Interview with Dee Ann Turner: How to Build A Compelling Culture

Dee Ann Turner has worked for Chick-fil-A for more than 30 years and currently serves as Vice President, Corporate Talent. Over the years, she has played an intricate role in growing Chick-fil-A’s unique and highly regarded culture while overseeing recruitment, selection, and retention of corporate staff and the recruitment and selection of Chick-fil-A Franchisees. Dee Ann’s insightful knowledge and applicable tools to building an incredible and influential company culture are revealed in her upcoming book, It’s My Pleasure: The Impact of Extraordinary Talent and A Compelling Culture.


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What inspired you to write the book?

After my Dad passed away in 2013 and Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A died in 2014, I was left with a void of the two most influential business mentors in my life. For 30 years, Truett had engrained in me the people principles I discuss in It’s My Pleasure. I wanted to be sure that those of us who learned these principles that are core to Chick-fil-A’s foundation and success did not forget what he taught. I also wanted to be sure that Franchisees and employees that never knew Truett would know the core principles.

What is the big idea behind your book “It’s My Pleasure?”

Truett often said, “We are not in the chicken business, we are in the people business.” To that end, he often reminded me, “People decisions are the most important decisions we make.” It’s My Pleasure explains the impact of the combination of extraordinary talent and a compelling culture. The book goes into detail about how Chick-fil-A has built a team to create a compelling culture, how the culture has been grown and strengthened and how guests engage with the culture.

Chick-fil-A has an amazing culture. You call culture the “soul of the organization.” How do you exactly go about creating an amazing workplace culture?

First, you have to define the reason that you are in business through a common purpose. Most people want to be about something bigger than themselves and they care about the “why?” At Chick-fil-A, Truett decided in 1983 that we are in business to be faithful stewards of all that is entrusted to us and to be a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A. Selling chicken is simply a means to impacting lives. Secondly, deciding on a mission drives the organization to accomplish significant goals. Developing core values and guiding principles clarify how the business will achieve its goals. These elements of purpose, mission, core values and guiding principles define the habits and behaviors that form the culture of the organization.

How do Chick-fil-A’s core values shape the organizational culture and impact it’s hiring decisions

Excellence, integrity, generosity and loyalty were words that described Truett Cathy and the character of the people he wanted to associate with. Excellence: Truett often told the story of Jimmy Carter and his discussion with Admiral Rickover as Carter was graduating from the Naval Academy. The Admiral asked Carter if he had always done his best. Carter thought for a moment and finally answered, “not at all times.” Admiral Rickover responded, “why not?” and left Carter in the room by himself to think about it. Truett encouraged us to give our best at all times to everything we do.

Integrity: Integrity is doing what you say you will do when you say you will do it how you say you will do it. The best example of integrity at Chick-fil-A is remaining closed on Sunday. It was a decision Truett made when he opened his first restaurant in 1946. Later, he was often pressed by mall landlords of Chick-fil-A locations to open his business on Sunday. He held strong to his beliefs. He was often asked if he had calculated how much money he lost by being closed on Sunday. Truett responded that he was far more worried about how much money he would have lost had he remained open.

Generosity: Truett set a high bar for generosity and at Chick-fil-A, we are generous with our time, talent and treasure. Truett’s generosity has included giving away millions to youth education initiatives and scholarships, food donations in local Chick-fil-A communities and providing Chick-fil-A Operators and staff the opportunity to teach leadership skills to thousands of leaders in the U.S. and abroad. Serving others is foundational to the core value of generosity and at Chick-fil-A, leaders are expected to role model service.

Loyalty: The culture at Chick-fil-A has created a very attractive work environment that encourages employees and franchisees to remain with Chick-fil-A for a major part, if not all, of their careers. Truett believed that kind of loyalty contributed to Chick-fil-A’s success. He believed that decisions, including hiring decisions, should be made with a long-term view. He expected his leaders to make good hiring decisions that would serve both Chick-fil-A and the new employee well for many years. Additionally, Truett knew that loyal guests would also be an important part of Chick-fil-A’s success. From the very beginning, in his first restaurant, he made it a point to know the customer’s name, order and even their story. This type of loyalty from employees and guests has significantly contributed to Chick-fil-A’s success.

When you meet prospective talent for the first time, you shake their hand and look them in the eye, but what are you really looking for? 

At Chick-fil-A, we are looking for people that have a heart for service. We are in the business of serving others, so that is the number one quality we seek. Additionally, we look for people whose character match the core values of the organization. We give people an opportunity to really get to know us as well. If we are to make great long-term decisions, not only do we choose the best candidate, but we want them to have the opportunity to make a long term decision about a great place to work. We are also looking for a proven track record of success. Even if someone has never had a job, we look for ways they have achieved success in some way, even if as a student or as a volunteer.

What has been your biggest leadership lessons from working at Chick-fil-A?

There have been so many, but perhaps the most important one that has served me well is one from a former mentor of mine, Jimmy Collins. Jimmy is the previous President and COO of Chick-fil-A. He taught me early in my career “It is kindness to refuse immediately what you eventually intend to deny.” This is important in working with people to set appropriate expectations. If you know you cannot meet their expectations, whether it is hiring them for a job, awarding a raise or promotion or assigning them a significant project they wanted, it is better to say “no” immediately than to drag them along and raise their hopes. When I am “nice,” I care about what you think of me.  When I am kind, I care about your needs and feelings more. As leaders, we want to be kind. That serves the other person much better.

Which top 3 books have most influenced you as a leader?

#1 – Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality by Dr. Henry Cloud

#2 – Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization by John Wooden

#3 – Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck and Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

What’s your biggest leadership advice you would share with the Millennial generation? 

I don’t think this is something I have to tell this generation, but it’s this: Be yourself. Only join organizations where you can be who you authentically are. You will be happiest when who you are aligns with what you do and who you do it with in work and life.

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