Chick-fil-A VP Mark Miller on Leading in Times of Crisis
Its most effective leaders have a boundless belief in their personal ability to affect positive change.
In just a few weeks, businesses and societies have been upended by COVID-19. This is a defining moment for leaders to steward their organizations, themselves and their families through a crisis of this magnitude and come out stronger on the other side. For nearly a decade, we’ve had the pleasure of working with Mark Miller, Vice President of High-Performance Leadership at Chick-fil-A – working on projects like NEXT (their annual company event), Leadership Development and Customer Experience projects. Mark is a best-selling author of books including Chess not Checkers, Win the Heart, and The Secret. I recently caught up with Mark (virtually) and he shared some timely advice for leaders.
How is Chick-fil-A’s business doing, and in particular, the Operators and team members in the restaurants?
I’ll speak to what will probably become a theme throughout this piece: We have a lot to be thankful for. Obviously, it is a very challenging time for our Operators and their team members with closed dining rooms and mall restaurants; but overall, we are thankful we can continue to serve our customers.
You have about 2,500 restaurants around the country. What are the leadership demands being placed on the Operators of those restaurants right now?
The demands are multi-faceted. We want to do everything we can to protect our team members who continue to serve customers. We don’t want to do anything to spread the virus. As it relates to Operators, they are trying to serve our customers under these challenging circumstances.
What are the pitfalls facing leaders right now in the middle of this crisis? What should they avoid?
Self-care or the lack thereof is a big concern at any time, but especially now. Rest is important; so is exercise. Connection with others is also vital – even if virtual. Call a friend, text a colleague, schedule a Zoom call. Stay rested, connected and fit to lead. Regarding what to avoid, my encouragement is to avoid dwelling on what is out of your control. Don’t deny it – just don’t dwell on it. I would suggest leaders focus their time, energy and best thinking on things you can control (or at least influence). There’s too much to do to waste effort on things that are out of your control.
How do you think about the difference between an “effective leader” and a “typical leader”? What are the defining traits?
Thanks to the hard work of the Prophet team, we are now forming a point of view on this topic. It has proven to be a fascinating and complex question! Most people would agree on the things leaders do: Communicate vision, build teams, drive innovation, build strong relationships, produce results, walk the talk, etc. We are trying to crack the code on what the most effective leaders do differently. The work is still underway, but I feel confident that our final conclusions will include a couple of important things. One, the best leaders appear to value and create margin more than “typical” leaders. These women and men understand it is in this space where they clarify their thinking, sort out everchanging priorities, evaluate current strategies, assess the effectiveness of current plans and re-center themselves around what matters. Without sufficient margin, we have found many leaders “stuck in action.”
You mention “creating margin.” How is that more important during a crisis and how can leaders make time for that?
The more complex the challenges, the more demanding the circumstances; the greater the consequences, the more margin matters. Leaders attempting to navigate in crisis need every possible resource at their disposal – beginning with the time, energy and space to think. Margin enables leaders to do their best work when it matters most.
What’s the other key trait that distinguishes “effective leaders” from “typical leaders”?
Another characteristic we’ve discovered in the most effective leaders is they believe they can! This is not an unbridled optimism, but it is a boundless belief in their personal ability to affect positive change. Our psychologist friends would call this an internal locus of control.
How might an effective leader demonstrate care to their teams during the crisis?
In my book Win the Heart, I outline four elements required for a person to feel cared for. All apply in pre- and post-COVID-19.
Connection – Stay connected. Yes, it is harder today, but never more important. I have made this part of my “shelter in place” daily routine. Who can you connect with today?
Affirmation – People want and need to feel seen and valued. Look for ways to affirm them and their value as a person. Again, you may find this difficult under our current circumstances, but this is vital. Many people are anxious about the future – their health, their loved ones, their finances, their job. Who can you affirm and encourage today?
Responsibility – Sharing real responsibility has always been a great way to demonstrate trust, but is often overlooked as a way to raise someone’s level of care for their work. What work, or better yet, what decision, can you delegate to someone today?
Environment – This is a broad category reflecting everything from physical and psychological safety to the proper tools and training required for the task at hand. In today’s world, many of our organizations are cutting expenses, as we should. However, are there any tools or resources you can provide for remote work that might prove helpful? When leaders enhance the work environment, it communicates care.
Bottom line: When leaders and organizations provide the elements of CARE, people care more.
What should leaders be doing right now to stay focused on what matters most / in the future?
A: My advice is to do what the best leaders always do: stay grounded in the things that will not change — your brand’s purpose, vision, values— and hold the rest loosely. As my friend Jim Collins popularized years ago: protect the core and stimulate progress.
What resources can leaders tap into right now?
Please don’t overlook your own team members. We are seeing unprecedented levels of creativity and innovation within our own team. If you have a coach, use them. If you don’t and now doesn’t feel like the time to hire one, consider creating a peer learning group. I am part of a group that’s been meeting twice a month for over twenty years. Our topic for two decades? Leadership. We’ve conducted our last two meetings via Zoom. The only thing required is a few folks willing to get together with the explicit intent to help each other grow. It’s been a game-changer for me.
Read all the books you can. If reading is not your thing, use Audible. Pick an area you want to know more about and dig in.
“This is a defining moment for leaders to steward their organizations, themselves and their families through a crisis of this magnitude and come out stronger on the other side.”
Your team may have never needed your leadership more than they do right now. Yes, there is probably a lot you don’t know. However, even when you cannot provide certainty (and who can at this point?) you can always provide clarity. Be clear on what you stand for, be clear on what you believe in, be clear on what you can and cannot control, be clear on how much you really do care about your team, and finally, be clear on your intent to use this crisis to emerge stronger than you were before.
For over 40 years Mark has served Chick-fil-A, their Operators, and leaders around the world elevate their performance. You can learn more about him and see his latest thinking on his website.
Read more perspectives on leading at a time of crisis here.