I will never forget my first days at Chick-fil-A’s corporate headquarters. Landing the job was a huge blessing and a personal victory. After two initial rejection letters and about six months of follow-up phone calls, I finally secured my first interview with the company. Four months of subsequent interviews, reference checks, and skills testing later, I had an entry-level position in Chick-fil-A’s human resources department.
No one could have possibly known that more than 30 years later, I’d still be with Chick-fil-A, serving as a Vice President.
All those years ago, at the company Christmas party about a month after I joined the team, I experienced an introduction to Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy’s unique leadership style firsthand. The entire staff was treated to dinner at one of the nicest hotels in Atlanta, and every employee had been assigned a seat. I was dumbfounded when I discovered that along with several other recent hires, I – a brand new, 21-year-old administrative assistant – was seated at a table with Truett.
Truett widened his circle to include us that night for several reasons. One was to make us feel welcome. He was always going out of his way to let anyone who crossed his path know that they were valued and respected. “Dee Ann, we’re not really in the chicken business,” he used to say. “We’re in the people business.” But he had another reason for enjoying dinner surrounded by all of our new faces: he used that time to model and explain Chick-fil-A’s principles to us because he was counting on us to live them out. That’s how culture is created.
It was the first example of leading by inclusion that I’d ever seen, and it made a profound impression.
Inclusion is one of the most effective strategies leaders can use. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the least leveraged. In my new book It’s My Pleasure: The Impact of Extraordinary Talent and Compelling Culture, I share practices behind the exceptional business model Truett created when he founded Chick-fil-A more than 60 years ago. One of the most distinct aspects of our model is the manner in which Truett led. One of the fundamental pieces of his leadership was inclusion.
At Chick-fil-A, all of our leaders foster a habit of inclusion that takes the following forms:
Spending Time with a Broad Cross-section of Staff
Like his father Truett, Chick-fil-A’s current CEO Dan Cathy knows that inclusion is one of the pillars of strong leadership. Dan makes a point to spend time with employees at all levels and in all areas of our business, and to seek out their opinions. One of his favorite tasks is personally checking in with Operators – our franchisees – and their teams around the country.
These interactions benefit each individual as they improve our company as a whole. Different perspectives can stimulate new ideas or recommit leaders to core values. Solutions that might otherwise never be heard are given the opportunity to be voiced. Leaders and staff connect as people, nurturing the sense of family that makes Chick-fil-A’s culture so uniquely powerful.
Harnessing the Power of “And”
Inclusion also comes into play when we consider whom we value on our teams. When it comes to stewarding talent, leaders are often tempted to focus either on rising stars or veteran voices. But feeling the need to choose between new and seasoned talent is a false dilemma. In fact, great leaders understand that most “either/or” choices should be avoided. Instead, focus on how to craft an inclusive solution that relies on “and.”
At Chick-fil-A, we are constantly striving to both support and draw from our brilliant talent on both ends of the experience spectrum. We are most successful when we inhabit what I like to call “the place where endurance meets momentum.” This is where knowledge is combined with new energy, and context supports the future. It’s also definitively inclusive.
Fostering an Abundancy Mentality
When we lead by inclusion, we’re also able to create an environment with an abundancy mentality. When our staff feels that there is enough opportunity for everyone, it empowers them as it pushes our business forward. Team members can applaud their peers’ victories when they recognize that another person’s success does not limit their own potential.
A team’s abundancy mentality starts with an inclusive leader, who supports the dreams of others and exhibits obvious optimism. These leaders are confident mentors who enthusiastically celebrate other people.
When you lead by inclusion, your business will benefit. But you and your staff will gain so much more than higher profits. Inclusion helped Truett build his most enduring, important legacy: Chick-fil-A’s compelling culture, which continues to inspire and influence everyone it touches.
– Dee Ann Turner is Vice President, Corporate Talent, for Chick-fil-A, where she began her career more than 30 years ago. Her first book, It’s My Pleasure: The Impact of Extraordinary Talent and a Compelling Culture, reveals never-before-shared secrets behind building and maintaining Chick-fil-A’s revolutionary business model.
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