Vacuums, Homeland Security, and Chick-fil-A: A Change Management Mixtape - Joshua Tree Leadership

Vacuums, Homeland Security, and Chick-fil-A: A Change Management Mixtape

I have developed a guiding principle throughout my years leading teams and organizations: ‘If it is empty, fill it. If it is full, empty it. And if you see something, do something.’ Honestly, I think the first two parts arise from my mother’s regular reminder: “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” I was the only high schooler attending Tehachapi High School who was woken every day at 5:00 am, not to prepare for seminary and school but to vacuum our entire house before leaving.

 The third part evolved from my experiences as a traveling executive in the post-9/11 era. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security audio message, on loop in every airport nationwide, ‘If you see something, say something,” felt lacking, so “do something” became my addition to complete the call to action. I have used this phrase: “If it is empty, fill it. If it is full, empty it, And if you see something, do something,” in many settings, from informal hallway meetings, board meetings, and everything in between. I have since condensed it into the acronym FED: Fill It, Empty It, Do It. As a veteran, I am biased, but I find acronyms practical. Despite the founder of Tesla‘s well-reported disdain for their overuse, I’ve discovered FED to be a valuable guide for effective tactical action within teams and organizations.

Mantras are one thing, but they are not everything, and there is an essential element missing because, as we are reminded in a rather famous book by Matthew, the Tax Collector, “[We] cannot live by bread alone.” Although freshly baked bread does make a strong argument for rethinking your life’s choices, the reality is that organizations can only succeed in the short term through tactics alone. Despite how much my countertop bread machine tried to convince me otherwise, it is clear that strategy and tactics are necessary for optimal functionality.

 At one point in my career, I was responsible for a food packaging division and its production team, and our largest customer was Chick-fil-A Restaurants (CFA). During this time, I was also exposed to a simple, impactful, strategic, counterbalancing change management tool. The lesson came from CFA’s CEO (now Chairman) Dan T. Cathy, who, if memory serves me, learned it from his Dad, the founder of Chick-fil-A, Truett Cathy. Chick-fil-A’s supplier partners are invited to attend a State of the Union summit each year in late spring. Back in the day, before CFA was the size it is now, supplier partner meetings were held at the corporate offices in a conference room that fit, at max, thirty people. During one of these yearly gatherings, I heard Dan’s mantra: “Lasting change occurs only by gentle pressure, relentlessly applied.” From the jump, these words struck a chord deep within me and became a change management philosophy I have embraced wholeheartedly. For the record, I have not been able to successfully ‘acronym-ize’ Dan’s phrase; the closest I’ve gotten is GE-LNT, but I think that this is one of those instances to leave well enough alone (*Gentle, Relentless – also have another fabulous lesson from Dan to share at a different time.)

 Daily, HR professionals (HRCI) commit to nurturing organizations’ most valuable asset—its people. Simultaneously, leaders and their executive teams must understand that aligning this invaluable resource with the company’s strategic objectives is the primary directive. In my professional journey, I’ve found that employing Dan’s framework and adopting FED as the foundational approach is remarkably effective. Of course, numerous tools can erich the arsenal, like one of my favorites, CliftonStrengths® (Caleb Salter). Still, the consistent power of defined gently reiterated actions is what I have found provides traction and seamless recalibration.

 The fusion of “If it is full, empty it. If it is empty, fill it. And, if you see something, do something,” alongside FED and Dan Cathy’s wisdom, is a foundation that can be used to implement and drive change. Whether the desired change is individual, such as those concepts outlined in Jocko Willink‘s book ‘The Code. The Evaluation. The Protocols.’, or improvements taught by The Drucker Institute to foster enduring and impactful change within ‘the society of organizations,’ the mission is the same – Fill It, Empty It, Do It.


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