Chikin, Spice, and Authenticity

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Earlier this year, Chick-fil-A, the Atlanta-based quick service restaurant chain, became the unwitting object of a firestorm following President and Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy’s direct answer to an interviewer’s question about his views on marriage. The interview was in the context of the ongoing national debate on same-sex marriage, spurred perhaps by contributions reportedly made by the Cathy family foundation, Winshape ( to some not especially LGBT-friendly entities.

The refreshing part of Mr. Cathy’s answer, regardless of content, or anyone’s position on the matter, is that it was direct, and without obfuscation. And, in view of Mr. Cathy’s straight-laced image, it was about as surprising as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pick for the 2012 Super Bowl.

Nevertheless, outrage ensued with some fresh meat, ‘er chikin (as the company’s bovine advertising mascots spell the word) thrown into the fire. While many accepted Cathy’s right to express views different from their own, others were not as tolerant. The mayors of Boston and Chicago even threatened to block the company’s development in their respective cities (apparently they had all the jobs they needed), until the ACLU, hardly a bastion of conservatism, reminded Their Honors that they really couldn’t do that. It seems that issuing government sanctions in response to protected speech kind of tramples on that First Amendment thing, and so they dialed back the rhetoric.

Since neither Mr. Cathy’s views on marriage, nor ours, are especially relevant to our work, or the reason you are reading this blog, we’ll spare you the discussion. But we’d like to highlight a few lessons that we can all walk away with.

1. Authenticity Means Being Comfortable in Your Own Skin

Leaders who aren’t comfortable in their own skin tend to become petty tyrants. Frankly, we see too many leaders fall short of their peak because they spend precious time every day twisting in the wind, seeking polished, popular positions on the subject du jour – positions that don’t necessarily jibe with their inner beliefs, if they even have inner beliefs. The end result is messy, because none of us is a good enough actor to pull it off for very long. If nothing else, our people have become good consumers of content, and they recognize bad acting when they see it. For further reinforcement on this topic, just rewind some of the video from the recently completed U.S. election.

2. Say it Loud, Say it Clear

Our work with high performance organizations and leaders of choice (they can usually be found in the same place) suggests in the strongest possible terms that these organizations, Chick-fil-A being but one example, have a crystal clear sense of who they are, where they’re going, and what they stand for. They aren’t bashful about it, and it doesn’t change overnight with their socks. They know that not everyone is going to like their products and services, or the way they do business. And they certainly understand that not everyone’s going to be happy, productive, or successful working there. Accordingly, they take considerable pains to recruit and retain people who are able to work comfortably within their value system.

This is not, repeat, not, a wink and a nod to employment discrimination. The leaders in these organizations know that discrimination on the basis of irrelevant factors is bad form, bad for business, and generally indefensible in legal terms, so they don’t do it.

If your company is a tough place to work, say so, and be very explicit in explaining why and how. The same advice applies to you as a leader. That said, if you can’t consistently find, retain, and engage enough truly great people to work for you, you might want to make some changes.

What Chick-fil-A does seems to work, and work well. The company is growing like a weed and has always enjoyed a stellar workplace reputation, and, not coincidentally, is perennially rated among the very best in customer service for Quick Service Restaurant chains. (Witness recent articles in Fast Company and The Los Angeles Times.) Their annual employee turnover rate has consistently been a fraction of the industry’s triple-digit figure. There’s no indication that this year’s controversy has made the slightest dent in that outstanding record.

As we point out in Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk (and in all of our books), a company’s decisions about how it treats its customers, and its employees matters, and matters a lot. Not so much for social or moral reasons, but because it drives business outcomes. The market is a wonderful thing. Our latest group of “Contented Cow” companies have 70 billion reasons (as in dollars) each year to remain committed to their people-oriented employment cultures.

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