feelings of sadness or being scared as it’s not likely talked about in our industry. I want to put an end to this stigma.

It’s okay to feel this way — first responder, veteran or not. Mental health awareness is more important than many may realize and it’s a topic that needs to be brought to everyone’s attention.

I really believe that taking the appropriate steps to not only show gratitude and appreciation but also allow our nation and first responders to feel more accepting of mental health issues is the best way to bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people. I encourage all readers to be that spark and fuel a positive change in the world!

Thank you for all of these great insights!

About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click here to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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