'Lessons in Loyalty'

 First Chapter - 'Hire Attitude & Train Skills'

"Please welcome Herb Kelleher!” the emcee bellowed and the hushed crowd roared to its feet.

The popular CEO of Southwest Airlines had just been named the Houston Chamber of Commerce’s Aviation Person of the Year award, and the audience’s approval was obvious.

When Kelleher took the podium, his words were simultaneously astonishing to those who didn’t know him and delightfully anticipated by those who did. “Would everyone please hold your applause?” he asked. When the ballroom had silenced, he continued. “Now, if there is anyone in the audience who works for Southwest Airlines, would you please stand?

Several stood and the sincerity of the CEO’s request was obvious to the audience: “Please direct your applause to these people because they are the ones who have earned this award. I’m simply here to pick it up.”


I was in the crowd that day – 15 years ago – and suddenly, without warning, I was hooked. “How incredible it would be to work for a company like that!” I thought almost out loud.

I had enjoyed operating my own aviation charter business, but after 10 years of blood, sweat and tears for 24/7, I knew I was ready for a change ... and the seed had been planted. Herb Kelleher had quite aptly conveyed the very heart and spirit of Southwest Airlines that day and I wanted to work for his company!

Southwest’s phenomenal culture has raised the bar for loyalty in American business. The question is, how did it happen? How does one go about creating that type of environment in companies today?

In a heartbeat, Southwest Airlines executives – starting with Herb Kelleher, himself – will tell you their people and their uncommon loyalty to the company perpetuate the culture. The solidarity among employees is astounding. Their commitment to the company is unparalleled, and their productivity and customer service are legendary.

Without a doubt, the culture is rooted in the company’s past and has filtered down through its leadership. Somehow, Kelleher and company continue to attract approximately 31,000 of the “right” kind of people – those who delight in each other, their employer and their customers.

I watched Herb Kelleher accomplish that very thing at the Chamber luncheon that day by putting the first principle into practice.


Principle #1:

Make them want you before you want them.

Southwest Airlines is masterful at putting its message out to the applying public:

“If you want to have fun, this is the place to work! This is a place where you can be yourself, where it’s okay to be irreverent, where you will be loved and valued, where Elvis has been spotted (Herb Kelleher in costume, no less), and where ‘wearing pants is optional!’ (Of course, some sort of outer clothing is required, but it’s not at all unusual to see flight attendants wearing khaki shorts and Polo shirts.)”

The company’s employment ads mirror the same company philosophy declared in its marketing ads:

“We at Southwest Airlines foster and embrace fun, creativity, individuality and empowerment. We love our employees. We trust our employees. Our employees, in turn, work very hard, give “Positively Outrageous Service” (POS) to our customers, and make it possible to keep our fares consistently lower than the competition’s.”

Now I ask you, who wouldn’t want to work for Southwest Airlines?

Critics might suggest that Southwest attracts only party people, not career seekers, but the statistics prove those critics dead wrong.

Turnover is very low and efficiency is high. Case in point: Southwest received the highest ratings five years in a row in the three customer- service categories rated by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) – fewest customer complaints, smallest number of mishandled bags and best on-time performance. (Internally, the company quickly dubbed this recognition the “Triple Crown Award” and capitalized on it, PR-wise.)

Some months after the luncheon where I first became acquainted with Herb Kelleher, I was heading a Chamber committee charged with planning a celebration of aviation at Hobby Airport in Houston through an event called HobbyFest. A representative of Southwest Airlines’ Marketing Department was serving on the same committee.

Arriving late to a meeting several weeks later, the Southwest employee apologized and explained she was extremely busy due to a number of open positions. She also casually mentioned she was looking to fill a couple of vacancies in her department and then finagled a way for the two of us to work together on this committee ... and the rest, as they say, is history.

I, like others sitting in the Chamber luncheon audience that day, had made it my mission to go to work for Southwest Airlines. As a result of the HobbyFest committee, I got that chance and was soon hired in its Marketing Department. Thus began my incredibly fun, creative, crazy, productive and immensely rewarding journey with Southwest Airlines.

