South West Airlines Pilot Heart

Does Your Organisation Have a Heart?

Reading Time: 3 mins.

Southwest Airlines (SWA) in the United States is the world’s largest domestic airline. Incredibly it has been profitable for 43 consecutive years. This 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 famous for its legendary customer service.

Few other organisations 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 around the world today.

I got a uniquely personal insight into Southwest Airlines last month. I was in America participating in an event with The Table Group, Patrick Lencioni’s company. They have the unique distinction of being the only 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.

In this time he has worked everywhere. Most recently as the Chief Marketing Officer. Dave retired from operational roles this year but still retains an office at Southwest. Now in the enviable role as senior advisor to the CEO.

The highlight of his long and successful career was working with two fabulous leaders. The company founder, Herb Kelleher, and present CEO Gary Kelly.

“The business of business is people.”

Kelleher coined two famous phrases. ‘The business of business is people’ and people are ‘motivated more by love than by fear’.

They have in essence built the company around these two simple ideas. With much hard work, clear intention and great patience of course.

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.

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. 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 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”, Dave says. “Culture depends on it. Hire the right people. Establish the values. Ensure your strategy, technology and processes are in place. But most importantly have the right kind of leaders.”

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

He explained that culture is really about organisations 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 then treating them as your # 1 priority, which then gets you to leadership.

“You have to be obsessed about treating your people right. 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.  The tagline reads, “Without a heart, it’s just a machine.”

South West Airlines Heart

My meeting with Dave reminded me that your culture is the heart of your business.

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.

We love hearing from you. Please comment below.

We will send you Patrick Lencioni’s The Three Signs of a Miserable Job Model. A great way to think about building an environment where people give of their best.

Related Posts:

  1. How Great Companies Prepare for Bad Times
  2. Priceless Lessons from a Business Legend

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15 replies
  1. Tanya
    Tanya says:

    Definitely the most important thing to get right in an organisation………and the very hardest thing! It takes every single leader to sing off the same hymn sheet. And the smallest failures in truly ‘living the culture’ by leaders have a big ripple effect. But they (SW Airlines) certainly seem to have gotten it right!

    Reply
  2. tsietsi
    tsietsi says:

    This the most important requirement for the survival and efficiency of any organization.
    I wish our so-called leaders in the public service could learn from this

    Reply
  3. Stephanie Harel
    Stephanie Harel says:

    Irrespective what a business sells, it’s about PEOPLE! The human element is the only business component that is truly alive. Thank you for this heart-warming article. What a totally unexpected culture from an American corporate – defies the stereotype of big business bottom line focus.

    Reply
  4. Charles Matthews
    Charles Matthews says:

    Hi Grant, it is so important that the heart is genuine and not just trying to impress, because this isoften detected very soon and can be regarded
    as a facade. The heart must be accepting of challenges, that need to be genuinely received and dealt with. Clients are very perceptive and are
    not impressed if the heart is not realy concerned .

    Reply
  5. Mike Eldon
    Mike Eldon says:

    My favourite saying is from Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

    Except I firmly believe that culture is a critical component OF strategy.

    I flew on Southwest from LA to Las Vegas a year ago (‘Lost Wages’, as the cabin crew announcer put it): what a great experience!

    Reply
  6. Johan
    Johan says:

    CULTURE!!! Great word, but it is all about relationships with the human beings that ARE the company!! I am sure there are not many vacancies at SWA – why would people leave.

    Leadership = See people as people, Work to earn respect, Thrilled when the team achieves, Empower with honesty and transparency, Takes the punch for the team, Connects daily tasks with business goals (long term), Results orientated not process driven!!!

    SWA is not a great company per say – great Leadership, over an extended period, established a workforce that “lives” SWA! That’s why they can promote the motto: ‘the business of business is people’ and that people are ‘motivated more by love than by fear’.

    Thanks for this Grant!

    Reply
  7. William Bosoga
    William Bosoga says:

    I agree with this statement completely: “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” and all the staff members will follow and everyone be happy. A happy person is much more creative and productive than a sad person.

    Reply

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