This is the first of 3 installments from a great conversation I had with Jimmy, I appreciate him and his wisdom. I encourage you to read this series but more importantly  visit his website, buy his  books, Creative Followership and Jimmy’s Stories  and get to know Creative Followership!

I first encountered the work of Retired Chick-fil-A’s Chief Operating Officer and President, Jimmy Collins, on the recommendation of a fellow member of the John Maxwell team. His book, “Creative Followership” has joined John Maxwell’s “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” and Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” as cornerstones of my career philosophy. 

Jimmy Collins teaches that finding a way to “do the things that your boss does not like to do” is an important role in every company. 

Before reading his book, I prioritized my time at work by what my boss was doing. I mistakenly thought that I would make myself more valuable to the company, and worthy of promotion, if I emulated his role and responsibilities. The truth was, my manager was focused on priorities of the business where he received the most enjoyment. Reading Jimmy Collins’ book brought me to the realization that shifting my focus to the important tasks that my superiors were avoiding was the key to making me a valuable teammate. I was more valuable as a compliment to, than a copycat of, my boss’ strengths. I was transformed from a somewhat redundant puzzle piece to linchpin of the company.

When did you first realize Creative Followership was a message the world needed to hear?

It was probably in the late 80s. I was still employed by Truett Cathy at Chick-Fil-A and I began to switch the emphasis to Followership. It was not until I retired that I decided to call it “Creative Followership“.  I did that because when I discussed Followership with people; I found that they were confused by the word itself. They were thinking a Follower was a servant down on their knees, kissing the boss’s hand and that sort of thing. For them to understand the role of a Follower, I added “Creative” to Followership. That has made a huge difference. People are more open to the idea of Creative Followership, and it makes it easy for them to understand the role of a Follower.

What I realized is there are four classifications of people in the world, especially business:  Leaders, Followers, Bosses and Workers. Sometimes they were the same; a Follower may be a Worker or a Boss might be a Leader but I found that many times they were not the same.

A Leader has only one definition, a Leader is someone who has Followers. No Followers, no Leader! A Leader attracts those Followers with a unifying purpose. That Leader has a goal, an objective or a vision or something that attracts Followers that want to help him accomplish that. That’s what glues them together, the unifying purpose, otherwise you don’t have Followers and you don’t have Leaders.

I also saw that we have Bosses (and some Leaders are Bosses). When I speak of a Boss, a Boss is someone who supervises Workers. A Worker is someone who does what the Boss says to do. They are not interested in getting involved in what the Boss wants done; they are working only for salary.

I guess when it really dawned on me, was before I worked for Chick-Fil-A. I was a kitchen design consultant and I had been retained to redesign the food service at a manufacturing plant in Georgia. They had something like 20,000 employees and one afternoon as I was leaving the man who was responsible for food service said, “You don’t want to leave here now” and I asked, “Why not?”. He told me that this is when the workers leave. He took me to a window and let me look out to see what happened when the workers left and headed for the parking lot. It looked like a madhouse race! Literally men racing from the building to get out to their car and be the first in their car to spin their wheels and scream out of the parking lot. That really struck me. These people don’t want to be here. They are here, they are earning a salary and getting paid but they don’t want to be here. That’s the case with many workers, they are working because they need a salary but they don’t have their heart in it. They don’t care about pleasing the Boss, they just want to be sure they are satisfying the Boss well enough to get paid.

We have these four categories: The Follower is there to do what the Boss needs done. The Leader is there in order to accomplish that unifying purpose. The Worker is there just to get paid. The Boss is there just to tell the workers what to do, but the Boss has no vision, no goal realistically, no unifying purpose. I mean he might have a goal just to be sure he has everyone at work on time tomorrow but there is no unifying purpose there.

So, when you look at this, you realize the things that really happen in the work place (and every other place too) is when the Leaders and the Followers make things happen. The Leader tells the Followers what he wants but he leaves “how to do it” up to the Followers and because of that, Followers own their share of that unifying purpose. In organizations that are really productive, you have a Leader and multitudes of Creative Followers who are making things happen there. That’s the way I see it, that’s the way I saw it when I was working and I see it more clearly now that I can stand a distance away and see what’s going on.

