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FRI 2023: Sheldon Yellen shares life lessons from business and philanthropic work

The CEO of BELFOR Holdings urges fire service leaders to be vulnerable, listen to their members, and quit being the “worst salespeople on earth”

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As keynote speaker during the FRI 2023 General Session on Wednesday, Yellen offered several life lessons that he has learned through his years as a businessman and philanthropist.

Sheldon Yellen is a different type of boss. The CEO of BELFOR Holdings, Yellen is known for abandoning traditional business practices in service of the people who work for his companies, including BELFOR Property Restoration. He even appeared on the CBS TV show Undercover Boss – an experience he says better connected him to his employees.

Yellen also shares a unique connection to the fire service, having been mentored by fire chiefs over the decades and operating a property restoration company that responds to humanmade and natural disasters around the world.

As keynote speaker during the Fire-Rescue International 2023 General Session on Wednesday, Yellen offered several life lessons that he has learned through his years as a businessman and philanthropist, often serving alongside first responders.

1. Listen to your people

Yellen urged fire service leaders to take the time to stop and listen to their members to better understand the issues they are facing. “My job is to listen to my people,” he said. “Let people know they matter.”

2. Show kindness

Yellen’s management philosophy is called “All-the-time kindness,” a simple mantra to remind leaders of the importance of compassion, even when it’s hard.

3. Embrace the brotherhood

“I am truly in awe of what is clearly the greatest brotherhood on earth,” Yellen said. “I’m in awe of this mindset” that drives first responders to always give of themselves, running toward danger when others run away.

4. Learn to accept thanks

When thanked by the public for their service, firefighters are known for responding with a simple refrain along the lines of, “No need to thank me; this is my job.” Yellen joked, “You guys make it difficult” to thank them and hopes firefighters see the gratitude others feel for their work.

5. Get aggressive on critical issues

Yellen noted the three priorities of firefighters: 1. Life safety, 2. Incident stabilization and 3. Property conservation, but asks “Where’s 4, 5 and 6?” Considering the myriad issues facing firefighters today – cancer, PTSD, suicide, etc. – Yellen urged action: “I challenge you to step up to these issues in the most aggressive way.”

6. Be vulnerable

It’s important to let your members know you relate to their needs, Yellen said: “I want to ask you to be vulnerable to your people – you’re human, you’re not just the boss.”

7. Inspire the next generation

With the fire service facing a staffing crisis, it’s more important than ever to inspire the next generation to join the ranks. Yellen reminded attendees that the reason they joined the fire service is likely rooted in seeing someone they respected and following in their footsteps – and now it’s time for them to lead by example as well.

8. Learn to sell the fire service

Firefighters are the “worst salespeople on earth,” Yellen said, challenging firefighters to be better about selling the fire service to the community and prospective members.

9. Embrace change

The fire service has been through quite an evolution over the past 150 years – and that’s good, Yellen emphasized. “Look where we’ve come from – who knows where we can go.”

10. Know that you’ve made a difference – and there’s more to go

Yellen noted that no matter the crisis, the common theme is first responders showing up to help. “The whole world was dependent on you,” he said, speaking specifically of the COVID-19 pandemic. “You’ve made a difference and you can continue to make a difference.”

Yellen concluded by sharing a personal story that highlights the fragility of life: “We’re not guaranteed tomorrow. Let’s go make a better world today.”

Janelle Foskett is the editor-in-chief of and, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading execution of special coverage efforts. She also serves as the co-host of FireRescue1’s Better Every Shift podcast. Foskett joined the Lexipol team in 2019 and has nearly 20 years of experience in fire service media and publishing. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and a certificate in technical communications from the University of California, San Diego. Ask questions or submit ideas via email.