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Getting Out of the Corner Office and Going Undercover: BrightStar’s CEO Talks ‘Undercover Boss’

Say what you will about reality TV: there are quality programs out there that are not only entertaining, but that truly enrich people’s lives. Just ask Shelly Sun, CEO and co-founder of BrightStar Care, one of the nation’s fastest growing private healthcare companies. Last week, Sun, along with her husband, JD, appeared on the CBS hit reality show Undercover Boss, which follows different bosses each week as they go incognito to learn more about the inner workings of their companies.

Asked if she would do it all over again, she doesn’t need to think twice: “Absolutely,” she told me in a recent phone interview, going on to describe the experience as “really impactful.”

Shelly Sun had the itch to go undercover as a boss long before her episode ever aired.  A fan of the show since its premiere in 2010, Sun recalls watching the episode featuring 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto and thinking, “What a great opportunity to really see what goes on the front lines.”

So it’s not surprising that when Undercover Boss producers approached Sun about appearing on the show last year, she jumped at the opportunity.  “It was a no-brainer,” Sun says about her decision to go undercover.  Before Shelly and her husband appeared on the show, “they hadn’t featured a woman, they’d never had a minority…no one who’d ever started actually put their money on the line and risked it all to have a business.” Shelly and her husband started BrightStar Care in 2002 after they couldn’t find quality and reliable home healthcare for her husband’s grandmother.  So she was excited by the opportunity to help make that happen and represent a new face of the CEO.

More than anything, however, Sun was eager to witness and pay tribute to the dedication of her caregivers and hard work of her franchisees.

“I had every confidence in the world that my franchisees were doing a great job and I have the most amazing caregivers in the country. When you believe in your product, you believe in your service, going behind the scenes didn’t seem like a scary adventure at all, but one that would be a lot of fun and that would highlight and recognize those that make more possible in our brand every day.”

Sun was hardly disappointed. Her experience working on the frontlines with her employees surpassed her expectations.  She says she had “moments of surprise” by getting to witness firsthand just how much of a difference her workers were making in the lives of their patients and customers.

Asked if she was afraid the employees featured on the show would feel betrayed or fooled, Sun says the thought never crossed her mind. Instead, she was focusing on “the opportunity to impact their life, like they’d impacted mine and impact our clients every day” by offering them such rewards as a free vacation, tuition reimbursement, and money to start a franchise.

The experience has given her a laundry list of ideas for ways to improve her employees’ professional and personal lives. For instance, she has begun looking into ways to extend the company’s new interactive communications tool, care-together.com, to help active duty workers and their families stay connected, as well as resources for helping families that have been affected by autism.

Sun also plans to create more opportunities for corporate staff members to visit and spend time with franchisees and caregivers. She wants to enable them the opportunity to “see the care these workers provide, how special they are and the risks these franchisees are taking every day to make more possible and to build and strengthen our business…I think that could strengthen our DNA and deepen our commitment across our corporate team that’s enabling so much on the front lines, behind the scenes.”

Another positive outcome of the show? The opportunity to send the message that BrightStar is a great place to work, one that takes care of its employees, and one where employees truly take pride in their work. Sun was delighted to see the pride her employees took in “working for a company where we push it to that higher standard of quality.”

So does she have any advice for other CEOs after going through this experience? “I would encourage every CEO to do this, regardless of whether you’re part of a televised event or not,” Sun told me.

“There’s only so much you can do from the corner office. I made so many more improvements to my business model by getting out there and rolling up my sleeves. Don’t wait for the TV show. Make your own undercover boss event happen.”

Related Content: “What Working on ‘Undercover Boss’ Has Taught Me”: An Interview with ‘Boss’ Creator Eli Holzman

Mary Lorenz

About Mary Lorenz

Mary is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention. Whenever possible, she makes references to pop culture. Sometimes, those references are even relevant. A New Orleans native, Mary now lives in Chicago, right down the street from the best sushi place in the city. It's awesome.
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