Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines’ co-founder and Chairman Emeritus, said it best: “The business of business is people.” This belief is the basis of Southwest’s exemplary culture. Even though the company honors and values all people involved in its business - employees, customers, supplier/vendors and shareholders - the company puts its employees first. Southwest Airlines recognizes that treating its employees well creates happy customers. That equation is proven by the company’s outstanding business results, which include:
What other US airline can boast these same results?
I was fortunate to have been invited to attend Southwest Airlines' "Culture Connection" in December 2017 in Dallas, Texas. It was a half-day event that showcased the company’s methods of strengthening, reinforcing, and maintaining its strongly positive culture. I applaud Southwest Airlines for offering this twice-yearly “peek under the covers” of their culture at no cost to the attendees. In contrast, Zappos and Disney charge fees to attend similar events they host.
Here are five lessons learned from Southwest’s Culture Connection day:
1. Evolve your culture.
Southwest Airlines has been in existence for over 50 years, and it started without explicitly articulated values but a shared sense of what the Southwest spirit was. About ten years ago, the leaders decided to formalize their culture by identifying six values they wished to honor. They have created a department of Culture Services, whose mission is to retain focus on company values, the employees and “low cost,” which is one of the company’s values. One way they remind employees of the culture is through “Culture Blitzes,” in which a Culture Services team visits an airport and touches every Southwest employee there with food and fun. The team even cleans the planes for the flight operations employees.
2. Equip “leaders,” regardless of what position they have.
Leaders are recognized at all levels of the company hierarchy, not just at the top of the hierarchy. At the Culture Connection event, we saw a video of a baggage handler who plays the ukulele for passengers when he has a moment to spare. As he said, “No one can frown when you’re listening to a ukulele.” His leadership is celebrated in the video. Leaders and high potential associates attend extensive leadership training, up to three weeks at a time, and are exposed to the company’s managerial best practices and what they call the “way we do things around here.” Leaders are encouraged to know about their employees needs outside of the workplace, and are given authority to spend money to care for associates in ways such as sending flowers after a death along with sending Southwest-branded baby items to an employee’s newborns.
3. Empower and appreciate employees.
When the company needed new uniforms for their flight attendants, they recruited a task force of flight attendants themselves to help design the uniforms. When customers use social media or other means of communication to compliment an employee, Southwest’s team of responders in turn forwards the compliment to the employee and her boss. In fact, Southwest receives over 7,000 of these kind of compliments a month! Another way the company encourages employee acknowledgement is through peer to peer recognition. With this, the company created a system which encourages employees to give “points” to colleagues. In turn, with these “points”, employees can purchase from a catalogue of items that the company provides.
4. Model the way
Executives and managers are fully expected to lead the way with their behavior in the workplace. To reinforce this idea, executives are video-recorded telling personal stories that illustrate the values and spirit of Southwest Airlines. In turn, managers coach associates who fail to live out the values and expected behaviors of the organization, while many newer hires simply self-select out of the system when they recognize that their behaviors don’t conform to the prevailing culture.
5. Design the physical space to enforce culture.
At Southwest Airlines’ headquarters in Dallas, Texas, the office has been recently redesigned around “culture centers” on each of the floors. Each center highlights one of the company’s values, and provides break services (coffee and kitchen facilities), meeting rooms and quite a bit of color, photos and flair to demonstrate that particular value. Different departments, such as accounting and marketing, are clustered around the centers, encouraging communication and chance encounters between employees across departments.
If you want the exemplary results that Southwest Airlines has achieved, isn’t it time to examine your culture? We all can learn from the best!
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