Working alongside the Subway co-founder taught me the biggest lesson of my professional life

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On August 28, 1965, 17-year-old Fred DeLuca took out a $1,000 loan and opened his first sandwich shop in Bridgeport, Connecticut – Pete’s Super Submarines. What started as a young man’s ambition to pay for college ended up becoming an international franchise making around $5 billion a year.

In 1996, DeLuca and I co-founded Subway’s Independent Buying Cooperative, which manages the supply chain for all Subway franchises. It was working alongside the former CEO of Subway that I learned the biggest lesson of my professional life.

Related: Employee Feedback: Our Biggest Asset in the War on Talent

listen to everyone

Rather than communicating it explicitly, DeLuca taught me to listen to everyone by example. It was this characteristic of him that impressed me the most; we could be anywhere in the world, and he was constantly looking for feedback. Subway workers, of course, but he also spoke to anyone who let him. He listened to everyone, regardless of experience level – he never withheld any information. Not only that, but he also aimed to gather as much information as possible and implement it in meaningful ways to improve his business.

At a baseball game, he once asked a 10-year-old if he liked Subway sandwiches. The kid said the way the sandwich looked when put together wasn’t appealing, so DeLuca took that information to the board and asked that the assembly be modified to look more appetizing. Another time he was considering uniforms and asked a subway employee what they would change to theirs. The clerk told him the hat tended to catch their hair uncomfortably, and the next thing I knew he was on the phone, talking about fixing hats – all because of just one remark.

DeLuca taught me to listen no matter what because you never know what experience someone might bring to the table. I take groups of newly retired employees to the Florida Keys, and how we connect outside of the work environment always amazes me. Walking the beach barefoot in casual clothes, we talk about music and pets, and I gain a deep understanding of who they are and what drives them. I can also sense that they appreciate my attention to their interests. The ordinary office environment offers few opportunities to speak to anyone at any level of the corporate hierarchy. Without these retreats, this kind of conversation might not have been possible. By making an effort to listen to everyone, you exploit new opportunities.

Related: Why Good Listening Is an Essential Skill for Founders and Entrepreneurs

let them talk

DeLuca’s example speaks louder to me today, as workers quit their jobs in droves. Keeping good people on your team has become essential in this climate, so create a work environment where everyone feels free to speak up, present their ideas, and even complain. Since primary school, people have been taught to be quiet and stay in their place. As adults, we are afraid to speak up, even when a situation calls for it. I recently bought a $12 salad from Whole Foods, and it was so awful I threw it in the trash after one bite. I never even considered calling them and filing a complaint because I expected no one would listen anyway.

Employees also tend to imagine that management will be reluctant to listen to them. Leaders must therefore make them understand that their door is open to them. Someone who comes to me with ideas on how to improve or change a process impresses me even before they make their presentation. It takes a lot of bravery to walk through the boss’s door and tell him what he can do best. At the same time, when they do, I realize that I haven’t listened. This person has already spent time trying to find solutions, but I had never noticed this before. I never thought of getting it from them. These people are sharp – they are self-confident, information-seeking, and will work for a company that interests them. People like that want to improve the business, but if I don’t listen to them, I risk losing them.

Related: Why Active Listening is an Essential Skill for Founders and Entrepreneurs

Invite even more comments

DeLuca was able to build a multi-billion dollar franchise by listening, but people often had to be asked to speak to know they had permission to voice their opinions, especially when they were critical. Conduct more surveys or invent new ways to get feedback, but be sure to actively listen to the people who work for you. A company that prides itself on listening to everyone will have a team that is confident that their voices will be heard. This gives employees the confidence to come up with new ideas and leverage more innovation. For companies looking for new talent, a culture of listening can be the selling point that attracts quality people.

Like many things in this country, the corporate environment has long existed in a world of hierarchies, and most people are conditioned to stay at their level, but that approach is completely out of touch with today’s environment. today. Workers are quitting their jobs, starting new businesses and moving away from traditional work dynamics at record rates. To re-hire quality employees and prevent valuable ones from leaving, leaders can shake up their listening skills and use that feedback to build new momentum where people want to work.

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