What Does a Compassionate CEO Look Like? BELFOR's Sheldon Yellen Weighs In

About six months ago, I wrote a column about how you can never be too busy to be nice to people. To my surprise it’s been my most widely shared piece on social media to date. A few people wrote me to echo that the kindest people they’ve worked for have also been the most demanding. Compassion and kindness are not incompatible with managerial effectiveness, no matter what you hear to the contrary. Some people may seem incapable of balancing the two, and they’re worse off for it.

Not long after I published my interview with Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Fans, I got another opportunity to talk to an unconventional CEO. This time it was Sheldon Yellen of BELFOR Property Restoration who sat in the interview chair. Some readers might remember Sheldon from his appearance on CBS’s Undercover Boss. What you see in the episode is what you get when you talk to him in real life: humble yet confident.

Two things in particular stood out to me after talking to Sheldon. First, you can be ruthlessly efficient without being a ruthless person. And second, the conversation reaffirmed how important it is to enjoy what you do. Sheldon and his team have built a multi-billion dollar industry leader on the premise that people are the most efficient and effective when they love what they do and care about why they do it. I wanted to understand more about how someone could be so focused on efficiency as a manager and at the same time connect emotionally with their people (Sheldon hand-writes over 7,000 birthday cards every year). Here’s what he had to say:

[Note: If you'd like to recommend a CEO or other leader for this interview series, send a brief note to christian@smartlikehow.com]


You’ve got what some might consider to be an unusual first interview approach. Can you tell me about that?

The first thing I should tell you is that I have never read a résumé in my life, not one. What I like is talking to people. If we were sitting down, the first thing I’d do is try to make you as comfortable as can be and then say, “Christian, you’ve got six minutes. Tell me your story.” My hope is that you start your story with “I’m one of four boys…” or “I grew up in Maryland…” or something personal. If you start with, “Well I graduated from the University of Michigan and I have a B.A. in this and I know how to do that…” I’ll interrupt them and ask again for their real story, and hope they move into their personal life.

Why do you lead off with this?

I care about this test because at BELFOR, we’re usually meeting people on one of the worst days of their lives. They’ve had a fire in their home, or there’s been a flood, or they’ve lost their business or, God forbid, a loved one. I always say that we have an opportunity to do something great for someone on their worst day. We have to put terrific people out there front and center; people with compassion and who have a heart and care. That empathy and caring comes from your personal story -- how you grew up, what you learned, who you care about in your life and so on. And yeah, school and looking for opportunity is a part of that story, and so is what you want out of life. Hearing all of it tells me whether someone is going to fit into our culture; that’s why it’s so important to me.

Does that differ for the people on the front lines versus those who might never meet a customer? I’m wondering how you can draw a line from the way they tell their story to how effective they will be in their role.

Actually, whether I’m talking to a painter, carpenter, administrative assistant or a potential manager, it makes no difference to me. Number one, we have to preserve our culture. We fought hard to build a family culture over the last thirty-two years. Now that we have 7,800 employees in thirty-three countries, I’m even more focused on protecting that culture so that all of those people can thrive within it.

Here’s the thing -- to fit within our culture, you have got to have compassion. You’ve got to care about people. We all have to care about each other. I’ve heard my whole life that “the customer’s first,” but for me that’s not true. Our people are number one to me, and my job is to look after them. And they need to embrace the concept that their job is to look after their fellow employees as well. That’s the only way that we are going to do our best work taking care of our clients.

I tell our people when they’re evaluating someone as a potential hire to ask themselves whether they would want to bring that person into their home for dinner. In short, would you want them to sit at your table for dinner with your husband or wife and your kids? If so, that’s the kind of person we want in the BELFOR family. I really believe that. We’re looking for the folks who can embrace each other and go out and make a positive difference in other peoples’ lives.

So, how did you arrive at this management philosophy? Is it something you’ve arrived at over time?

Like a lot of things, it goes back to my childhood. I’m the oldest of four boys and I grew up on the streets in Detroit. And I really mean “the streets” – single mom, raised on welfare, a lot of experiences that you would never want for your kids. My mom beat respect into us at an early age; respect your elders, respect people, respect each other. I also had an interesting experience as a kid: I got a job as a towel boy at a nice health club in the suburbs. It allowed me to study how affluent people behaved, and I could see that they conducted themselves in a different manner than what I was used to on the streets. Above all, I saw how they respected each other. So I embraced this way of behavior as a way out of the rough life I had.

Since then, I’ve always gone out of my way to be polite and nice to people, and it’s taken me far. I tell our people that if you can make someone else smile every day, you’re going to build your own brand. I tell them to not be shy about telling someone, anyone you see, when they’re doing something great and making the world a better place. Give ‘em your card when you do and they’ll show it to twenty people. That’s the culture I want in our company, and that’s why I insist on it for every person we hire.

Switching gears, you’re known for working seven days a week and being the first in and last out of the office every day of the year. What is it that you expect your employees to take away from that, and how is that pace sustainable for you?

It goes back again to growing up poor. When I was being paid hourly the only way to make money was to work more hours. Later, when I got into the restoration industry and joined this company, there were nineteen other employees and the business was owned by my two brothers-in-law. Everyone thought I was a charity case, and so I earned their respect by showing up at quarter to six every morning, and being the last person out every day. Eventually, I started to earn their respect and never looked back. I’ve always strived to outwork the competition.

I’ll say this though: it’s not about how many hours you work. Productivity and efficiency are incredibly important to me. Time is the enemy, but time used properly is the greatest asset you have. I don’t allow cell phones in meetings; we keep meetings on track and on point. I have this sign on my desk facing out that says “I have this innate ability to understand something the first time. Don’t repeat yourself.” Everything we do here centers on efficiency, and I lead by example. My managers know that if I call during Sunday dinner or when they’re about to go out on Saturday night, it’s because I’m at my desk (I don’t have a smart phone) and I need to talk to them about something important. I live by the mantra “Do it now, delegate it, or dump it,” and I know they’ve embraced that too.

And you find that to be sustainable for the organization as a whole?

Well, I can say this: we’ve bought eighty-two of our competitors out over the years. I’ve looked at the P&Ls for over three hundred of our competitors. Our average revenue per employee at BELFOR is over four times higher than that of any other company in the industry, and sometimes much higher. That’s been a sustained difference between us and just about everyone else, so it’s not like we’re burning out and unable to keep up the pace. We’ve created a culture around these principles, and it works for us. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish with good, committed, people who deeply respect each other’s time. It really is.

Last question: How do you balance a relentless drive for efficiency with your desire to connect with people emotionally? I feel like I understand you much more now that you’ve told me a bit about your childhood, but it also probably wasn’t the fastest way for you to answer my question. Aren’t those two things kind of contradictory?

I don’t think so. You know, not too long ago I had a manager who was underperforming and knew they were in the hot seat. This manager sent me a pre-emptive e-mail with a list of excuses as to why the division was underperforming, nearly all of which didn’t hold water. I told this person that I didn’t buy what they were selling me, but that wasn’t the big issue. I asked if they remembered what I did when they were hired. The manager remembered, of course, because instead of a handshake, I hugged the person and told them they were the right person for the job. So then I said, “You were the right person for the job then, and you’re still the right person for the job. But I need you to buy in today to what you bought into all those years ago, because something’s happened to you. I apologize for not seeing this problem sooner, but I know you can do better than this because you’ve done it before. I need to know what’s bugging you so I can help.” It turns out this person had been dealing in secret with some difficult personal issues, and I promised to be there in the next two weeks because I want to give this person another hug.

That whole conversation, tears and all, took about seven minutes. And I promise you, this person feels the weight of the world off their shoulders and is going to meet their goals. Not only that, the team under this manager is going to be treated better, and our customers are going to be treated better than ever.