As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dee Ann Turner. She is a 35-year veteran in identifying, selecting, and growing talent. She has unparalleled insight and experience in talent acquisition, career and leadership development, and organizational culture. Author and speaker, Dee Ann is the former vice president of talent for Chick-fil-A, where she helped shape the company’s historically remarkable culture. In her first Amazon chart-topping book, “It’s My Pleasure: The Impact of Extraordinary Talent and a Compelling Culture,” Dee Ann took readers behind the scenes of Chick-fil-A for explanations and action steps any business could adopt. Her second book, “Bet on Talent: How to Create a Remarkable Culture That Wins the Hearts of Customers,” was named one of the best books to read in 2020 by Harver. It dissects numerous industry-leading organizations’ strategies alongside explanations of Dee Ann’s original approaches to the most crucial decisions in business. Out on March 2, 2021, Dee Ann’s highly anticipated third book, CRUSH YOUR CAREER: ACE THE INTERVIEW, LAND THE JOB, AND LAUNCH YOUR FUTURE, is a guide to understand ourselves and our goals better, demystify the modern job market and workplace, and help us discover personal passion and purpose. An experienced mentor and leader teaching organizations how to find and keep extraordinary talent, she now teaches talent how to be extraordinary. Today, she leads her own organization, Dee Ann Turner & Associates, LLC, where she widely shares her wisdom through speaking opportunities, coaching, and consulting. Dee Ann lives with her husband just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. For more information, please visit DeeAnnTurner.com.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
For my entire life, I wanted to be a writer. It started when I was very young, and I pursued that dream through studying journalism. When I got out of college, it was during a challenging financial time for the country, and it was hard for me to find a job doing exactly what I wanted to do. From my perspective, there were two issues. One is that I couldn’t make a living by writing at that time, and secondly, I didn’t have any experience that anyone was going to be interested in reading about. So, I ended up going down the advertising route, which led me to Chick-fil-A. Instead of taking a job in advertising when I started at Chick-fil-A, I actually took a job in human resources, thinking that I would always get back to advertising. But that didn’t happen! I ended up leading that function for Chick-fil-A for over 20 years and spending a 33-year career there. In the midst of that, just a few years ago, I wrote my first book, It’s My Pleasure, which is based on all the experience that I had leading talent at Chick-fil-A. I was thrilled to finally have content that somebody might be interested in reading about! That book was followed by Bet on Talent, which focuses on creating a remarkable culture that wins the hearts of customers. My latest book, Crush Your Career: Ace the Interview, Land the Job, and Launch Your Future (out March 2), is a guide to understand ourselves and our goals better, demystify the modern job market and workplace, and help us discover personal passion and purpose. My journey has taken me to this place in life where I get the pleasure of developing content and engaging with audiences and individuals. My primary goal is to help leaders find and keep extraordinary talent and help talent become extraordinary.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was starting in my career, I was tasked with creating a brochure to recruit franchisees for the organization. I misspelled the word restaurant, which was incredibly embarrassing considering we were a restaurant chain and that I had been a journalism major. I printed the brochures, not knowing the mistake was in there. My boss caught it and showed it to me, and I was mortified. It cost about $5,000 to reprint those brochures, and at that time in 1986, it was a fortune to me. I remember, I felt so badly about it and as far as I know, I’ve never misspelled the restaurant again! I made this mistake 35 years ago, and to this day, every time I type “restaurant,” I look at it twice. My boss was really gracious considering I cost the company money.
Interestingly, the company I worked for previously probably would have fired me for that mistake because they didn’t allow mistakes at all. Their expectations were always for perfection. While Chick-fil-A held a very high standard of excellence, there was room to make a mistake once. The expectation is that you don’t make the same mistake twice and as a leader. I’ve told this story a lot to team members when they come to me with a mistake they’ve made. From time to time, we all make mistakes, but how we recover from it and our commitment to learn from it and not repeat it is what’s really important.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My mentor at Chick-fil-A was Jimmy Collins. He was the former President and COO of Chick-fil-A. He was not only my mentor, but he was a champion and my sponsor too. I would not have been in the role that I was in without Jimmy’s support. One of the most important things he did was help me break the glass ceiling, selecting me as the first female officer at Chick-fil-A. Some people confuse having a champion and sponsor with favoritism. Actually, sponsorship accelerates accountability. While Jimmy was undoubtedly an advocate for me, he held me at the highest accountability level because he was my sponsor.