Not everyone who wants to work at Southwest Airlines gets to, of course. Unlike many Fortune 500 companies that require advanced degrees, strict dress codes and a strictly defined “professional” demeanor, Southwest advertises that “professionals need not apply.”

Southwest chooses its employees carefully because its culture is unique and fiercely protected. Rather than being a megacorporation with thousands of employees, Southwest is a large family with many members. Potential Southwest employees are those who exhibit a fun-loving, hard-working, caring and giving spirit. They are people who want to make a difference in the lives of others and, at the same time, want to feel appreciated and valued themselves.

At Southwest Airlines, people are hired for their attitude and trained for the skills they’ll need to do their jobs. Money is seldom a motivator. In fact, many – like me – actually take a cut in pay to work there!

One of the incredible things about working for this company is that you are actually encouraged to explore your interests and talents, find your own niche, and follow great relationships, even if that means moving to other departments.

Periodically, our recruiters would show up on the first day of new-employee training classes and listen as the new people shared where they came from and why they came to work for Southwest Airlines. Listening to the stories of 150 new hires helped us stay true to our mission, making sure we continued hiring the right kind of people to work for the company. Their stories also enabled us to gauge our effectiveness in the second principle.


Principle #2:

Define the type of employee you want – then communicate it.

Employer branding is critical to attracting the right people, and Southwest Airlines has been very successful in defining the kind of people it wants – people who:

  • like to think outside the box
  • are not afraid to be themselves are honest and ethical
  • have a high level of integrity
  • are good team players
  • take their jobs seriously, but can laugh at themselves

Southwest has operated in the southwestern region of the United States for more than three decades and has established an excellent employer-branding image. The public in that area is very familiar with who Southwest is: fun, irreverent, a great place to work, etc., and because of its solid branding, it has had no problem finding the right kind of employees.

However, when Southwest moved into new markets, it discovered a much different scenario. For example, in 2000 when we went to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, to meet with various agencies and organizations that had agreed to partner with us to find employees,

it was all too obvious that they had no idea who Southwest was. The partners’ inability to understand our unique culture was getting in the way of our employee needs. They kept asking, “What skills are you looking for?” to which we continually replied, “We hire for attitude and train for skills.” They just weren’t getting it.

In one of those epiphany moments, I realized they probably would never get it until they experienced the Southwest culture for themselves, so I invited them to come to Dallas to tour our home office and talk to our employees. At the end of that visit, they all said, “We finally get it: Hire for attitude and train for skills!

As I was getting ready to leave Southwest a few months ago, I couldn’t help but compare its philosophy about its employees with other companies I had come to know through the Southwest Airlines Speakers’ Bureau and various other opportunities.

As I looked out at my department, I glimpsed at one object that had been my view for the past five years: an inflatable cow – udders and all – hanging from the ceiling, someone’s cherished cubicle decoration! At Southwest, anything goes – within reason – when employees decorate their workspaces. I loved it!

This may not work for all corporate environments, but allowing employees to take ownership of their workspace was one small way for our company to say, “We trust you.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary example of employer branding came just two days after the horrible events of September 11, 2001.

You know the story – all planes were grounded and the U.S. airline industry was in chaos. None of us knew how it would all play out ... would we have jobs or would there even be a Southwest Airlines in the future?

We had advertised a job fair for flight attendants in Houston on September 13, but we wondered if anyone would show up at such an event after 9/11. Not wanting to cancel in case someone did come, we decided to go ahead – and more than 200 people showed up!

Imagine! That many people had decided, “In spite of the horrible circumstances and all the uncertainty, I still want to work for Southwest Airlines.” That’s employer branding at its best!


Principle #3:

Tap into Marketing and PR Department strategies to enhance your recruiting efforts.

As with all corporations, the bottom line is of major concern to Southwest Airlines – and its employees lead the way in running a lean operation. They also are fiercely loyal to that end and are constantly working to increase efficiency and save money.

