Does your organisation have a heart?

Southwest Airlines (SWA) in the United States is the world’s largest domestic airline. Incredibly it has been profitable for 43 consecutive years in what has been called the world’s largest non-profit sector – the airline industry.

The story started in 1971 with 200 employees and 12 flights per day. Today it employs 46 000 people and runs an incredible 3600 flights daily. It’s a massive company, which above all is famed for its legendary customer service.

Few other organisations over that period of time have made their unique brand of culture stick longer than them.

People the world over want to know how they do it.

How do you build an incredible culture of customer service? How do you sustain excellence through the good and the bad times and become one of the worlds most admired and written about corporations?

These questions are on the minds of many CEO’s in South Africa today.

I got a unique personal insight into Southwest Airlines last month. I was in America participating in an event with The Table Group, Patrick Lencioni’s company – which has the distinction of being the only leadership consulting business invited to work inside the airline.

It was here that I met Dave Ridley.

He has been an executive with SWA for 27 years and has worked everywhere in the business, most recently as the Chief Marketing Officer. He retired from operational roles earlier this year, but still retains an office at Southwest and serves in the enviable role as senior advisor to the CEO.

The undisputed highlight of his long and successful career was working with two fabulous leaders, the company founder, Herb Kelleher and present CEO Gary Kelly. It was Kelleher who coined the now well-known phrase that ‘the business of business is people’ and that people are ‘motivated more by love than by fear’.

Intentionally and with much hard work they have in essence built the company around these two simple ideas.

I asked Dave to tell me more.

It’s a spectacular company but not a perfect one he told me with humility. It’s a place where people work very hard, but where there’s lots of laughter and fun. “The inside looks like the outside,” he added, meaning there is minimal politics and what you see is not fake PR designed to make them look good. It’s genuine and it’s real.

At their core is a value system. Just three values that they live out and protect passionately.

  • Warrior Spirit … work hard
  • Servants Heart … care about others
  • Fun Luving … have a good heart

The language is very appealing. It is fresh, surprising and incredibly simple. Not infected by corporate jargon that is the death of so much corporate communication.

I asked him how you make your culture stick, a question many executives ask me.

All success is about leadership. Culture depends on it. Hire the right people, establish the values, and ensure all the smart things are in place – the strategy, technology and processes, but most importantly have the right kind of leaders.

Ultimately it depends on the people and the people ultimately depend on the leadership.

As Dave explained culture is really about organisations that are trying to make a difference with their customer service delivery. This is where they start. They want great service and they want people to be happy.

But what they miss is that you have to back it up with hiring the right people and treating them as your # 1 priority, which then gets you to leadership. As he explains “you have to be obsessed about treating your people right and if you don’t your culture efforts are doomed to failure.”

To stick, the inside has to look like the outside. It has to be genuine for people to really commit.

Painted on the underside of their planes is a large multicolored heart and the tagline reads, “Without a heart it’s just a machine.”

My meeting with Dave reminded me that your culture is the heart of your business and without one it is just a machine.

People need a heart to give of their best. And when they do you have something that is very precious – a unique and genuine source of competitive advantage.

Does your organisation have a heart? We love hearing from you.

Comment below and we will send you Patrick Lencioni’s The Three Signs of a Miserable Job Model – a great place to start thinking about how to improve your corporate culture.

South West Airlines Heart

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