Going Beyond Gay Marriage With Chick-Fil-A's New CEO

Stanley Leary/Chick-fil-A via AP Photo
Chick-fil-A moved last week to elevate its chief operating officer and president, Dan T. Cathy, to the role of chief executive in place of the chicken-sandwich chain’s founder, his 92-year-old father, Truett Cathy. The younger Cathy, now 60, has long been a public face of the company, and in recent years has stirred controversy with his strong and vocal opposition to same-sex marriage.

Beyond that culture-war kerfuffle, however, what do we know about about Chick-fil-A’s new chief? For starters, he enjoys gardening, riding motorcycles, and practicing his trumpet every day, says Chick-Fil-A spokeswoman Carrie Kurlander via an e-mail. He got his bachelor’s degree in business from Georgia Southern University. And he signs his e-mails, “Dan Cathy, Customer Service.” Those are just company-issued fun facts.

Just as other businesses focus their corporate responsibility efforts on such things as the environment, labor standards, or public health, Chick-fil-A draws on its strong Christian heritage to support family, community, and youth. These causes are not so trendy these days; advocating for the traditional family, in particular, has made the chicken chain a target for criticism. Yet it’s hard to dispute that the company is adhering to the principle that business should strive for social impact, even if views differ as to what that impact should be.

In recent months, Cathy has avoided the spotlight while remaining vocal on his blog, Cathyfamily.com, which is written by someone else but shaped by Cathy. (He “is very involved with the content,” Kurlander says.) The website is not a personal diary or a hub for company news. Instead, it focuses on advice and lessons—especially about leadership—as a way to let people to see “that I’m practicing what I preach,” Cathy told T+D magazine in 2010. “They’ll see that I’m embracing stuff that makes me feel nervous.”

Most CEOs try to limit their public views to items related to business. Cathy’s discussion of leadership extends beyond corporate strategy to more intimate matters such as spending time with your kids and confronting fear. He seems to aspire to take his message far beyond Chick-fil-A’s bottom line, framing his views on managing business so that they apply to life. The blog paints a picture of a faithful Christian preoccupied with questions about “vision,” “mission,” “ambition,” and “character” (among other buzzwords featured in a video series in which Cathy asks business leaders, including Jack Welsh, for their wisdom). Cathy is dedicated to the “spirit of teaching AND learning,” wrote Kurlander.

So what makes Cathy feel nervous? Some of his recent thoughts:

Adapting to changes in the workforce. Cathy points out that the global workforce has shrunk, more Americans are living in cities, and society is becoming more secular:

“We certainly have to be nimble and athletic so that we don’t adapt too late. But we also have to be wise so that we are not merely changing for the sake of changing. Lastly, I believe we have to be prayerful. Only God knows the future and if we remain near to him and listen, he promises to lead us.”

Embracing “wacko ideas.” Cathy’s story about an overzealous Notre Dame fan segues into advice on leadership:

“My friend Bernie Marcus [co-founder of Home Depot] once told me that for a company to continue being successful, it needs to embrace ‘wacko ideas’ once in a while. Often, this is the only way to remain innovative and continue growing. It’s great advice. Don’t shy away from wacko ideas. And don’t turn away the wackos like our in-house Notre Dame fanatic. Not only can people like him make your days more fun; their wild minds can take your ventures to the next level.”

Trying to understand work-life balance. Bringing your e-mail to your kid’s track meet doesn’t make you a better dad or a more efficient worker. You can’t be everything at once:

“The truth is that we are at our best when we are fully focused and present or, in other words, imbalanced. If you take on a new responsibility like a promotion at work or a new child at home, a certain level of imbalance is required—especially in the beginning. This same inequity of time and energy is also required to continue growing in those areas. Like a successful high-wire act, we have to learn when to lean one way and when to lean back the other way. It takes some time, but purposeful imbalance is possible and ultimately necessary if you want to keep improving in all you do.”

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