Few people can say that a sandwich launched them onto a career path, but for Dee Ann Turner, that’s exactly what happened. Chick-fil-A, the faith-based quick service restaurant famous for its simple chicken sandwiches, was part of Dee Ann’s life from early on. As a teenager, Dee Ann discovered the restaurant while strolling through the mall in Atlanta, Georgia. She ate a Chick-fil-A sandwich on her first date with her future husband and had another one for lunch the day they tied the knot.
So Dee Ann isn’t surprised that she ended up working with Chick-fil-A. But the road to her current position as Vice President of Corporate Talent in the company’s People Department took a few surprising turns. After college, Dee Ann pictured herself serving alongside her husband, Ashley Turner, in a church setting. When her husband stepped into his first pulpit, however, Dee Ann took a job in advertising to help make ends meet.
Chick-fil-A’s corporate headquarters sprawled only a few blocks from their new church. Teens from the church who worked in the Chick-fil-A warehouse would often invite Ashley to join them for lunch. “Each time he went,” Dee Ann remembers, “he would tell me about the beautiful campus, the friendly people, and the incredible culture. He soon began encouraging me to apply for a job.”
Since Dee Ann worked in the advertising field, she first applied to Chick-fil-A’s marketing division. “I filled out the twelve-page application and mailed it to Human Resources. Two weeks later, I received my first rejection letter and thought, ‘Well, that is that.’”
As a restaurant, Chick-fil-A had won Dee Ann’s loyalty with their sandwiches. But the more time she spent investigating the company while preparing her second and third applications, the more she became enchanted with Chick-fil-A as a business.
"By this time, I was becoming intrigued and had learned enough about Chick-fil-A to know that I was very interested, but not sure how I was going to even get an interview, much less get hired. But after about six months of follow-up phone calls, I was about ready to give up on the idea.” Dee Ann Turner
Dee Ann’s destiny with Chick-fil-A, however, couldn’t be deterred, only detoured. “One day,” Dee Ann says, “a woman came into the church and explained to my husband that she had a flat tire and needed to call for help. Instead, he gladly changed the tire for her. He found out that she was an employee with Chick-fil-A who had to resign because her husband was being relocated out of state. He asked her what department she worked in, and she replied, ‘Advertising.’”
Dee Ann picked up the phone and called the HR department of Chick-fil-A one more time, and got her first interview. The interview process stretched out over four months. When Dee Ann had to decide between a job in Chick-fil-A’s HR department and a position in advertising, she decided to take the dive into a new field. “Advertising was truly my first love, but I was curious about a different role and a change of pace. My plan was to begin my career in Human Resources and make a move to marketing within a couple of years.”
That transition never happened. Thirty years later, Dee Ann greets potential employees with the same warmth Chick-fil-A’s founder, Truett Cathy, showed to her. “On my second visit in the interview process, I sat waiting when a gentleman walked up and introduced himself. ‘I’m Truett Cathy. Thank you for visiting today.’ Thirty years later, I still try to communicate that same level of personal care to candidates as we get to know one another.”
Dee Ann has spent the last thirty years working to build a team of employees and franchisees (whom Chick-fil-A calls “Operators”) who work together well. She’s discovered that there were good reasons behind her four-month interview process. The executives at Chick-fil-A take each hiring process seriously. They want to make sure that any partnership that begins with “you’re hired” lasts. When Truett Cathy died in 2014, Dee Ann felt compelled to put into writing everything that he had taught her about hiring and equipping an outstanding team.
"I started writing a blog post, and it turned into a book. I realized that, as I wrote, I was writing out all these lessons that Truett had taught me. I felt like others—especially those in the organization—would benefit from his lessons.”
Dan Cathy, President of Chick-fil-A, continues the work his father began. Dee Ann points out, “Dan, who sees his responsibility to be a ‘curator of the culture,’ learned from his father and knows that inclusivity is important to creating and growing a compelling culture. He seeks opinions and spends time with employees in all areas of the business, and particularly enjoys connecting with Chick-fil-A Operators and their team members.”
Dan cares for his people. Guided by his dedication to servant leadership, he blazes a trail of humility and service for the people he leads. He works to strengthen a culture that recognizes every employee as equally important. The corporate office at Chick-fil-A celebrates employee birthdays and takes meals to families who need them. The campus sports an onsite wellness center with free nutrition coaching and exercise classes for employees, as well as a childcare center. The break room offers free coffee, and the café distributes free meals. The company of over 1,300 corporate staff feels more like a family than a business. Chick-fil-A leaders call it simply “living life together.”
Dee Ann has worked to preserve and strengthen this culture, and credits it with the success of Chick-fil-A as a business. She describes how it all started with Truett, who served “kindness right along with the meals” at his original restaurant, Dwarf Grill. “Truett knew that people visited his restaurant to eat, but sometimes, they also came to see a friendly face,” Dee Ann recalls, “They came to be filled up, but they returned because of how they were treated and how he and his employees made them feel.” Today, every Chick-fil-A staff member works to fulfill a vision that challenges all employees to care deeply, serve ceaselessly, and impact the lives of others.
For the past thirty years, Dee Ann has been responsible for selecting Chick-fil-A employees who will embrace the company’s values.
Selecting the right people has not only strengthened culture, it has also vaulted the chicken chain to its position as one of the top ten brands in customer service across all industries.
The culture at Chick-fil-A is as attractive as it is successful. “Candidates often ask me why I have chosen to remain at Chick-fil-A for so many years,” Dee Ann muses, “The answer is easy:"
"My absolute favorite thing about our culture is that we truly care about each other, and the organization cares about its people. We don’t just care about people’s work—we care about their well-being.”
Not only do the staff and employees care for each other, they also strive to serve each other. Dee Ann sees a thriving culture of service in the corporate office. “On a typical morning, by the time I make my way from my car to my office,” she says with a grin, “someone has offered to help me carry my belongings, several doors have been opened for me, the elevator has been held, and I have been greeted a dozen times. What’s unique at Chick-fil-A is the way in which we are willing to serve each other. It is not uncommon to be at a company function and see Dan Cathy himself carrying plates to the table and seating staff and Operators.”
Treating people with honor, dignity, and respect, and also leading with care and service, creates a compelling culture, but even more so, impacts lives. Dee Ann can share countless stories of employees and guests whose hearts were engaged and lives were changed by the company culture that was more about people than product. “It is my hope that long after the last sandwich is served, the last guest is delighted, and the bricks and the mortar crumble, the story of the lives that were impacted will continue,” Dee Ann says, “In the end, that is all that really matters.”
For Dee Ann, what began with a simple chicken sandwich has stretched into a life-long love for serving people and equipping them to serve others. She works together with her team to carry on the company’s commitment to partnering with the right employees and Operators. That dedication has created a loving, caring, and serving family at Chick-fil-A. The teenaged Dee Ann may have loved chicken sandwiches first, but Chick-fil-A has loved her back ever since. Today, she’ll say the reason that she works hard to care for and serve her people is the love she received from the people at Chick-fil-A.
To learn more about Dee Ann Turner and the culture at Chick-fil-A, read her book, It’s My Pleasure, or watch the video series on RightNow Media @ Work (available January, 2016). Visit rightnowmediaatwork.org.