Layering Leadership: Peeling Back Chick-fil-A’s “Onion” of Success


That was Steve Robinson’s reaction when the head of a cattlemen’s association said Steve’s marketing campaign was a threat to the beef industry. Steve is the former Chief Marketing Officer of Chick-fil-A. The association was concerned about the wild popularity of Chick-fil-A’s now-iconic cow mascots.

In our podcast interview, Steve insists the cows are no random stroke of marketing genius. They resulted from a unique leadership philosophy that materializes in four distinct elements wrapping around each other like the layers of an onion.

LAYER 1: Excellence and Trust.

At the very core, Chick-fil-A’s founder, Truett Cathy, instilled a drive that “good enough” is never enough. The leadership team closely researched companies with nearly total operational excellence. They learned from Lexus, for example, which strives for zero defects in each car. Any practice that can apply to food service is implemented. For example, almost 60% of a Chick-fil-A restaurant’s space is for storage and the kitchen so that all food can be made fresh on-site. This also helps with the goal of delivering every order perfectly. That drive for excellence results in boosting trust among both staff and customers.

LAYER 2: The Guest Experience.

They call it Second Mile Service. It’s a logical offshoot of fostering trust among customers. The goal revolves around providing Ritz-Carlton-style service at each restaurant. It can be as simple as responding to a “Thank you” with a genuine “My pleasure,” or as meaningful as providing a free meal when an embarrassed customer forgot their wallet. Leaders encode these above-and-beyond standards in manuals and training so they embed in the culture at every level. In fact, a Hospitality Director at each restaurant ensures these standards thrive with each customer interaction.

LAYER 3: Marketing.

Only with operational and service excellence in place does marketing emerge. When leaders embrace such high standards, the marketing becomes genuinely authentic. But authentic doesn’t mean stodgy! Chick-fil-A isn’t like any other fast food company, so “We did not want advertising that was serious and looked like everybody else’s,” Steve says. That paved the way for ad agency The Richards Group to get fun and creative, milking the cow concept from their marketing minds. Without a truly innovative mindset from leaders, the idea for the now-iconic mascot would be “moo”-t.

LAYER 4: Technology.

In an era when companies jump on the latest tech bandwagon, such as today’s AI fever, Chick-fil-A’s leaders take it mindfully. When they do adopt new tech, it’s intentionally designed to maintain personal interaction; the process still ends with a human in the picture. As Steve reminds leaders, tech doesn’t replace people; it complements them!

These four layers work in tandem to drive Chick-fil-A’s unabashed success. You may need more, or even less. The key is to follow a kind of corporate golden rule: every layer, every step, must begin and end with people in mind.


Where have you seen customer service go far beyond your expectations? When did you experience a boss who treated you like a valued stakeholder? Share your exceptional story in the comments!

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This article was adapted by Dan Mushalko from our podcast episode Eat Mor Chikin: Chick-fil-A’s Recipe for Leadership.

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