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Sustainable, Competitive Advantage

Sustainable Competitive Advantage

What is your sustainable, competitive advantage? That is a question I have been wrestling with for the last several days.

Last Tuesday, we had the privilege of hosting Chick-fil-A Chairman Dan Cathy in Acworth, Georgia. He was gracious enough to come speak to our community as a part of a “Lunch and Learn” to raise funds for our Expanding Horizons Program. Thanks to the efforts of some community leaders in Ira and Kim Blumenthal, our local Chick-fil-A Owner/Operator Andy Duncan, and our amazing team at the Acworth Parks, Recreation, and Community Resource Department, all in attendance were able to walk away from the event better than we walked in.


There were so many nuggets to take away from his talk. The one concept that Stuck was where he talked about their sustainable, competitive advantage. The one word that has burdened my thoughts since then is, sustainable.  How do we create sustainability?   

As leaders, we all seek to obtain a competitive advantage. It is what we desire to do. We develop strategies to get our organizations there. I believe any organization can create a competitive advantage, but the real question lies within the sustainability of those efforts.

None of us seek to be a flash in the pan. We want the success of our organizations to live on well beyond us.  Here are some thoughts and reflections on three keys to creating sustainable, competitive advantages:

Great Leaders Continue to Learn

One of the most impressive things I took away from Mr. Cathy was his willingness to learn. He is in his late sixties, and he is still in the process of learning. In fact, on his Chick-fil-A name tag that he wore to the event, it had a ribbon underneath it that read, “In Training.” This coming from someone who has helped build and lead one of the premier companies in the world. He could have easily spiked the football, rode off into the sunset, but CHOSES to be a lifelong learner. That is just plain awesome!

sustainable, competitive advantage
Mr. Cathy and I, Check out the Name Badge.

When I think about creating sustainable, competitive advantages, learning rises to the top of that list. Learning is important throughout the organization, but leaders set the pace. I strongly believe that we all have the ability to learn, the key differentiator is willingness. When our willingness to learn stops, it disables our ability to do so. A leader’s willingness to learn sends the clear message to your team that it is important.

When the leader stops learning, the organization stops learning. It’s kind of like shoving a stick in the spokes of a bicycle in motion (not that I have ever done that), it stops it in its tracks, no more forward momentum.  Done.

Sustainability is generated by leaders who CHOOSE to continue to learn. Craig Groeschel commonly wraps up his Leadership Podcast with this reminder, “when the leader gets better, everyone gets better.” Simple, yet oh so true.

Repeatable Systems

In the early part of the pandemic, all of us thought carefully about eating out. For my family, our local Chick-fil-A was one of the first places we chose to return to. Why? Because we trusted their systems that they had put in place years before the pandemic. Systems from prioritizing food safety, cleanliness, and consistency of service. Most importantly, their proven ability to always doing the right thing. We knew there was no doubt they cared about the customer and would take all measures necessary to keep us safe.

Same is true for our organizations, systems create sustainability. When I think of systems, I think of fundamentals. Fundamentals are developed by doing things over and over, with quality. As a coach, I always pounded away at the fundamentals with the players. I did this so that when they got in the game and things sped up or crisis hit, they would default to what their muscle memory told them to do.  The fundamentals we had done over and over. Quality processes that are repeated create consistency, a critical component to sustainability.

Leadership Development

Another lightbulb moment for me was when Mr. Cathy talked about the purpose of their organization. They made the decision to be a leadership development organization who happened to sell chicken.  Most ordinary organizations get that backwards.  They develop an organization that sells (Fill In The Blank) and happens to develop leaders. The order of these priorities is profound and purely reflective of the reasons Chick-fil-A is extraordinarily successful.

I had breakfast with a leader in our local community the other day. He and I are both fortunate to run in similar leadership circles and to have been exposed to some high-level leaders who have invested in us in our journeys. One of the topics we got on was whether most people had been exposed to the same leadership content and influences that we have had. Sadly, the answer was no.

Placing leadership development at the forefront creates sustainable organizations. It doesn’t matter what comes next in the priorities of our organizations. Whether we are leading schools, governments, police departments, local businesses, non-profit organizations, or quick-serve restaurants, leadership development must come first. People crave it. If they do not, then the leader has not exposed them to it. Shame on us.

Conclusion – Key Ingredient

As we have all seen by the “chicken sandwich wars,” anyone can create a fried chicken sandwich.  Mr. Cathy even acknowledged this at the “Lunch and Learn.”  In my opinion, while the competitors are busy perfecting their recipe for sandwiches (which Chick-fil-A did years ago), Chick-fil-A continues to refine their process of perfecting the key ingredient to their sustainable, competitive advantage, their people.   

Those who are creating competitive advantages without sustainability are likely substituting ingredients.  They are using artificial hormones for growth that are not good for long-term organizational health.  They seek quick, unsustainable advantages for short-term gain.

Short term gains are typically found in numbers, which can misrepresent organizational success.  Simon Sinek posted this leadership gold on Instagram, “Protect people.  Because in tough times, the numbers will never rush to save you.”

The recipe is simple for sustainability, great leaders and organizations prioritize people.  People are the secret sauce to our success.  Choosing to prioritize people is the concept of human leadership, the art of bettering others.  When we better others, we better the world we live and work in. 

Are people the sustainable, competitive advantage in your world? 

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