How to Build a Strong Culture Like Southwest Airlines?

Southwest Airlines has remained profitable for about half a century. This is something rare in the airline industry. But how?

How to Build a Strong Culture Like Southwest Airlines?

A long time ago — around the 70s —the airline industry was famous for its horrible customer experience. Delays were endless and fees were through the roof.

People didn’t buy the tickets because they loved to fly with those airlines, people just had to move around. Just imagine how people felt when they pay a high price for a ticket and waited for a few hours.

Rollin and Herb saw how airline companies ripping off customers and ruining people’s experiences. Something has to change.

Rollin King and Herb Kelleher gathered to build a different kind of airline. An airline that cares about people.

Sean Iddings in Intelligent Fanatics Project tells the story of how Herb and Rollin met with each other:

“Herb met client Rollin King, an entrepreneur who had been running a third-level charter airline doing short-haul routes out of Twin Beaches since 1964. By 1967, King had observed and studied the success of Pacific Southwest Airlines, which was the first large discount airline operating within California. Rollin King met with Herb Kelleher soon after at a bar, where King sketched the triangle diagram of the three-city route on the back of a cocktail napkin. After some thought, Kelleher was on board with a $10,000 investment and to provide legal services.”

Herb Kelleher hugging a pilot
Herb Kelleher hugging a pilot

Without a heart, it’s just a machine

Southwest Airlines was like a renaissance for the airline industry.

They didn’t only move people, they delighted people.

They no only selling tickets, but also they sell great experiences that become a happy memory. This is what people call the Southwest effect.

What’s the Southwest effect?

A couple of years ago Scott Dobroski (Glassdoor Community Expert) told CNBC:

“Happy employees mean happy customers, which in turn has a direct tie to a strong financial performance.”

An employee touching the heart logo on an airplane
An employee touching the heart logo on an airplane

This is why Southwest’s employees receive over 7,000 compliments from customers!

In this article, we’ll dig into how you can build a strong culture like Southwest Airlines and at the same time become a billion-dollar — and profitable — company.

Let’s get started.

1 - Beliefs and stories

So, what’s the company culture? Let’s get a little help from Wikipedia:

“Organizational culture is comprising a number of features, including a shared pattern of basic assumptions which group members have acquired over time as they learn to successfully cope with internal and external organizationally relevant problems.”

Employees of the Southwest Airlines
Employees of the Southwest Airlines

Well…that was helpful, kind of. But let’s simplify it:

Company culture is a set of shared beliefs.

That’s why Southwest Airlines is crystal clear about its goals, vision, and values. And also using them to promote its brand.

So, first thing first. Start with defining beliefs in your company. Be clear and cut the BS.

Then, educate people (employees and customers) about your values. You can start your journey to build a thriving culture and a strong brand.

Tell stories to inspire new employees

Southwest Airlines is famous for its employee onboarding program. They believe onboarding isn’t about paperwork and wasting each other time.

On the onboarding journey, Southwest Airlines helps new people to see how they can make a difference.

A Southwest Airlines employee touching the heart logo on the airplane
A Southwest Airlines employee touching the heart logo on the airplane

They don’t just give you boring papers, they tell stories — the most effective way to educate people.

They tell the story of past remarkable employees who make a huge impact on the brand and customer experience.

Encourage people to be exceptional. This is how you can build a great culture and make a profit. As Gary Kelly (Southwest Airlines Chairman and CEO) said:

“No Company can survive long, much less be great, without great People and strong Culture.”

2 - Character, not just years’ experience

In 2003 Herb Kelleher on Bloomberg BusinessWeek explained how they hiring people in Southwest Airlines:

“We will hire someone with less experience, less education and less expertise, than someone who has more of those things and has a rotten attitude. Because we can train people. We can teach people how to lead. We can teach people how to provide customer service. But we can’t change their DNA.”

Herb Kelleher talking to employees
Herb Kelleher talking to employees

This is why all the employees in Southwest Airlines have a nice and fun character.

By hiring people who have already that smile and fun character, they guarantee a great experience for their customers. And this way you don’t have to watch employees like Big Brother.

