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Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy Never Dumbs Down the Music—He Upgrades the Orchestra

In this edition of our Corporate Competitor Podcast, Maxwell Leadership Thought Leader Don Yaeger sits down with Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy to discuss how he keeps his 100,000 member “symphony orchestra” performing at the highest level in the industry.

Even if you’re a raving Chick-fil-A fan, you probably don’t know that the chairman of one of America’s largest and most successful restaurant businesses, Dan Cathy, loves to play the trumpet and will use any excuse to take his out and play a tune for you – or with you if, like Wynton Marsalis, you know how to play a tune or two.

But music is more than a hobby for Cathy. It furnishes a model for how his family’s successful business operates. Cathy knows that great orchestras include people with diverse talents who must learn to harmonize to be successful, but his model includes a twist on the usual metaphor. Rather than seeing the conductor as the leader, Cathy places leadership in the composer, who is the first one to hear the song in his head and to capture the idea and write it down.

“My challenge as the composer of the score that others will follow is to make sure that I never dumb down the music to fit the orchestra,” noted Cathy. “I want to upgrade the orchestra and the talent so they can play the music. I don’t go from sixteenth notes to quarter notes simply because of who’s sitting in the orchestra.” So as you think about leadership, Cathy advises, the goal is to be very clear how you want the music to sound and hire people who “put on the performance of their lives.”

Cathy says that whether you want to be a world-class orchestra or a world-class business, you need to benchmark against other world-class organizations, even when they don’t serve the same market as you. When Chick-fil-A was searching for ways to differentiate itself from competitors, rather than scope out other quick service establishments, Cathy set up a meeting with Horst Schulze, Ritz Carlton’s legendary leader. Schulze informed Cathy that if he wanted Chick-fil-A to stand out among his peer restaurants, it should be more like the Ritz. Cathy obliged and added fresh flowers in all its restaurants, put pepper grinders on the tables and hired hosts to make guests feel better taken care of.

A former high school and college wrestling standout, Cathy draws from sports and music, alike, to explain how Chick-fil-A uses its “people first” philosophy to provide memorable experiences for its guests. These include:

• Where Cathy often looks to find the most creative thinking and innovation (hint: it’s not the hospitality industry).

• The “success to succession” approach to team building Cathy learned from talking to the coach of the U.S. Track and Field team about the secret of great relay teams.

• Why Chick-fil-A enjoys a 98% retention rate among its corporate staff and restaurant operators.

“We’ve found that people are more hungry to be treated with honor, dignity and respect than they are to eat our delicious chicken sandwiches and hot waffle fries and drink our freshly squeezed lemonade,” Cathy noted with pride and a marketer’s touch. “They’re in greater need of being restored and encouraged from an emotional standpoint. Chick-fil-A’s  purpose is that customers leave better and more encouraged than when they came in.”

Check out the full Corporate Competitor Podcast interview archive and subscribe to new episodes.


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