Mark Miller: An interview by Bob Morris

Mark Miller is a business leader, best-selling author and communicator. He began his Chick-fil-A career working as an hourly team member in 1977. In 1978, Mark joined the corporate staff working in the warehouse and mailroom. Since that time, he has provided leadership for Corporate Communications, Field Operations, and Quality and Customer Satisfaction, and today he serves as the Vice President, Training and Development. During his time with Chick-fil-A, annual sales have grown to almost $4 billion. The company now has more than 1,500 restaurants in 38 states and the District of Columbia.

Mark began writing about a decade ago.  He teamed up with Ken Blanchard, co-author of The One Minute Manager, to write The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do. Today, almost 400,000 copies of The Secret are in print, and it has been translated into more than 20 languages. Recently, he released The Secret of Teams that outlines some of the key lessons learned from a 20-year study on what makes some teams outperform the rest.  His next book, Great Leaders Grow: Becoming a Leader for Life, is set for release in February 2012.

In addition to his writing, Mark loves speaking to leaders.  Over the years, he’s traveled extensively around the world teaching for numerous international organizations. His theme is always the same: encouraging and equipping leaders.  His topics include leadership, creativity, team building, and more. Mark has an active lifestyle. As a photographer, he enjoys shooting in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach places, including Mount Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp and the jungles of Rwanda.

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Morris: Before discussing The Secret and The Secret of Teams, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

Miller: My mom.  She instilled in me early the idea of working hard to be my best.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development?

Miller: Dan Cathy, the current president of Chick-fil-A was one of my first supervisors.  He’s modeled life-long learning for me for over three decades.

Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course that you continue to follow? Please explain.

Miller: Dan has taught me many things over the years, but none had more lasting impact than the idea that your capacity to learn determines your capacity to lead.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished thus far?

Miller: My formal education took a non-traditional path. I attended college at night while working on the Chick-fil-A staff.  Since that time I’ve had some phenomenal educational experiences – one of the highlights for me was attending the 8-week Advanced Management Program at Harvard,

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you to work for Chil-fil-A in 1977?

Miller: Everything rises and falls on leadership. Had I known this in 35 years ago, I would have become a student of leadership as a kid.

Morris: In you opinion, what differentiates Chil-fil-A from all other employers for which so many young people now work?

Miller: The success of our brand hinges on the business leader who operates each individual location. We are tireless in our efforts to get the right leader in each location. As a result, the more than 70,000 employees in the restaurants have the chance to work for some amazing leaders.

Morris: Based on your own experience as well as what you have learned from others, how to recognize high-potentials among all the young people whom Chick-fil-A hires?

Miller: It all starts with the point leader in the restaurant, we call them the Operator. We’ve noticed over the years that the best Operators attract the best people. As I said earlier, our success is determined by the local Operator.

Morris: On May 23, 1946, 25-year-old Truett Cathy and his younger brother Ben opened a restaurant called the Dwarf House at 461 South Central Avenue in Hapeville, Georgia, a small town south of Atlanta. With all due respect to what Ray Kroc and Dave Thomas achieved, how do you explain the fact that they have received far more attention as entrepreneurs than Truett Cathy has?

Miller: Truett chose a different path. Because he was not trying to build a big company, he could do things differently:  Close on Sundays, all company-owned restaurants, be a privately owned company, etc. The result of these decisions, and others like them, was slower growth. I guess there are fewer news stories on slow and steady growth. A footnote on this point: In 2011 we surpassed $4 billion in sales for the first time and we’re debt-free. Not bad for slow and steady.

Morris: Of all the business books that you have read, from which have you learned the most valuable lessons? Please explain.

Miller: I’ve read more business books than I can count. My goal is to learn something from every one of them.  I think I have. With that said, The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker continues to challenge me.  It is one of the few business books that I read again and again.

Morris: When did you first meet Ken Blanchard and how did your relationship with him then develop?

Miller: Ken and I met when Chick-fil-A was considering him to speak at one of our events almost 15 years ago. He and I hit it off and the day of my first meeting with him I found myself at his home for lunch meeting his wife, Margie. We’ve worked on several projects over the years – Chick-fil-A projects, numerous book projects and we’ve worked together in the non-profit sector. He’s been a great friend and mentor for me.

Morris: How specifically have you applied his “One Minute” concept in your work at Chick-fil-A??

Miller: We created curriculum for our restaurants around Ken’s book, Leadership and the One Minute Manger. Some of our Operators say it is the best thing we’ve ever done for them. We’ve also had Ken conduct his Situational Leadership II workshop for our Operators and corporate staff.

Morris: Has it also proven helpful in personal situations? Please explain.

Miller: Ken’s ideas are powerful! He has an uncanny gift for making the complicated easy to understand and apply.  So, once you get Situational Leadership, or any of his other ideas, you can apply them at home, or school, or church, or work.  The ideas he tends to write about have a broad, if not universal application.  That’s one reason he’s been so successful.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Secret. When and why did you decide to write it?

Miller: I never intended for the ideas in The Secret to be published. Chick-fil-A wanted to accelerate leadership development. We decided that a common definition would be essential. I had the privilege to lead a team that created the SERVE model. When we finished our work, we were in the process of seeking outside counsel and validation of our conclusions.  Ken was one of the thought-leaders we approached for his input. When he saw what we had created, the very first words out of his mouth were, “This has got to be a book.” I dismissed this and told him we didn’t want to write a book, we just wanted to accelerate leadership development at Chick-fil-A. He said that while we had been trying to identify what great leaders do at Chick-fil-A, we had actually identified what great leaders had done throughout history and we had to do a book.  He persisted and we did write a book, The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations along the way while writing it? Please explain.

Miller: Since this was my first book as a co-author, I was surprised at how many drafts we would do before the book was published. Clearly the significant changes were in the early drafts, but in the end, we had done 16 drafts!! When people ask me why so many drafts, I remind them that I sell chicken for a living.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from the book that you originally envisioned?

Miller: The original vision did not change.  The final is what we both had in mind – it just took a while to get there.

Morris: Why did you and Ken Blanchard decide to frame the material within a business narrative with a fictional setting, characters, plot, conflicts, etc?

Miller: This was an easy decision. This was the style that Ken had been using for many years. It was not only part of his brand; this type of book had found a mainstream audience within the business community.

Morris:  When the story begins, Debbie Brewster acknowledges that only a year ago, “I was on top of the world. Today, I’m holding on for dear life and might lose my jib.” Why did you introduce your protagonist in this manner?

Miller: We felt that virtually every leader could relate to part of Debbie’s story. Leadership is hard work, even for the best leaders.  We felt that our audience could relate to the tension that Debbie was experiencing even if they hadn’t been in exactly the same situation.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, Debbie registers for participation in her company’s mentoring program. She is surprised to learn that her mentor is Jeff Brown. Why did you and Blanchard decide to have the [begin the italics] president of the company [end italics] provide the assistance she seeks?

Miller: We thought it would establish Jeff as a credible mentor. At the same time, it would model something that more senior leaders should consider – don’t just establish a mentoring program, participate.

Morris: Over time, she receives assistance from a librarian who, although a “minor character,” I think has special importance. Do you agree?

Miller: Leaders need to be open to learn from anyone. Also, leaders who are successful have probably been assisted by countless folks on the journey. Finally, as the story unfolds the librarian has a much bigger role to play as she joins Debbie’s team. We think this underscores the importance of leaders always looking for talented people.

Morris: Of all the barriers that Debbie has to overcome before she eventually learns what the secret of great leadership is, which barrier proves to be the most difficult? How could it have been avoided? How does she overcome it?

Miller: Debbie’s working definition of leadership was outdated. She felt her role was to tell others what to do. This may have worked in the Chinese military 5000 years ago when the troops were uneducated, or at the beginning of the industrial revolution when there were often language barriers and high turnover; but today,  as Peter Drucker says, the typical worker is not merely hired hands, they are “knowledge workers.” Debbie learns this as she begins to see her role differently.  She understands the value of serving her staff as she begins to incorporate the five practices into her day-to-day leadership.

Morris: Other than being Debbie’s husband, what else does Tom Brewster contribute to developments in the book?

Miller: Tom challenged Debbie to be prepared for her meeting with the president of the company.  He asked her to be prepared with a single question – as it turned out, it was the question that shaped Debbie’s relationship with Jeff and became the quest of the entire book: What is the secret of great leaders?

Morris: What about Jill?