There was one time when I had failed to consult Jimmy on a decision that I thought I had the authority to make. However, he thought he’d given me direct instruction not to move forward with that decision. I was much younger in the organization, and another very senior leader told me to move forward with the decision. I incorrectly assumed the leader had both the authority and the clearance from Jimmy to do it. As I came to find out, he didn’t have approval, and I should have never assumed that he or I had the authority. When Jimmy became aware of it, he felt like I had broken his trust, and that’s a very serious matter between a sponsor and their mentee. He actually threw me out of his office. When he told me to leave his office, I sat there for another moment, and he said, “I mean it, leave now.” I now realize he was doing a couple of things. First of all, he was holding me accountable. But even more so, he was furious, and he realized that his words would have a lasting impact, and he wanted to choose them very carefully. Ultimately, he did not let me receive the full force of his anger at that moment. So, I took some time to really think about what had happened. A few weeks later, I went back to him and apologized for assuming something I could have verified with him, assuring him that it was not an issue of integrity. Not getting approval from him was not intentional. But I did make a mistake in judgment. Thankfully, he was quick to forgive, and our relationship was restored. If he hadn’t forgiven me, it truly would have had a lasting impact on my career.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When I started my own company, my purpose was to inspire and encourage others to live out their purpose. I was given many opportunities over the years, and I wanted to help other leaders, especially in the areas of culture and talent, as it’s where my passions lie. Ultimately, I wanted to help others strengthen their organizational culture and live out their organization’s purpose.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Post 9/11 was a challenging time within any organization. People were truly fearful, and, looking back on it, we’ve overcome so much fear from that time. On the day tragedy struck, people wanted to be with their families, and parents wanted to be with their children. Afterward, it was very difficult for parents to leave their children, and it was even harder for people to get on an airplane for business purposes, as people were so fearful. We took the time to listen to people patiently and allow them to express their fears truly. Then, we moved forward together, focusing on the future rather than what had happened. We focused on helping our team navigate through a very difficult time with patience and kindness, which ultimately got us through.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
My motivation comes from my Faith, and it really has a lot to do with what keeps me going. I feel like I have a unique set of gifts given to me, and it’s my responsibility to steward them to help others achieve their goals. Giving up has never been an option. Regardless of the obstacle, my mantra has always been, “find a way forward.” Forward is where the future is and we have to keep going.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role as a leader during challenging times is casting a vision for a way forward and encouraging people on the journey to get there. There are many ways to do that, but first, you have to listen to how people feel. Struggling with fear is, often, in times of crisis, where you find your people. So, you have to listen to them so you can work through it together. It’s essential to get people to express fear because it loses its power when spoken. But, as long as it remains within someone, it grows. Then, being able to show them a path different from what their fear is telling them. Ultimately, you need to be encouraging and be in the trenches with them as you go through it. Being a present leader is critical.
Due to our COVID-19 circumstances, most of us have been working from home for a year now. It’s so easy when you’re working virtually to communicate less. But organizations that have strengthened their culture in these times and perform better have learned that you have to communicate more and be far more intentional when you’re virtual. When we’re virtual, there’s less “water cooler” chat. We tend to get down to the agenda quickly because we’re not face-to-face. So, we’re not asking those critical questions. Like, “how are you? How are you really doing?” It’s so important to have those conversations, especially one on one and listen to people. As I’ve said, when you allow someone to give something a voice, it removes the negative power, and you can replace it with something more positive.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
As much as vision casting is essential, it’s also important to take one step at a time. Walking right alongside your team and encouraging them in times of crisis is really important because it’s hard to focus on many things when there is so much other stress and emotion involved. So if you can get your team focused on accomplishing the next thing, and when you arrive there, turn to the next thing, and then the next thing, then they can turn around and see the path behind them and see they are finding their way forward.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I actually had that experience today — where somebody asked for a meeting with me, and it was really to tell me about a mistake made. What I appreciated is that they were direct and told me about the mistake. They said, “here’s what happened.” When someone is clear and upfront like that, you have the knowledge you need and decide what next steps to take. When you’re trying to figure out what the truth is, or you feel like you only have half-truths, or the story doesn’t make sense to you, you’re so busy trying to sort out the truth that you can’t get beyond the problem to see a solution. So, if you have bad news to tell someone, be as straightforward and timely with it as possible. Then everybody can start making their next decisions about what to do next. Giving half-truths or making excuses is unproductive and ultimately diminishes energy in the team. The best thing you can do is be transparent. If you have the habit of always being transparent, you grow trust with your team and leadership.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
In times like these, if you choose not to have a plan, you won’t get anywhere. Just because the future’s unpredictable is not a reason not to have a plan. In fact, it means you should have several plans: your best-case scenario, your worst-case scenario, and then something in between, which is probably the likely scenario. You’re always working towards your best-case scenario, but when something or an obstacle is thrown in the way, then you can adjust and refer to your other plans. Everybody wants hope for the future, and if you’re going to lead a team, you have to create a vision that is very hopeful for the future while still being realistic of the current situation.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Change or die. Sometimes we have no choice but to ultimately change. And change creates growth, and growth necessitates change. That’s a cycle that leaders have to manage, and they manage it in turbulent times too.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Lack of transparency: When you keep parts of your organization in the dark, they can sense that something’s going on, and it ultimately escalates levels of anxiety that are non-productive. The best thing for your culture is to be transparent as much as possible. Occasionally, you can’t share things, but as much as you can, keep those channels of communication open.
