How “Undercover Boss” really has changed thinking

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An article posted on Inc.com titled, “Sheldon Yellen: Why I Went on Undercover Boss” follows Sheldon Yellen’s experience when he decided to go undercover to gain more insight on his employees and their everyday work. While many might consider the television show just another reality program aimed at entertaining the masses, Yellen explains in this interview how the adventure actually helped him relate better to his employees.

First the article discusses a little bit about this background, “Sheldon Yellen had an inkling that he was out of touch with his 6,400 employees. After all, as the CEO of Belfor Holdings (No. 4,753 on the 2009 Inc. 5000) a $1 billion diversified building services company based in Birmingham, Michigan, Yellen oversees Belfor Property Restoration, the largest property restoration company in the world with 195 offices in 27 countries.” The next few questions offer details of what Yellen’s new responsibilities became and what he did on the job.

What job positions did you tackle as part of your undercover operation?

I first did demolition, and then I was extracting water and drying out a property. I was asked to crawl under the crawl space of that home to remove installation under the house. My third stop, I was hanging dry wall; and my fourth stop I did soot and smoke removal.

Were the jobs what you expected?

For 53-years-old, it was all difficult for me—physically and mentally, especially being around people that are in a distressed state of mind after a disaster happens—a flood or fire—and they’ve lost everything. The job task itself, people can do and get done. But doing it, while carrying around the burden of everyday life that everyone has and making sure your mindset is right to bring about order to somebody else’s life when your own life may be in chaos—that is a hard task.”

He also explains how this project helped him become more aware of what his employees do everyday, how they think and ultimately how he can be a better CEO because of it.

How important is having a 360-view of your organization?

The closer the top management can be to the people who are doing the heavy lifting every day, the better the organization can be more sustainable. It gives you a real grounded sense of what’s important. And what’s important in an organization, to me, is people. That is your single greatest asset. Employee retention is very important. I think then it breeds a culture of growth from within. You want to see your people succeed and grow as individuals. Our people are promoted from within. We don’t go outside, hire people and put them in positions of authority. Our managers today started out as trade’s people and I think that’s a very healthy culture. And our productivity levels—as we’ve done 80 some acquisitions in this country alone and we’ve looked at the financial statements of over 150 competitors—are four times our competition because our people know that they are a part of something that’s real.

How do you ensure that your managers and executives move forward with your vision?

I spend my time traveling around and meeting with my management team all over the world. I spend an enormous amount of time on the phone. I don’t believe in e-mail. I believe in having a personal touch. I hand write 6,000 birthday cards a year. I probably write an equal number of thank you notes a year. So between my personal handwriting of 12,000 notes and my phone calls—I call my managers on their birthdays, call on anniversaries, I go to weddings, I show up unfortunately to funerals, I make hospital visits—that’s how I stay in touch and communicate with people.

What is the biggest mistake CEOs make in communicating to employees?

Sometimes a CEO will say something that hasn’t been thought through and then takes it upon himself to just renege on what it was that he or she said. And I think that is just a criminal offense. You’ve got to be very careful what you say and you have to know who your audience is, because if you say it, you have to live it.”

To read more about what Yellen got out of this process, click on the link above to see the whole article.

As a manager or anyone with a position that involves supervision, have you experienced what your employees do day-to-day? Do you feel that you can relate, or is there a disconnect? What have you tried to do to help close that gap?

As an employee, do you feel that your manager or supervisor really understands what your day-to-day job entails? Is there a big disconnect where you are employed and if so, have you noticed any efforts to close that gap?

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About Kate Gamble

Known to have her hands in a ton of things at one time - Kate is a confessed news junkie and proud Dean’s List grad. Whether she’s working the PR or HR side of her brain, her computer’s mouse or her Dremel (she makes handcrafted jewelry too!), Kate delivers the energy, commitment, and detail-orientation that are a perfect mix for Alstin.