5 Lessons from Chick-fil-A President, Dan Cathy

July 23, 2012

This past week, I had the honor and privilege of spending a couple days with the President of Chick-fil-A, Dan Cathy. There is nothing I enjoy more than learning from the example of great leaders who have had such a tremendous impact on the people and organizations they lead. I was humbled that Dan would extend this opportunity to me, and I wanted to soak up every ounce of learning from this experience. So, despite the fact that Chick-fil-A is approximately 4,000 times the size of CARE for AIDS, I tried to ask myself, “What lessons from Dan Cathy can be applied to my leadership at CARE for AIDS?”

This is in no way an exhaustive list, but here are some applications in my leadership and hopefully yours as well:

1. Your perspective on a business tends to conform to the environment that you are in the most.

Dan is very conscious of the fact that it is hard for him to stay in touch with reality when he is sitting in his office at the company headquarters. Only when he is in the field does he get to see and experience what the operators and team members go through on a daily basis. So, while it may not be a reality for me to spend more time in Kenya, I’ve got to continue to make it a priority to spend time at the centers during normal operations. I cannot afford to become disconnected from the daily challenges that our workers face.

2. “How can we give our customers more than what they paid for?”

I have never heard a business leader ask this question. This would seem like poor economic model, but Dan knows that giving people a hot sandwich, a clean restaurant, and fast service are all things that they pay for and expect for their money. That kind of service might create some customer loyalty, but does it create raving fans? On the other hand, if you invite customers to take a backstage tour of the kitchen, then you’ve just added value beyond what they paid for. That is the element of the experience that is “tweetable.” That is a story that will be retold. So, as it relates to our CARE for AIDS supporters, are we just doing what is expected or creating experiences that add value?

3. Don’t ask anything of your employees that you aren’t willing to do yourself.

Chick-fil-A has set a standard of servant leadership in the marketplace, and that is a part of the culture that must be modeled from the top down. Dan Cathy picks up trash in the parking lot, helps mothers with kids to the car with their food, refreshes beverages, etc. There is no task that is below him. In other words, he embodies the values that he says are important. I hope those in CARE for AIDS would say the same about me.

4. Stay out in front of the organization to avoid disaster.

Dan is a pilot, so he used a flying metaphor to explain his take on vision. When he started flying very small planes, a trainer told him that if he’d stay 5 feet in front of the nose of the plane, he’d be fine. But in a jet or a commercial airliner, he said that you need to stay 50 miles in front of the nose to be able to anticipate and react to what is coming. The larger and faster the plane, the further out front you need to be. Dan has taken on an aggressive agenda towards innovation, and I saw how it is beginning to translate into the layout of the stores and the service to the customers. They are employing groundbreaking strategies, and as a result, they continue to have a competitive edge in the market.

5. Have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously.

When we arrived at a grand opening in San Antonio, Dan put on his t-shirt and gym shorts and pulled out his trumpet. He played Happy Birthday for some people in the crowd and then proceeded to set up his tent in the drive through lane. He was camping out at a Grand Opening for the 122th time. Our work is meant to be fun and enjoyable. Are you bringing joy and happiness to those around you or are you taking yourself too seriously?

Which of these lessons is most applicable in your context? Please share how Chick-fil-A has had a positive impact on your family.