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Former Chick-Fil-A Marketing Exec Jeff Henderson On The Difference Between Success And Excellence

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In this edition of our Corporate Competitor Podcast, we speak with the business leader and author—whom CEO Dan Cathy called “one of the five greatest people ever to work at Chick-Fil-A"—about building motivated, purpose-driven teams.

When he played basketball at Norcross High School in Georgia, Jeff Henderson’s coach challenged him to make the All-County team as a senior. Henderson worked his tail off and made the team, which meant he was one of the five best players in one of Georgia’s most populous counties that year.

Fast forward to 1997 when Henderson left a job in marketing at the Atlanta Braves to manage all of sports marketing for Chick-Fil-A. The company’s founder, Truett Cathy, challenged Henderson to help expand the restaurant business beyond its regional base in the south.

Henderson worked his tail off and played a critical role in winning the contract to become the major sponsor of the Peach Bowl, which was renamed the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.  The partnership represented the company’s first foray into national sponsorship and advertising and included pioneering work with internet marketing promotion for Chick-Fil-A. By the time he left the company to found churches in Buckhead and Gwinnett, Henderson was described by CEO Dan Cathy as one of the five greatest employees in the company’s history.

Is it a coincidence that Henderson has gone from All County to All Company? Not from where I’m sitting.

“Oftentimes, the bigger your advertising budget, the lazier your thinking,” observed Henderson. “I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said if you are willing to test someone’s character, bless them with a lot of success. That was our challenge as Chick-Fil-A grew. I think what kept us competitive and innovative was understanding the difference between success and excellence. Success is comparing yourself to somebody else. Excellence is comparing yourself to your own potential. And when you compare yourself to your own potential, there is no finish line.”

Chick-Fil-A is now the third-largest food chain in the world — behind McDonald’s and Starbucks — and shows no signs of pulling up to any finish lines soon. In the aftermath of opening three fast-growing churches, Henderson has founded a new company called The For Company, which helps individuals and organizations achieve excellence by answering what Henderson thinks are life’s two key questions: “What are we known for? And what do we want to be known for?”

The leader’s job, says Henderson, is to engage his or her team in answering these questions and then, in the role of servant-leader, work to align each team member’s dreams, goals, and special talents with the mission of “shrinking the gap” between what you are known for now and what you want to be known for.

Henderson has collected his thoughts on this leadership philosophy and his experiences working with other leaders into the book Know What You’re FOR: A Growth Strategy for Work, An Even Better Strategy for Life. During our podcast, we discussed one of the book’s major premises, which is that teams perform better when they share a powerful sense of purpose. Cultivating and sustaining shared purpose takes hard work, but it will more likely bear fruit when your organization takes a customer-centric viewpoint.

Henderson subscribes to the belief that simple is best. “If you get really simple in your vision and your purpose, it becomes portable, and people can talk about it,” he noted. “And when people can talk about your vision and language, you get the greatest form of advertising the world has ever seen, and that is word-of-mouth advertising.”

In 2021, he joined John C. Maxwell’s League of Extraordinary Leaders, five individuals who will deepen and expand the reach of Maxwell’s already world-renowned programs and events.

We invite you to get the “word” live and in person in this informative episode of Corporate Competitor Podcast!


9:00   How to prevent confusion in the office space.

10:00  How to take a “vision inventory.”

11:30  How to prevent systems and scale from driving out humanity.

18:00  How to “honor the audience” as a keynote speaker.

19:00  Chick-Fil-A’s distinguishing customer characteristic.

22:00  How Chick-Fil-A got involved in college bowl games.

25:30  The important difference between success and excellence.

29:30  How to put the “social” back into social media to reclaim customer loyalty.

32:00  The international sign that someone needs encouragement.

34:00  Why Jeff carries a pack of thank you cards everywhere he goes.

40:00  How to make customers — not the brand — the true stars.

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


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