Collaboration is the key to build a strong culture

Culture is like an open-source project. One of the key things to developing a strong culture is making it the responsibility of every person in the organization.

As Ginger Hardage (Southwest Airlines former SVP of Culture and Communications) said:

“Culture is everybody’s job.”

Imagine a country. It’s not the responsibility of only the president or parliament to create the culture. It’s the people who create the culture.

Southwest Airlines employees in a tug-of-war contest
Southwest Airlines employees in a tug-of-war contest

The same applies to a company. It’s not just about leaders and C-suits. Building a strong culture is teamwork.

That’s why Southwest Airlines hiring people based on character, not just years of experience.

3 - Unique ways, not copy & paste behaviors

Education around culture isn’t about brainwashing your employees. It isn’t about just putting fancy words and pictures all over the office to teach people how to exactly act.

Culture is like a guideline.

A passage on a Southwest Airlines airplane
A passager on a Southwest Airlines airplane

Any push and constraining freedom will lead to copy and paste behaviors. Thus, you’ll have an army of robots, not human beings.

Southwest Airlines allow everyone to act in their own way align with the company’s values.

Embrace unique ways

There are a lot of stories about how Southwest Airlines employees how acted in their own unique way and align with the company’s values.

A couple of years ago, there was a woman who was traveling with her daughter.

It was deboarding time when she was afraid to leave the plane. If you have ever been on an airplane, so you can imagine how other people felt.

Herb Kelleher at the door of an airplane
Herb Kelleher at the door of an airplane

Mark, a Southwest Airlines employee, saw the frustration of passengers. He asked the woman if she’d like to dance. And that day, Mark assisted her to get off the plane.

Maybe you say, “This is just a once-in-a-lifetime event.” But this hasn't happened only one time. People write books about these stories.

In Nuts: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success the author tells the story of when Southwest turned an airplane around for a passenger — Peggy Uhle — to get to her son, who was in a coma.

4 - Show, don’t just talk

Leaders should show in action what the company stands for. If you just talking about the company’s values, you stepping in the wrong direction.

Culture Services is just one of the ways that leaders of Southwest Airlines show the company’s values in action.

Herb Kelleher
Herb Kelleher

A department for serving employees

It was around 10 years ago when Southwest Airlines created a department called Culture Services.

The culture service department focusing on taking care of employees. Every people should feel they’re important.

The culture services team visits an airport and meets with every employee. Even they clean the planes for the flight operations employees.

Southwest showing their beliefs in actions, they don’t just tell. And that’s how they attract the best talents and created a great culture.

“Competitors can buy all the physical things. The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty — the feeling that you are participating in a crusade.”

— Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines former CEO and Chairman)

Employees of the Southwest Airlines
Employees of the Southwest Airlines

5 - The power of serving people

Herb was a compassionate leader. That’s why people don’t just respect him, people love Herb.

The founder(s) can have a huge impact on the character of a company. From the get-go, servant leadership was the key element of Southwest culture.

It was September 11, 2001. Most airlines didn’t refund tickets for passengers who were afraid to fly. But Southwest without any hesitation gives people’s money back.

It was around these times when some of Southwest’s loyal customers sent checks to the airline to help it get through the crisis.

This is the power of a culture that puts people first.

People-first culture is the legacy of Herb Keller. His style at Southwest Airlines is a masterclass in leadership.

Herb is a great example of how you can delight people and also build a profitable company.

“The business of business is people.”

— Herb Kelleher

Southwest Airlines: Strategy genius or common sense

This is how you can build a strong culture like Southwest Airlines:

  • Define beliefs, educate and encourage. Values must be crystal clear. You’d educate and encourage new employees by telling stories about how the past employees made a difference.
  • Walk the talk. Show in action what you believe in.
  • Give people freedom. This way they can act in their own unique way.
  • Embrace servant and authentic leadership. Put your ego aside, be yourself, and truly serve people.
  • Hire based on character. You can teach people any skills, but you cannot teach them to be passionate. Hire people who have already believe in your company’s values.

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