At the same time, Southwest’s culture values relationships. Successes are celebrated, individuals are recognized and appreciated, and the family atmosphere prevails. Thus, while the employees of Southwest are fiercely competitive against outside threats, any internal competition happens with the mindset: “I’m competing against a family member, not ‘the enemy."

Without exception, people work together across departments, which results in Herculean efforts to reach common objectives. A good example of this was a challenge in the People Department in 2000. We wanted to redesign our recruiting strategy to attract potential employees in a tight labor market – at the lowest possible cost. To accomplish this mission, we came up with the idea of partnering with the Marketing Department. They were already out there, putting the Southwest message in ads to potential passengers. Why not tag those ads with our recruiting message?

Sounds simple, right? This one strategy gave our hiring message great exposure with little financial commitment ... and it was successful.

Another success was tapping into Southwest’s advertising on televised National Football League games. Instead of an ad targeting passengers, viewers saw ads aimed at recruiting and generated enough calls to shut down the phone system at the home office!

To further our employer branding, we began exploring opportunities with the Public Relations Department to create media stories featuring Southwest Airlines employees – like the father and daughter who flew together as a pilot team.

Bottom line – we quickly learned we could leverage our efforts
with the experts, thereby helping us accomplish our goals. Once we began the process and the people in these departments understood our mission, they began to think of other ways they could help us.


Principle #4:

Make all employees recruiters.

Southwest Airlines has a network of 31,000 employees, all of whom want to work next to people just like themselves! Southwest Airlines is one of the few companies where you will find an absolutely incredible phenomenon: thousands of employees with enormous individual differences sharing the same values, work ethic and basic character traits. No wonder Southwest’s close-knit family atmosphere has continued, even as the airline has expanded operations.

During the interview process, Southwest applicants are tested all along the way. How did they greet the receptionist? How did they relate to other employees they passed in the halls? Because of the amazing esprit de corps that exists at Southwest, these potential employees are unknowingly being “interviewed” all along the way. What they also may not know is that they are easily identified as applicants, so if a candidate is rude to a receptionist, an agent or a member of the maintenance department, that attitude is reported to the recruiter.

The lesson: A candidate who thinks he can “snow” a recruiter during the interview may have already eliminated himself from the interview process because he’s proven to other employees that he isn’t a “fit” for the system.


Principle #5:

Determine what’s important to your company and design the interview around it.

“Fit” is important when you want to find the “right” people, and the only way to determine who “fits” is to decide what personalities are successful in a particular environment.

At Southwest Airlines, we defined the necessary dimensions: team player, flexible, creative thinker, does not take himself too seriously, etc. We then developed questions around these dimensions, questions designed to ensure that we had the best chance of getting to the “real” person during the interview.

For example, we would ask, “Tell us about a time when you used humor to defuse a difficult customer situation.” The response would give us insight into the candidate’s personality, coping skills and style. We also brought in a peer and the appropriate supervisor from the hiring department to conduct portions of the interview, making sure the applicant would fit into that particular department’s environment.

Interviews at Southwest Airlines were not always conducted in the conventional fashion. Seeking new challenges, I called the Director of the Training Department in the University for People and told her I was very interested in working in that department. She invited me to join her at an event in Dallas the following week. Afterward, I went to dinner with her team, and we began talking and brainstorming. I had no clue that they were actually interviewing me. We had a great time!

The next day she called and asked me to come in for the formal interview. I got the job!


Principle #6:

Hire 'nice' ’cause you can’t train nice.

I cannot overemphasize the principle of hiring 'nice'. When you’re hiring nice, you’re looking for people who:

  • can get along with others
  • want to be there
  • have a desire to do a good job
  • have values that match the organization

As a result of hiring nice people, Southwest employees are recognized as being approachable, creating a good first impression, being humble, caring and compassionate, having energy and drive that perform well in a fast-paced environment – all because they are genuinely nice people, not because they’ve been trained to have these skills. Remember, you can’t train 'nice'.


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