Miller: Jill plays an important role in Debbie’s transformation as a leader. She is more relational as a leader while Debbie is more results oriented. Jill reminds Debbie that “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Morris: Here’s my favorite passage in Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Please explain to what extent (if any) you think it is relevant to what happens in The Secret.

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Miller: Ken likes to talk about two parts to leadership: direction and implementation. When leaders set the direction, provide the boundaries and resources, the people can usually do it themselves. If they need help along the way, that just creates another opportunity for the leader to serve!

Morris: As the book ends, Debbie is about to assume increased responsibilities, overseeing leadership development. If you were her mentor, what advice would you give her during her first 60-90 days in this new, more challenging  position?

Miller: Maintain her servant mindset. Ask great questions. Continue to do the things that made her successful to this point:

See the Future
Engage and Develop Others
Reinvent Continuously
Value Results and Relationships
Embody the Values

Morris: In The Secret of Teams, you focus again on Debbie Brewster. To what extent is this second book a sequel to The Secret and to what extent does it break new ground?

Miller: The Secret of Teams is a sequel. It is the continuing story of Debbie’s leadership journey and the growth of her organization. It also creates an opportunity for Debbie to learn a new skill set – how to create High Performance Teams. Regarding new ground, the book gives language to what has always been true about High Performance Teams. However, what may be groundbreaking revolves around how little has been written about the power of community prior to this book. It has been referenced in other books and has most often been written off as a chance occurrence.  Our experience is different. Community is not only essential to the highest performing teams, it can be cultivated.  Teams don’t drift to greatness.  There is a leader who makes a decision and leads the journey.  It may be too much to say groundbreaking – but the outcomes will be nothing short of spectacular when a team gets it all right: Talent, Skills and Community!

Morris: The best of the business books are research-driven and that is certainly true of The Secret of Teams. Please explain.

Miller: There are two kinds of research – qualitative and quantitative. There are not reams of data behind The Secret of Teams, although that type of research is fascinating to me. My friend Jim Collins has made it more popular than perhaps ever before. The other type of research comes form the trenches of experience. I’ve spent more than 20 years studying what makes the best teams work. Why some teams excel and others flounder. The Secret of Teams is built on that research.

Morris: I played three sports in high school and college, then coached all three for many years at two boarding schools in New England. I see several parallels between leading teams in athletic competition and in the business world. Do you agree?

Miller: I agree with you. That’s one reason The Secret of Teams has such broad applicability.  It does apply in sports – but it also applies in education, government, churches, and non-profit organizations large and small, as well as in business. Talent, Skills and Community are a winning combination in any arena where people are working together to accomplish a common goal.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, please explain the selection of NASCAR as one of the focal points in The Secret of Teams.

Miller: I was trying to find some way to frame the main ideas of the book. Although I could have used any of the traditional team sports, I decided to look for places just off the beaten path that would illustrate the big ideas. NASCAR worked.

Morris: The U.S. Army Special Forces is another focal point. In your opinion, what is the single most important lesson to be learned from how it evaluates the qualifications of candidates?

Miller: The big idea behind the evaluation of candidates is that all great teams have great talent. The selection process will vary from organization to organization depending on the role being filled. The Special Forces teach us specifically – set the bar high – don’t settle. The teams with the best Talent have a significant competitive advantage.

Morris: At one point, Debbie Brewster meets with Brigadier General Roger Grant (retired), a former Special Forces Commander, who discusses “three pillars” of a successful team. What are they and why is the third a “secret sauce” to a team’s success?

Miller: The general talked about Selection, Training and Esprit de’ Corps. The NASCAR team said it differently and so did the restaurant group. Every organization may say it differently. That’s okay. The big idea is that they were all talking about the same principle: Talent, Skills and Community are needed to create greatness in a team.

Morris: To what does the acronym “SERVE” refer and what is its relevance to what occurs in The Secret of Teams?

Miller: The SERVE model is Debbie’s organization’s point-of-view on leadership. It is an acrostic that outlines the five essential practices of Servant Leaders, identified earlier in this interview:

See the Future
Engage and Develop Others
Reinvent Continuously
Value Results and Relationships
Embody the Values

Morris: How specifically does Chick-fil-A’s leadership development program help those enrolled in it to become effective team leaders? What is the company’s “secret sauce”?

