Leadership Profile: Truett Cathy

April 1, 2013 — 4 Comments

I grew up in the midwest and didn’t get to experience a Chick-fil-A sandwich until I enrolled in college in Tennessee. Boy was I in for a surprise. Not only was the sandwich (and fresh squeezed lemonade!) amazing, but people were thoughtful and caring. My senior year, I was assigned to research how Chick-fil-A influenced people in positives ways. I decided it wouldn’t hurt to see if my team could interview the founder of the company, so I made a quick phone call. Believe it or not, Truett Cathy agreed.

Truett Cathy

What we learned on our trip still influences how I think about leadership. But for now, I’d like to share a few notes about the man who invented the original chicken sandwich.

Who Was Truett Cathy?

Cathy was born in Eatonton, Georgia in 1921, which meant he grew up during the Great Depression. One of seven children, Cathy began selling Coca-Colas at age seven to the local community to contribute to the family’s unstable income. Soon he was also selling magazines and had a newspaper route. After serving with the U.S. Army in World War II, Cathy opened the Dwarf House restaurant with his brother Ben in 1946. After Ben was killed in an airplane accident, Cathy continued to operate the restaurant by himself. After many business challenges and experiments with the boneless chicken breast, Cathy developed the perfect recipe for what became the Chick-fil-A sandwich in the early 1960s. Chick-fil-A now operates restaurants in 39 states (and Washington, D.C.) and earned $4.6 billion in sales in 2012. The company is still family owned.

What Can We Learn from Truett Cathy?

It’s Easier to Succeed Than to Fail. The title of Cathy’s first book in 1989, this lesson seems counter-intuitive until you hear it from Cathy’s prospective. Cathy lists several reasons: money spent to fail must be spent again to succeed, doing a job over a second time is an expensive use of time and a person’s credibility and morale decrease with failure but increase with success.

Be Dedicated. Cathy once worked 36 hours straight in his first restaurant – not because he was a workaholic but because the work needed to be done or else the customers wouldn’t be served. There is some value in hard work for it’s own sake, but the difference for Cathy was dedication to his commitments: the cause and the customers.

Each Customer is Precious. If there’s one thing Cathy hated more than anything else, it was losing a customer. He would bend over backwards to accommodate and build good relationships them. He constantly asked for feedback. The problem with poor service, he said, isn’t that the customer will complain. It’s that they won’t complain – and then won’t come back.

You’ve Got to Give Something to Get Something. Cathy subscribed to the old proverb, “he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed,” or as the late Zig Ziglar put it, “You can have anything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” For Cathy, this meant generous promotions that involved free food and free coupons. Early critics reasoned that Cathy would never make it in business because he gave so much away for free. Instead, customers loved Cathy’s food and service so much they were willing to pay for it – and invite their friends.

Wealth is Only Worth It If You Give It Away. When faced with a life-threatening surgical procedure midway through his career, Cathy acknowledged that his brush with death taught him the insignificance of material things. Even though it may seem ironic for a man worth billions of dollars, Cathy related in his latest book Wealth, Is It Worth It? that you can’t take anything with you after you die. Therefore the only way wealth has any lasting value is if you use it to benefit others.

A Good Name is Worth More Than Anything Else. If you take away wealth, awards, and all the outward signs of success, all you’re left with are your choices, reputation and the quality of your character. A good name is worth more than everything else combined. Furthermore, if you associate yourself with other people of high character, you’ll be able to truly build a winning team.

Not only does Truett Cathy use his restaurant to feed hungry people, but also to sponsor high profile community events, like the Chick-fil-A Leadercast seminar on May 10. To find out how to attend with me, click here.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.