When I talk to young people about this message, they understand it – it’s not a mystery. The people selling Leadership (and it is a “for sale” product) courses, books, seminars and that sort of thing are communicating that you can’t be an “A#1” person, unless you are the Leader. It’s a pretty shallow message when you think about it, Ed. How many Leaders does an organization need? More than one?

I agree. A person can be successful without being the one at the top


How can a company institute and foster a culture of Creative Followership?

First of all, you must have a Leader. Let me tell you about the relationship between Truett Cathy, me and the other people within the organization. Truett Cathy was a Leader, unequivocal. But when I went to work for Truett, he gave me my instructions “Jimmy, I want you to help me open restaurants” and he paused here “and see that they stay open”. That was my instruction, Ed! Do you realize the scope of that? Anyone can open a restaurant, all it takes is money, but that doesn’t mean it can stay open. I had the background to know that it is very hard to open new restaurants and keep them open. I knew that I had to be sure we had good locations, we had a good layout, we picked the right people to run the place and we made the right deals to buy or lease the property. Think about the scope of what he told me in that simple instruction. I’m not the only one who got simple instruction from Truett Cathy. This is typical of Leaders- clear and simple instructions. The first Chief Purchasing Officer had one set of instructions from Truett Cathy and this is it: “Don’t run out of chicken”. When you have a Leader, they tell you what they want to accomplish, they also tell you the “why” of why they want to accomplish it, because that puts the emotion into it. Whenever someone says “this is what I want”, if they add the why and put emotion into it; that emotion becomes contagious through the whole organization. This is what Leaders do, and then they leave it to the Followers to figure out how.

The Leader understands that if the Follower is the creator of whatever the procedure or process is (in place) to accomplish what he needs to do, he owns it! He lives with it! He will make sure it works out. This gets lost in so many organizations, especially when they change their Chief Executive Officer. When a new Chief Executive Officer comes in and starts changing things around, nobody knows what to do anymore.

That may be an over simplification but I’ve found it’s better to simplify things than to complicate them. People, when they get into a subject, they complicate it instead of simplifying it.

I want to add something critical to this. People ask me about coaching, mentorship and that sort of thing (which I do not do) and this is what I try to get people to understand: Career advancement is a Do-It-Yourself activity. You can pick up tips from people, you can observe what people are doing, you can read about what people are doing but you have got to do it yourself. So many times, I see an organization try to establish some kind of training system to train people to do all the things they call “Leadership” and it’s really not necessary. If you get the right people in the right roles you don’t need that because it is innate, it’s in the person! I’ll give you an example: People constantly ask me Ed, “How do the Chick-fil-A franchisees train the people they have waiting on customers to be so nice?” You know the answer?

They recruit them! 

What it comes down to, in picking a person for any role there are four essentials. First, there is character, second, personality, third, knowledge and fourth, skill. You can impart knowledge, you can teach skill but you cannot change character and you cannot change personality. So why in the world would someone hire someone to put in front of customers, to wait on them and make that customer feel good about coming into that business, that does not like to deal with people? It makes no sense. But that’s what many organizations do. I see it a lot in fast food restaurants but, of course, I’m more sensitive to that than most other businesses. There is one place, I go in and they don’t speak to me, they look at me and wait for me to say something. Then when I tell them what I want, they hand me a ticket with the amount on it, I give them the money, they put the money in the register, once the order is ready they put it on the counter and many times they do not say a single word to me!

Why don’t executives see this? Do they get blind when they get in an executive role?

I will tell you this, after I retired from Chick-fil-A, I took some speaking engagements in other restaurant chains, where I spoke to their employees. I was contacted by one man from a chain (I won’t name the chain) and I said, “Let me meet you when you are in Atlanta at one of your restaurants and we can discuss this.” He said, “Well, I don’t eat there” (and this is a true story) he wanted me to go to a nice hotel dining room with him. I told him “I don’t think I will be able to help you”.

Edit by Jimmy Collins 8/22/17

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