Miller: When you talk about leadership development at Chick-fiL-A, you really have to segment the conversation into three groups: our Operators – they are the men and women who run the restaurants; Team Members – there are about 70,000 of these individuals in the organization. They are the employees of the Operators; and finally, the corporate staff. When we talk about leadership development, we do many things to support our corporate leaders: training, resources, events, mentoring, all the usual suspects. When we think about our Operators, we start by selecting leaders.  That’s what they contribute from the outset. Although we do some things to support and encourage their development as leaders, their development is their responsibility.

Morris: I don’t know about you but I think there are films that dramatize very effectively important business lessons to be learned about important subjects such as teamwork. The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, Remember the TitansHoosiers, and The Sting, for example. What do you think?

Miller: Absolutely. The best films resonate with their audience. They do so because they ether depict the world as it is – therefore we can relate to its message or they depict the world as we wish it were.  Either way it connects with us at a deep level. The world runs on principles. Any time one of these truths is depicted, people can learn from it.

Morris: Recent research by highly reputable firms such as Gallup and TowersWatson indicate that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. workplace are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, working at cross-purposes with their company’s strategic objectives. In your opinion, what can supervisors do to increase the percentage of those who are actively and productively engaged?

Miller: Well, obviously this is a big question so I want be careful not to give you a 10-cent answer to a $100 question.  With that as a disclaimer, here goes…

The first problem may be one of fit.  Fit for the job or the organization.  The best hedge against low engagement begins with selection.  However, if you find that the people on your team are not engaged, decide if de-selection is appropriate.  Assuming this will not be the predominant response, I encourage leaders to do a simple exercise, one that has two parts.  First, think of a time you were fully engaged. Next, identify the factors that contributed to your level of engagement.  I’ve done this with leaders around the world.  The answers are always similar – they include: I knew the big picture/vision; I was using my talents and gifts; I knew what was expected of me; I had the resources I needed; I was getting appropriate coaching and feedback; I knew the score; etc.  My challenge to leaders who find low engagement among their team is to identify the gaps from the list I just outlined and begin closing them.

Morris: Back to The Secret of Teams. You seem to be comfortable presenting business concepts within the framework of a story format. That is, using setting, characters, plot, conflicts, etc. To what extent has collaborating with Ken Blanchard on The Secret and writing The Secret of Teams helped you to be more effective in your role at Chick-fil-A?

Miller: Working with Ken has been a tremendous blessing.  He’s not only taught me about writing, he’s modeled servant leadership for me. He’s one of my heroes.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. To what extent has your work at Chick-fil-A help you with writing your books?

Miller: Chick-fil-A is a great laboratory for the creation of ideas that work. We are a growing business facing many of the same challenges all businesses face. Because we’ve been able to attract a lot of really gifted people, the ideas for books like The Secret and The Secret of Teams are all over the place. I’m fortunate to be the guy who gets to capture them to share with the world.

Morris: The title of your next book, Great Leaders Grow, affirms a belief I have had for many years: all great leaders have a “green thumb” when it comes to helping others become effective leaders. Without giving away the book’s plot, is that one of its themes? Please explain.

Miller: No, perhaps helping others grow will be a future book.  Great Leaders GROW is about assuming personal responsibility for your own growth. The core message is, don’t wait on your boss or the organization to help you grow – if they do, that’s great, but the responsibility is on the leader. In the book, we outline a four-part strategy for becoming a leader for life. And yes, it is a sequel – with a twist. Although you’ll recognize some of the characters, you may be shocked by the setting for the story. Also, we’re introducing Blake, a talented 20-something young man fresh out of college. You’ll be able to follow him as he begins his leadership journey. We’re excited about the early feedback.  I look forward to getting your feedback.

Morris: Let’s invoke a few horticultural terms. If a workplace is a “garden” and its leaders are “gardeners,” how best to “grow” leaders on a systematic basis? What do all of the best developers of leadership share in common?

Miller: Here’s a quick answer: To “grow leaders in a systematic basis” (create a leadership culture) an organization needs to:

• Define It (i.e. leadership)
• Teach it
• Practice it
• Measure it
• Model it

Maybe we can unpack this more in a future interview.

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Mark cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites.

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  1. Mark Miller: A second interview by Bob Morris on November 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    […] To read my first interview of him, please click here. […]

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