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BrightStar CEO Gets Some Bright HR Ideas on Undercover Boss


Fast-growing healthcare and childcare company BrightStar Care in Chicago has zoomed to nearly 200 franchised locations since its 2006 founding, with much of that growth coming in the past two years. Recently, company co-founder and CEO Shelly Sun had a chance to spy on her franchisees' progress by going in disguise to three different franchises as part of the CBS TV show Undercover Boss. Her husband and co-founder, company executive vice president J.D. Sun, also took a turn incognito, working at a nursing home.

Here is Shelly Sun's report on what she learned Undercover:

Tice: Why did you decide to go on the show?
Sun: It was such a great opportunity to really make sure the quality and service JD and I were so passionate about and committed to was happening out at our franchises. I wanted to validate that we were the leader in care, or learn if there were things we could do to become the leader. I was so proud of the caregivers who are representing our brand -- the patients we were taking care of talked about how great our caregivers and nurses are. I learned we're taking care of people the way I'd take care of my parents or my own children.

Tice: How did your disguise work out -- you had a dark-brown, short wig and darkened brows. Did anyone recognize you?
Sun: No one knew who I was. It was kind of cute when they made me over -- I've been married 10 years, and my husband had to stop for about five or six seconds to register that it was me.

Tice: What surprised you about your experience?
Sun: You'd think the type-A CEOs like myself would have more control [over what happens on the show], but you have no control. I didn't know what city I'd be going to until I got to the airport, and then didn't know what type of facility I'd be working in until we pulled up in front.

Tice: It seemed like one of your toughest jobs came when you visited one of the KidCare facilities and helped care for quadruplets. You have twin boys -- how much harder was this?
Sun: I thought going from two to four didn't just double the amount of work -- it was more like a factor of four! I was exhausted when I got done at the end of that day.

Tice: You ended up getting to clean up poop, which I gather is something of a theme for the women CEOs who've come on the show...

Sun: There have only been two women CEOs on the show -- the other was the CEO of Great Wolf Resorts [Kim Schaefer], who had to scoop poop out of the pool. We both had exposure to poop. That's pretty comical.

Tice: What did you consider your most embarrassing moments on the show?
Sun: In the nursing home where I worked with Arlene, I was supposed to put lotion on Leo, and half the bottle came out in my hand. And then I didn't know what to do! It was pretty comical. He said, "What are you going to do, fry me?"
Then working with Lisa, I had an impossible time finding a pulse. "I said, 'You have to have a pulse, because you're talking to me!"

Humbling moments. I think the clients are very willing to work with you, though, as long as they can see the compassion. I love the business we're in and the difference we make in families' lives. I'm a hugger, so I'm very affectionate and people-oriented, and as long as they could see that I was there to make their life easier, if I messed up they laughed it off.

Tice: What did you learn during the show that might change how you operate at BrightStar?
Sun: At the nursing home, the temps are treated like second class citizens, in part because they don't know where things are -- where's the laundry room, where do the trays go. Our caregivers are very productive and get good evaluation scores, so it surprised me to hear that. In one facility, our franchisee at his own cost pays for them to be oriented and come in early. We're going to adopt some best practices from this franchisee to combat this attitude nationally -- we'll build an orientation process into our program, so that every assignment there's a 15-minute orientation, for which the client does not pay.

We really position ourselves as the employer of choice, and there were ideas I got about what we could do to create a career path -- to help someone if they want to move up to being a licensed practical nurse, or a physical therapy assistant. We do succession planning in for people in the corporation, and now we're beginning to do that for franchisees, and we can take some of what we've built and do it for caregivers as well. They're the lifeblood and heartbeat of our business, and I want to focus on that.

Also, I learned it's hard for some of our more skilled caregivers to get all the hours they need. It made me proud to hear that while one of our caregivers, Lisa, could go somewhere else and get more hours, BrightStar is at the top of the heap in terms of highest level of care, and she wanted to be associated with a company with that mission.

We own our technology, so we have an opportunity to adapt it and make it possible for multiple franchisees in a market to work together to keep someone like Lisa working full hours between two different BrightStar offices. It'd be mutually beneficial.

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