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Working Alongside Subway's Co-Founder Taught Me the Greatest Lesson of My Professional Life

It's a simple act that often goes overlooked, but it's a sure way to keep customers and employees satisfied.

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On Aug. 28, 1965, 17-year-old Fred DeLuca took a $1000 loan and opened his first sandwich shop in Bridgeport, Connecticut — Pete's Super Submarines. What began as a young man's ambition to pay his way through college ended up becoming an international franchise doing about $5 billion a year.

In 1996, DeLuca and I co-founded Subway's Independent Purchasing Cooperative, which handles the supply chain for all of Subway's franchises. It was by working alongside Subway’s former CEO that I learned the greatest 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 his that most impressed me; we could be anywhere in the world, and he was constantly seeking out feedback. From Subway workers, of course, but he also talked to anyone who would let him. He listened to everyone, no matter their level of experience — he never shut any information out. Not only that, but he also aimed to take in as much information as possible and implement it all in a meaningful way to improve his business.

At a baseball game, he once asked a 10-year-old kid if he liked Subway sandwiches. The kid said that the way the sandwich looked when it was being put together was unappealing, so DeLuca brought that information to the board and petitioned to have the assembly changed to look more appetizing. Another time, he was considering uniforms and asked a Subway clerk what they would change about 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 the hats — all because of a single 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 new employees on retreats to the Florida Keys, and the ways we connect outside of the work environment always amaze me. Walking on the beach barefoot in casual clothes, we talk about music and pets, and I gain deep insights into who they are and what drives them. I can also sense they appreciate my attention to their interests. The regular office environment offers few opportunities to talk to someone across so many levels of the corporate hierarchy. Without those retreats, that kind of conversation might not have been possible. By making an effort to listen to everyone, you tap into new opportunities.

Related: Why Good Listening Is a Critical Skill for Founders and Entrepreneurs

Let them speak

DeLuca’s example speaks to me more loudly today, as workers leave jobs in droves. Keeping good people on your team has become critical in this climate, so create a work environment where everyone feels free to talk, pitch their ideas and even complain. Since grade school, people are taught to be silent and stay in their appropriate place. As adults, we become afraid to speak out, even when a situation calls for it. I bought a $12 salad from Whole Foods recently, and it was so horrible that I tossed it in the trash after one bite. I never even considered calling them and making a complaint because I expected no one would listen anyway. 

Employees also tend to imagine that management will be disinclined to listen to them, so leaders need to make it clear that their door is open to it. Someone who comes to me with ideas about how to improve or change a process impresses me before they even make their pitch. It takes a lot of bravery to walk through the boss’s door to tell them what they can do better. At the same time, when they do, I realize I haven’t been listening. This person has already spent some time trying to find solutions, but I never noticed before. I never thought to draw it out of them. These people are sharp — they have confidence, seek information and will work for a company that keeps them interested. People like this want to make the company better, but if I’m not listening to them, I risk losing them. 

Related: Why Active Listening Is a Critical Skill for Founders and Entrepreneurs

Invite even more feedback

DeLuca was able to grow a multi-billion-dollar franchise by listening, but people often needed to be invited to speak to know they had permission to voice their opinions, especially when they were critical. Conduct more polls or invent new ways to draw out feedback, but make sure you’re actively listening to the people who work for you. A company that prides itself on listening to everyone will have a team who trusts that their voices will be heard. This gives employees the confidence to bring up new ideas and draw out more innovation. For companies seeking new talent, a culture of listening can be the selling point that pulls in quality people. 

Like many things in this country, the corporate environment has long existed in a world of hierarchies, and most people in it are conditioned to stay within their level, but this approach is way out of touch with today’s environment. Workers are leaving their jobs, starting new businesses and shifting away from traditional work dynamics at record rates. To recruit quality employees back, and keep valuable ones from leaving, leaders can shake up their listening capabilities and use that feedback to create a new dynamic where people want to work. 

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