MRM Talking With: Author, Leadership Coach and Chick-fil-A Veteran Dee Ann Turner

"A company’s culture is its soul. It will define the way employees interact with one another and guests and has the potential to reach far beyond offices to touch and affect lives. A compelling culture will help a company fulfill its vision, while negative cultures are incredibly harmful and will ultimately limit the level of success an organization can achieve."

Retirement has not slowed down Dee Ann Turner at all.

The writer, speaker, leadership coach and 33-year veteran of Chick-fil-A, Inc., recently released a second book, Bet on Talent: How to Create a Remarkable Culture that Wins the Hearts of Customers. Her latest work is filled with principles and stories about how management must help people understand and adapt to the cultural beliefs of a great company.

Dee Ann Turner

In this edition of Talking With, the Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine author of one of our all-time top reads, discusses the importance of selecting and stewarding talent and building a compelling company culture. 

Why did you write a second book? What more did you feel you had to say?

Actually, there is more to the story. The publisher of It’s My Pleasure went out of business and I sold the rights to Baker Books. They asked that I add new principles, content, stories and examples of other brands in addition to the IMP content. Together with Baker, we created a much better book in Bet on Talent. It includes all of IMP but about 30% more content and it is a better written book.

Why did you select the title: Bet on Talent?

I believe of all the strategies, initiatives and priorities an organization can focus on – talent is the very most important one. People decisions are the most important decisions that a leader makes.  If I want to win the hearts of my customers, I want to Bet on Talent to deliver as opposed to technology, marketing or other priorities. All of those are important, but they are also executed by the talent.  Talent makes emotional connections with the customers their wins their hearts and ultimately their loyalty.


What do you see as main issues regarding attracting and retaining talent in the restaurant industry today?

Working in a restaurant is hard. The physical demands aside, there are also the demands of pleasing the customer constantly. Customers are very picky about their food and it is so hard to please every customer. The work is physically stressful and pleasing guests can be stressful. For hourly workers, especially in the current job market, they can choose easier jobs.

Secondly, I don’t think people necessarily see a career path in restaurant work. I think leaders must focus on helping their employees grow skills beyond preparing and serving food. Allow them to develop leadership skills and show a path to leadership positions. Even if they are just passing through, it is an opportunity to improve the employment brand by being known as someone who helps people develop.

The competition for top talent is fierce right now. What can managers do to want people to work for them?

You have to start by being a great place to work and a leader that people want to work for. Create a remarkable culture by developing a meaningful purpose, a challenging mission and demonstrated core values for your restaurant. 

Be a leader that people want to follow and people will wait in line to work for you.

I was recently at one of Danny Meyer’s restaurants and noticed how happy the employees are. They were clearly supportive of one another. I asked my server and others about their culture. They talked about the great people they work with and how everyone, including the general manager exhibits their core values. They work as a team toward a common goal and they said the remarkable culture begins with Danny and has filtered through the leadership to the servers. Be a leader that people want to follow and people will wait in line to work for you.

How do you define sustainable talent?

I like to talk about “sustaining” talent rather than just retaining.  Retaining is keeping something around. Sustaining however is “life giving” helping it grow.

What are things a restaurant owner/operator can do to improve or enhance culture, even if things are going well, to attain “remarkable” levels?

The most important thing is to teach customer service principles instead of customer service rules. Free people up to focus on serving the guests, not following rules to stay out of trouble.  Rules tend to multiply to more rules and soon, people who have to comply to a stack of rules everyday will begin making up their own rules and applying them to the customer instead of looking for ways to exceed customer expectations.

There is a place for rules, like in food safety requirements, but don’t let rules run the culture or it will become toxic. Constantly review your purpose, mission and core values and demonstrate them to keep culture alive and fresh.

Can a restaurant/brand overcome a toxic culture?

Yes, but it is very hard. I always recommend starting with the key role in the organization. For a restaurant the might be the managers or team leaders that work for the GM. If you want to change culture, then you have to change the people. Look at all of the talent systems for the most critical role. Start with considering who and how you select them, how you develop them, compensate them and promote them.

Constantly review your purpose, mission and core values and demonstrate them to keep culture alive and fresh.

Be sure that the elements of your culture (purpose, mission, core values) are reflected in each of those systems. Those changes will influence change in the culture. Move on to the next critical role and do the same. Eventually, through repetition of this process, you will reach a tipping point that will move the culture.

In what ways do guests notice when a restaurant has a good culture-or a bad one?

As soon as a request is made and the team member either says, “I can certainly do that” or “I can’t do that” or “I will have to check,” it is usually evident. If the team members are empowered to serve, there is likely a strong and healthy culture in the restaurant. If they have to ask or they don’t know or they say, “I can’t do that,” it’s like it is a poor culture.

Why has engaging guests become a crucial element for brand success?

They have become the voice of the brand. With social media so relied upon, they will tell others about their outstanding and poor experiences. When they are engaged, they come more often and share positive stories with others.

In the book you use a lot of stories as illustration. How important did you feel that was in enhancing the messages?

People remember stories, so tell as may as you again. Stories bring a principle to life and make it easier for people to understand expectations.

You write: “Tell a story that matters and steward the story to create a remarkable culture. That culture will attract and grow great talent and delight every customer.” In what ways does a restaurant/brand find its own story?

I believe the best stories are how the team members have exceeded the expectations of the guest. Keep telling the stories of the heroes of your business. It informs people what is expected and gives them role models to follow.

You write: When employees lack the ability to innovate or collaborate, because someone else decides everything for them, they begin to take less ownership for their jobs.  How does a leader reach out to employees to foster this kind of working environment?

Allow the people closest to the work to make decisions about the work. Try to include them in as many decisions you can about the way they go about their work including new procedures. They usually have a better understanding of their work, anyway, and can help the leader avoid pitfalls that will hurt morale and productivity.

I believe the best stories are how the team members have exceeded the expectations of the guest.

What lessons do you hope a reader takes away from the book?

Culture is crucial and it takes intentionality every single day to build and strengthen a remarkable culture. But it’s only part of the equation. If you want to provide amazing customer experiences and legendary customer service then you have to also select extraordinary talent. Find talent whose character matches the organization, whose competency matches the role and whose chemistry matches the team.

How are you enjoying your “retirement?” 

Ha! Well, I am retired from Chick-fil-A but the busiest I have been in a long time! I am having the time of my life doing the work I feel I was made to do. I love writing and speaking and consulting in a variety of industries. Meeting new people and telling their stories is one the may benefits to my new role. This is truly a great season of life!