- Abandoning strategy: Abandoning strategy is something organizations tend to do in difficult times when they should have stayed the course. Turbulent, uncertain times require us to make adjustments, but altogether abandoning the strategy and just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks is usually not the best option. Sticking to the strategy is key.
- Losing focus on your people: I often see that organizations turn their direction so much to the business and profit that they lose focus on their people and talent. There’s a lack of understanding regarding the importance of investing in the infrastructure of your business. Once you get beyond the crisis, if you haven’t focused on your people, it will throw you into another crisis of a different measure, and you’ll be stuck in this cycle. Be sure you retain your most critical talent during a crisis.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Tell the truth: I always go back to a historical example — something that Winston Churchill said during London’s bombing. He admitted that the country was in a bad situation and didn’t try to convince them otherwise. Churchill gave them hope and courage, saying that we will not give up and will come out of this on the other side. He’s renowned as a great leader because of how he reacted in times of crisis. He gave people what they needed most: truth, a plan, and encouragement that they’ll get through it together.
- Cultivate commitment: One of the essential things we can do for our organizations is creating principles that, on an everyday basis, and especially during a crisis, people can revert to. If you equip people with principles and concepts when a crisis arises, they can use those principles and their judgment to react and problem solve. A great example of this was the quick response from one of our employees during Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. A senior citizen customer called the restaurant saying his house was being flooded and didn’t know what to do. That employee sent a boat out to his home to rescue him. The employee felt empowered to do that because his leader had cultivated his commitment through the principle of going above and beyond to serve the customer.
- Keep investing: Sometimes, when we’re in crisis, our reflex is just to shut down everything and hold onto it tightly, and we stop investing in infrastructure or people or the organization’s growth. If we do this, we will find when we get on the other side of it that we’re so much further behind. Then the predicament we put ourselves in might be our actual crisis. There’s a tree near me on a lake, and you can see where the water has washed away the soil of the tree. Its roots are exposed, and the top of the tree is beautiful. It’s green and lush, and it looks like the tree is healthy. But, when you look closely, you can see that the water is rotting at its roots. The whole infrastructure of the tree is decaying. While things can look healthy on the outside, if we’re not nurturing the infrastructure, then it will rot away without us even knowing it, until one day it comes crashing down. That analogy applies to organizations. If you don’t invest in the infrastructure, it will come crashing down. Invest in the infrastructure to avoid that crisis.
- Engage others: Don’t do it all on your own! If you have a problem or are in crisis, engage your team to help you and delegate different pieces of work. When there’s a national crisis in our country, the cabinet comes together and delegates various tasks. Think about our President — he has limited power and has to engage cabinet members in Congress to help him in crisis times. That’s what they’re there for. The same applies to organizations — you selected the talent around you for a reason. If you’re trying to take it all on yourself, then you’re not using the resources around you.
- Take care of yourself: Attend to your own physical, spiritual, mental and emotional well-being. Exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, spend time alone, read good books and spend time with family and friends. All of these actions re-energize the leader to help lead others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is a verse of scripture, “see to it that no one misses the grace of God.” The way that applies to my career is that I went through a long period of time where I expected perfection from myself. When we expect perfection of ourselves, we expect it out of other people too. When I finally came to terms with this idea of grace, I realized I didn’t need to be perfect. Then I became a better leader because I started extending grace to others. When I figured that out, it made me a better leader because I wanted to be sure everyone had the same experience of feeling freed up from perfection and high expectations.
How can our readers further follow your work?
In my new book, CRUSH YOUR CAREER, I dive into this topic more and offer various tips from moving from a doer to a leader and effectively leading through change. The book relies on relatable anecdotes, veteran wisdom, and precise questions to demystify the modern job market and workplace and help readers discover personal passion and purpose. With self-reflective chapter conclusions asking “What’s My Story?” recap questions designed to prompt both introspection and action, readers can expect to learn new things about not only themselves but their career and life goals.
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