The Upside of the Current Downside

These are challenging times for all of us and like you, I’ve had lots on my mind. I hope by sharing some of those thoughts with you today, I can be a source of encouragement and hope as you face the unique impact of the COVID-19 crisis on your life, family, and business.

The thing that has been most on my mind is this: I’ve been through a number of tough times like this in my life. And it’s interesting how often those tough times have become the seed of something great. 

I think back to Chick-fil-A early in my career when we were in a really tough financial situation. We almost went out of business. We had a budget overrun, sales were down, and our founder, Truett Cathy, even went for a year without taking a salary. There are a lot of parallels to what many organizations are experiencing right now. And so the Chick-fil-A Senior Leadership Team went on a retreat to create the plan to get us out of the financial hole. But instead of coming back with a plan, the how and the what, they came back with our corporate purpose. They started the meeting with, why are we here?Why are we doing this? They started with “Why” before Simon Sinek made it so famous and as a result, the corporate purpose came out of that meeting after a couple of days rather than a plan. That corporate purpose exists to this day and changed everything for Chick-fil-A. It’s probably the most central cultural building block of the whole company. But it was born out of a time like this. It was born when people were struggling with the How and the What much like they are right now. However, it was the Why that became the most critical element to fuel the organization through that crisis and even to this day.

The last time we went through a major crisis was the financial and banking crisis of 2008. The whole country was in a similar situation; a lot of unemployment, the stock market was down, all of that stuff. And so what a lot of our competitors were doing at that point was exactly what people are doing now. They were furloughing people. They were cutting hours. They were scaling back. But Dan and Truett Cathy had a very different idea. They said, “we feel like this is the time to really invest.” And long story short, out of that time came a thing that’s now known as Second Mile Service at Chick-fil-A.

It seemed like a crazy idea at the time because you’re talking about rather than cutting expenses, spending millions of dollars to create a new service program. And the argument against it, was a powerful one, “no one goes to a fast food restaurant for service”. If they wanted service, they’d go to a white tablecloth restaurant where you pay for that service. You pay for the ambiance and the same chicken breast that you spend $3 for at Chick-fil-A will cost you $20 or $30. In fact, if you said I want service in the context of a restaurant, where’s the last place you would go? Fast food. By definition, it’s a place where you simply go to get your food fast.

And so that was the argument against it: nobody is coming here for service! Which was the brilliance of the idea. We went on to invest millions of dollars, bringing in Operators and team members from all over the country for training. We created the whole Second Mile service program that Chick-fil-A is now famous for. And as a result, when we came out of that tough time, Chick-fil-A leapfrogged everyone else. That investment now looks pretty smart. And in fact, some of the outgrowth of that whole initiative has been Chick-fil-A’s speed and quality of service, and look how important that is right now in this crisis as it pertains to the drive-thru. Almost every restaurant is shut down. But we have advanced the drive-thru experience in the context of Second Mile service, which is really protecting Chick-fil-A in many ways because we’re able to do the drive-thru so much faster, better, and more hospitably than our competitors.

Tough times force and inspire the entrepreneurs, the innovators, and the creators to rethink their business. You’ve got time to retool your business… are you taking advantage of that?

Here’s a connected idea that’s most on my mind: many times when I go to a conference or get in front of a group they all want to hear about a tough time at Chick-fil-A. Everything seems so great at Chick-fil-A, but certainly you’ve experienced some tough times, and what have you learned from that? There’s a number of experiences I can share about and I’ve certainly learned from them, as we all do during those challenging times. But the genesis behind that question is that we all go through these tough times. And so the question is not will we go through tough times, the question is, how will you respond? Ten years from now when people ask you about the COVID-19 crisis… and they surely will… will you be proud of the way you and your organization responded? Will it be ‘Remarkable‘? The question on my mind is, what story do I want to tell? And will I be proud of that story? 

Chick-fil-A has always been guided by the principle that a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches. And this is the time when you can cultivate and develop a good name like no other time, because many people are in need. They have physical needs and also need inspiration, support, and encouragement. This is the time to build a good name. Almost all of the cool customer service stories that people ‘remark’ about at Chick-fil-A start with individual customers experiencing a tough time. We remember the Houston floods when Chick-fil-A sent the boat to people trapped in their home, or the lady who lost her purse and had it mailed to her by Chick-fil-A team members who had filled it with goodies. Those individual challenges become the seeds of Remarkable stories if you’ll focus on them.

So many of us are self-consumed with everything going on in our own lives right now that we feel like we don’t have the bandwidth, the mental capability, or the peace and calm to focus on other people. But this is the perfect time to do just that so that when you come out of this, you’ll be jet- fueled by what you created during this, just like the corporate purpose, and just like the Second Mile Service program did for Chick-fil-A. That’s what I’m focused on, and that’s what all the organizations that I’m personally investing in are focused on right now. They’re asking, what can we do during this time to help others? How can leadership create an environment where people will feel safe and have the peace of mind that sets them up to be able to serve others?

I’ll give you an example from one of the businesses I am a partner in, Roam. The first thing we did as leaders at Roam is we said, “we’re not laying anyone off. Commitment number one, we’re going to figure out a way so that our employees are not worried about getting a paycheck.” Like many of you, our business is totally shut down right now – we’ve had to close all our locations. But we made that commitment to our employees early on because we wanted our employees to have the peace of mind that they could focus on other people during this time. After all, there’s a quote I like that says “There’s no greater wealth than peace of mind.” 

We said, our job as leadership is to create the environment, create the culture, create the peace of mind where you are able to focus on other things right now. You’re able to focus on your family. You’re able to focus on our members. As a result, the whole organization is focused on those we serve, not self-serving issues, because we created the atmosphere where that’s possible. We’re also choosing to invest in our employees right now and their personal development – things that we normally don’t have as much time for. And then we’re investing in our members; we have all sorts of initiatives going on where our employees are spending time focused on other people. And interestingly, when you focus on other people, good things happen for you from a mental and emotional standpoint. 

I heard an expression one time that went something like this: “I spent my whole life praying to God that he would send blessings my way. Only to find out at the end… that the biggest blessing in life… is to be one.” And so how can we be a blessing right now instead of just asking for blessings? What story are we going to tell 10 years from now? What story will others ‘remark’ about 10 years from now about our organizations? And are we going to be proud of that story? And then finally, what new ideas could be birthed during this time that might be jet fuel for your organization when we get to the other side of this thing?

The Upside to the current Downside is this: we have time in this season to consider questions such as these and take action accordingly. Knowing there are leaders like you innovating… caring for your people… and being a blessing to all you come across is a huge Upside to me!

I’d love to connect with you on social media, you can find me on these platforms:

Together, we can Spark a Revolution of brands more defined by meaning than money, brands that achieve success in a manner that redefines it.

David Salyers
Founder, Spark A Revolution

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