How the CEO who turned Arby's into a successful brand uses 'active listening' to solve all his workplace challenges
Business Insider / Hollis Johnson
- Paul Brown, CEO of Arby's and Buffalo Wild Wings' parent company Inspire Brands, said he's made a habit as a leader of listening more and talking less in meetings.
- When he makes a new acquisition, he asks stakeholders what they would do if they were in charge of the brand.
- We named him one of our 100 People Transforming Business earlier this year for the way he used his turnaround of Arby's as a starting point for transforming struggling fast food brands.
- The Productivity Project collects the techniques some of our "transformers" use to be efficient and successful.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Paul Brown was so good at turning around Arby's during his five years as CEO that the private equity firm overseeing it created a new holding company around him in 2018.
Roark Capital made Brown CEO of Inspire Brands, which now includes Arby's, Buffalo Wild Wings, Sonic, and the small regional chain Rusty Taco. Brown recently told Business Insider that he takes the same approach as a leader to all of the brands, and it can be used on both large- and small-scale challenges.
"As simple as it may sound, I try to make a habit of listening more and talking less," he said. "No matter what stage of growth a brand is in - whether it's in need of a transformation or sustaining its success - listening helps you identify initial pain points as well as opportunities."
Brown joined Arby's as an industry outsider, having previously served as president of brands at the hotel company Hilton Worldwide. At that point, Arby's was losing millions of dollars each year, and employees had gotten used to a revolving door of executives. Brown told us in a 2017 interview that he knew employees and franchise owners around the country would be rightfully skeptical of him, and that if he came in acting like he had all the answers, he would fail.
It's why he instead hit the road for a three-month listening tour, traveling to 50 locations around the United States and meeting with what he said were 1,000 employees and store owners. His go-to question at the time was, "What would you do differently if you ran this company?"
The approach worked. The fast food brand had its best year ever to that point in 2016, with $3.7 billion in sales, and sales-per-store were up 20% from when Brown joined.
Read more: 100 people transforming business
As Brown explained to us recently, he adapted his opening Arby's strategy to his leadership style.
After Inspire makes a new acquisition (and it plans on making several more within the next year), Brown says he meets "with as many stakeholders associated with the brand as possible: franchisees, restaurant employees, customers, suppliers. And rather than walking in with answers and process solutions, I start by asking fundamental questions like, 'What part of the business is working well?' 'What is your biggest challenge?'"
So what does it mean to be a great listener? Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, founders of the leadership consultancy Zenger/Folkman, undertook a study of nearly 3,500 participants to determine just that. In a piece they wrote in 2016 for Harvard Business Review, they said the following traits stood out:
- "Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks."
- "Good listening included interactions that build a person's self-esteem."
- "Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation."
- "Good listeners tended to make suggestions."
Zenger and Folkman found that a great listener was not merely a sponge, staying silent for the entirety of a conversation and soaking everything in, but would instead take in information, contextualize it, and respond with ideas that helped clarify the other's position.
When Brown sets out to turn around a company or tackle a challenge that comes up during an ordinary day, he's focusing on not dominating the conversation - though he also doesn't accept every opinion as fact. He's an active listener.
"If you come in thinking you know all the answers, you miss out on an opportunity to potentially uncover something entirely new and different," he said.
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