The Secret Isn’t in the Sauce

I’m not sure why I got a BS in International Business and an MBA in Finance. Almost all the valuable business skills I learned, I learned at Chick-fil-A. When I began looking for a job at 16, I swore I would not work at fast-food. I was determined to find a job at Mervyn’s or another big department store. A friend was working at Chick-fil-A, so my mom decided to pick me up an application. Reluctantly I filled it out. I began turning in my applications, and when I got to Chick-fil-A, the owner asked to interview me on the spot. That’s lesson number one: 

Don’t waste time when you find good talent. Know what traits you are looking for in potential team members. Focus on finding people with the right character skills. It’s easier to train technical skills than it is to teach someone punctuality, honesty, creativity, or whatever skills are most important to you. Oh, and not only did he interview me on the spot, I got hired that day as well.

I also learned the value of rewarding for performance. At Chick-fil-A we didn’t have to wait for an annual review. There were specific things we knew we could do to get a raise. Memorize the menu, cooking times, and other basics, and get a $.25 raise. Learn how to do the sandwich prep, get a $.25 raise. I know people at other retailers who don’t get that big of a raise in a year, and this was over 15 years ago! We could get as many raises as we proved we were worthy of! It was nice to have direct control over your pay increases.

Empowerment is critical. Looking back I wonder if I would ever leave the fate of a store to a couple of sixteen-year-olds. But our boss did. And he empowered us to make decisions. If a customer complained, we knew we could make it right. He taught us the principles he valued, and we used those to make the right decisions to help the customer and our team.

Customer Service. We all know customer service is important, but at Chick-fil-A I learned the importance of making each customer feel valued. The owner never wanted us to say canned phrases like “how can I help you” or “have a nice day.” He wanted us to have a genuine interaction with each customer.

See the big picture, and the little details. Seeing the big picture and the little details can be tough. As a leader I learned the importance of noticing everything and from different perspectives. I had to look at the store from the eyes of the customer, the eyes of a team member, and the eyes of the owner. I needed to be able to see if the team was running out of things, if the dining room was dirty, or if customers were showing signs of impatience. But I also had to see the big picture. Did customer traffic look like it was increasing? Should I ramp up the food production to prepare for a rush? Is someone falling behind? There is a talent to seeing the entire picture.

Delegate. The only way as a leader to be able to see the big picture and the small details is not to be tied down in one position. As leaders we were expected to stay off the registers, not to prepare food, etc. Our job was to stand back and make sure everyone, from team member to customer, was getting what they needed. If something was going awry, we now had the ability to jump in and fix it. We wouldn’t be able to do that if on a register with a line of guests.

Feedback. Feedback. Feedback.
Every time the owner was in the store, we were getting quizzed on things like the mission, or what the description of a Chick-fil-A sandwich was…a boneless breast of chicken, seasoned to perfection, pressure-cooked in peanut oil, and served on a toasted bun with two dill pickle slices. Yes, that’s how ingrained it was…I still remember. He was also asking the leaders what we saw and telling us what he saw. That helped us to see things from his perspective and to know what our blind spots were.

While I never was too keen on fast-food, I loved my job at Chick-fil-A. It was rewarding because the owner made it that way. When you have the power to make a difference, it becomes more than a job.

Jana Axline is president and leadership coach at Axline Solutions and author of Becoming You. Through her leadership musings she inspires audiences to grow as leaders and ultimately achieve who they were created to be. For more information visit Axline Solutions.

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