You’ve had the signature Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich. You’ve had the waffle fries. And you’ve smothered them both in the sweet and smoky Chick-fil-A sauce. So when you hear the name of Chick-fil-A VP Dan Cathy, what likely comes to mind is a host of mouthwatering memories.
What you may not know – but probably won’t surprise you – is that Cathy does nothing in half-measures.
Chick-fil-A, one of America’s largest family-owned companies, is known not just for their incredible food, but also for their well-maintained locations, their efficient drive-thru system, and their unwavering commitment to answer thanks with “My pleasure.” They have an unmatched reputation in the quick-service food industry, thanks to Cathy’s commitment to excellence.
But beyond his leadership role at Chick-fil-A, Cathy is also a 2-time inductee into the National Wrestling Halma of Fame. His high school and college athletic careers earned him a spot among amateur wrestling royalty like John Smith and Bruce Baumgartner.
Pursuing Excellence Everywhere
Earlier this year, I had the chance to sit down with Dan Cathy on my Corporate Competitor podcast to see what wrestling and chicken sandwiches can teach leaders worldwide.
I learned that Dan’s desire to go above and beyond yielded 3 distinct results:
1. PERSONAL FULFILLMENT.
“Complete dedication is an incredible experience,” he says, recalling his wrestling career.
On Woodward Academy’s wrestling team, Cathy was coached by Johnny Stallings, a demanding man who expected a lot from the teammates under him. He was the kind of coach to make his team get to school early and run two miles before class.
But this was how he prepared Cathy and his team for the rigors of competition. “He convinced us that we would never step on that mat with a competitor that was in better physical condition than we were… I learned what it meant to leave everything on that mat. And there’s an exhilaration and a joy when you know you did your absolute best.”
Coach Stallings’ high standards propelled Cathy to wrestling mastery. He held an impressive ten-to-one win-to-loss ratio over his career, including one nail-biting match that saw Cathy besting the previous year’s state champ with four seconds on the clock. He describes it as the highlight of his life: “Nothing has ever even matched that moment.”
2. COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE.
“Dan, you may be better than McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King, but you’ve got nothing to be proud of. You’re just the best of a bad lot.”
This was the tough truth that Ritz-Carlton COO Horst Schulze gave Cathy when he was looking for ways to distinguish Chick-fil-A from its fast food competitors. Schulze challenged Cathy to aim higher than the quick-service restaurant industry – to grow Chick-fil-A into more than just “the best of a bad lot.”
These words inspired him to make his family’s business stand out from more than just its own industry competitors. Chick-fil-A, Cathy decided, would exceed customer service expectations in any industry, at all price points.
“We went to fresh flowers in all our restaurants; we put pepper grinders in all our restaurants… and we even upgraded our services in the dining room. We had to pay more. We had to train better. We had to instill a better language system. Doing so, though, pays huge dividends.”
And pay it did.
Chick-fil-A was a titan in the quick-service restaurant sphere when Cathy spoke with Schulze more than twenty years ago. But today, Chick-fil-A locations earn more per store than any other fast food franchise – even though they’re closed on Sundays.
But those aren’t the dividends that matter most to the VP.
3. IMPACT ON OTHERS.
The American Customer Service Index measures the consumer response to goods and services. In ASCI scores, Chick-fil-A has not only been America’s favorite fast-food chain, every year for the last eight years, but they remain a mainstream contender among all industries.
Why? Their priority is people.
From 5-year-old Dan serenading customers of the Dwarf House – the Cathy family’s first foray as restaurateurs – in costume, to 69-year-old Dan helping run the billion-dollar chicken sandwich business, Dan’s foremost concern has always been that he edifies others.
Every day, hungry patrons walk into Chick-fil-A locations across the country for a quick bite. But Don’s goal is to do more than just feed them. He cites a mission motivated by the word itself, “restaurant,” from the French, restaurer, meaning “to restore.” Literally, a restaurant is “a place of restoration.”
“People are more hungry to be treated with honor, dignity, and respect,” says Cathy about his purpose. “They’ve got challenges going on at home, at school, and at work. But when they come through that Chick-fil-A drive-thru or walk into our restaurant, we have the opportunity to give them a word of encouragement.”
What do most Fortune 500 executives have in common?
They learned their leadership lessons on the fields and courts of their high school and collegiate sports teams. This is true for both men and women. Ernst & Young found that a whopping 94% of women holding a C-suite position played sports. Corporate Competitor Podcast, hosted by Don Yaeger, is your all-access pass to the brightest executives in the world and the lessons they learned through sports. You can listen to Dan Cathy’s whole interview and other episodes here.