THE BLOG
01/07/2016 01:25 pm ET | Updated Jan 06, 2017

Creating a Culture That Lasts (the Chick-fil-A Story)

How can a company's unique culture be sustained, not just for a season, but for decades?

In Dee Ann Turner's new book, It's My Pleasure: The Impact of Extraordinary Talent and Compelling Culture, she shares the secret sauce of Chick-fil-A's highly effective business model that began over 60 years ago by founder Truett Cathy. Truett created something incredibly special at Chick-fil-A, but Turner also notes that he had the wisdom and humility to create something bigger than himself: an enduring culture that values people above everything else.

Chick-fil-A has achieved tremendous success by any business standard. They've experienced a more than 10 percent sales increase almost every year since launching in 1946. Franchisees retention rate has been 96 percent for nearly 50 years, while the corporate staff retention rate has hovered at 95-97 percent over the same time period.

However, Turner explains the real victory for the fast food industry icon is the growth of a culture that has nurtured and impacted so many people. As Turner writes, "Culture is the soul of an organization." And every company has a culture, whether leaders consciously mold it or not.

It's My Pleasure explains that creating an intentional, compelling culture begins with understanding the company's purpose. Why does the company exist? What motivates it? From the start, Truett Cathy based his company on Biblical principles, and operated in a "servant leadership" style long before it was called that. The religious influence is explicit in the company's purpose, "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A."

Conceptual pillars such as purpose, mission and values will map the way to a compelling culture, but Turner points out it's people who will live the culture out. At Chick-fil-A, Turner and others enroll people in its culture in three key ways.

1) Recruit for Culture

Turner recruits people who identify personally with Chick-fil-A's culture. Finding people who fit is one of the most important components of creating a compelling culture that lasts--and it's also one of the most difficult to get right.

Chick-fil-A's proven talent selection process focuses on three C's: character, competency, and chemistry. These qualities are harder to gauge than traditional factors, but she claims it is possible if you commit to deeper observation. For example, Turner observes the way candidates treat other employees like receptionists who are not traditionally seen as having any sway in hiring decisions. As Turner notes, an individual with character will treat everyone they come across with respect and kindness, no matter their position.

2) Nurture Talent by Telling the Truth

Turner writes that nurturing both emerging and seasoned talent is key. Investing in the people already on your team is a vital piece of cultivating strong culture. Offering opportunities is important, but stewarding employees starts with one transformative practice: Tell the truth. In the midst of a world that's grown tired of corporate doublespeak, conveying the truth in a respectful way when it comes to performance, expectations, and more is revolutionary. It's also the kindest thing you can do for an employee, and creates a culture of trust that prizes individuals and relationships.

Turner suggests, when we start by telling the truth, other key strategies for stewarding talent, such as fostering an abundance mentality and understanding loyalty as a two-way street, fall more naturally into place.

3) Engage Guests in Your Culture

Chick-fil-A's culture isn't just felt and lived by Chick-fil-A employees. Chick-fil-A guests also experience the company's compelling culture. It's understood that every single person who walks through the doors of a Chick-fil-A restaurant anywhere in the country can expect to be treated with honor, dignity, and respect. Chick-fil-A employees have helped Chick-fil-A become just as known for its "Second-Mile Service" and delivering the signature response of "It's my pleasure" as it is for delicious chicken.

Every time an executive chooses to be last in line, or a restaurant staff member runs out in the rain to escort a mother and her children inside under an umbrella, Chick-fil-A founder Truett's example of servant leadership lives on. Ultimately, Turner and others keep culture alive through inclusion and intention. In the spirit of Truett, It's My Pleasure urges readers to think bigger than business, and to strive to build culture that reaches far beyond corporate walls to improve the lives of everyone it touches.