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The official announcement from Southwest Airlines on the passing of its founder, Herb Kelleher, describes him as a pioneer, maverick and innovator. Yes, he was all three. I’d add one more quality that turned Kelleher’s company into an iconic brand: storyteller.
Many businesses have tried to figure out the secret to Southwest’s success, made more astonishing by the fact that it’s been in business for 48 years. Kelleher once said leaders from other companies would visit Southwest headquarters in Dallas to learn its secrets. He took a special joy in their reaction when he revealed how simple it was. “They were interested in how we hired, trained, that sort of thing,” Kelleher said. “Then we’d say, ‘Treat your people well and they’ll treat you well,’ and then they’d go home disappointed. It was too simple.”
Culture matters at Southwest Airlines and it started with ‘Herb.’ Competitors can buy tangible assets, but they can’t buy culture, he often said. Kelleher’s culture code started with “an audacious commitment” to put employees first, customers second, and shareholders third.
As a storyteller, Kelleher understood that culture is not something that a committee brainstorms once and moves on. Instead, cultures are built on stories that leaders share daily. Kelleher was once asked why it was so hard for competing airlines to copy Southwest’s success. Kelleher explained the difference with the following story:
I think the difficulty for them is the cultural aspect of it. That cannot be duplicated. One of the things that demonstrates the power of people is when the United Shuttle took out after us in Oakland. They had all the advantages. They had first-class seats for those who don’t want to fly anything but first class. They had a global frequent flyer program, which we did not have. They probably spent $25 million or $30 million on their advertising campaign. I probably have something like a thousand letters at my office that tell you why they finally receded from Oakland. Those letters say, “Herb, I tried them, but I just like your people more, so I’m back.
Culture Stories Turned Southwest Employees Into Crusaders
Culture stories are more impactful when they are shared among employees. One of Kelleher’s communication tools was to perform simple gestures that would ripple across the organization in the form of stories. ”Any event that you have in your life that is celebratory in nature or brings grief, you hear from Southwest Airlines,” Kelleher once said. “If you lose a relative, you hear from us. If you’re out sick with a serious illness, you hear from us, and I mean by telephone, by letter, by remembrances from us. If you have a baby, you hear from us. What we’re trying to say to our people is that we value you as a total person, not just between eight and five.”
When an employee gets a handwritten note or a call from the boss, that person tells another, who tells another, who tells another. Stories perpetuate themselves and bolster a company’s culture.
I spoke to a Southwest pilot who told me a story about Kelleher that had made the rounds among Southwest’s employee base. It goes like this. Kelleher heard that an employee’s son had been killed in a car crash. The employee was in Baltimore and his family was in Dallas. Kelleher had a plane that was about to be taken out of service for routine maintenance rerouted to land in Baltimore, pick up the employee, and get him back to his family immediately. “Stories like that that make me proud to work for this company,” the pilot told me.
Storytellers like Herb Kelleher rally people around a common purpose. A paycheck is usually enough to get most people to work on time, but only an inspiring purpose will encourage people to go the extra mile. Southwest’s financial numbers are impressive, but more impressive is how a company—any company—can sustain a remarkable culture for nearly five decades. It’s a story worth sharing.
January 4, 2019 at 03:29AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs