Oswald Letter

Corporate Culture Done Right: Southwest Airlines

A colleague recently passed along a column written by Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, which first appeared in the airline’s “Spirit Magazine.” The title of the piece was “Culture Done Differently.” In it, Mr. Kelly explains that at Southwest they try to keep their culture “supportive, active and fun.”

If you’ve ever flown on Southwest, you’ll know that not only do they talk the talk, but they walk the walk. Southwest’s company culture is not only reflected in its policies, but it oozes out from every employee.

For instance, the airline currently is running commercials based on the theme “we love your bags.” Unlike its competitors, Southwest doesn’t charge for the first two bags you check when you fly with them. It’s a nice competitive advantage that they’re using in their marketing, but they’re having fun with it by poking a little fun at their competitors.

The same can be said about the company’s flight attendants. If you’ve flown with Southwest more than once, it’s likely you have heard a flight attendant tell a joke, sing, or have a little fun over the public address system. At Southwest they don’t take themselves too seriously. They are being true to their culture of having fun.

Here’s the amazing part to me. Southwest has been able to maintain this culture for nearly 40 years. Much of the culture can be attributed to co-founder and long-time CEO Herb Kelleher. Like many young, growing companies, Southwest’s culture was an extension of its original leaders — in this case, Mr. Kelleher.

Let me tell you a quick story about Mr. Kelleher. In 1992, Southwest found that when it had adopted the slogan “Just Plane Smart,” it had actually infringed on another company’s right. Stevens Aviation, a South Carolina-based aviation sales and maintenance company, had been using the slogan “Plane Smart” for at least a year before Southwest adopted its slogan. Instead of hiring teams of attorneys and fighting a long court battle over the rights to the slogan, the CEOs decided to determine the rights to the slogan by competing in an arm-wrestling tournament.

Here’s the description of Mr. Kelleher as he entered the ring to do battle in what was billed as “Malice in Dallas.”

“. . . [T]o the hair-raising trumpet blasts of the theme from Rocky, strutted a thin, skinny, white-haired, sixty-one-year-old lawyer decked out in a white T-shirt, gray sweat pants under shiny red boxing shorts, a sling on his right arm and a cigarette dangling from his infectious grin, accompanied by a handler wearing a bandolera holding rows of airline-size bottles of Wild Turkey.”

Now, how many CEOs of a company the size of Southwest (they’ve been on the Fortune 500 list every year since 1995) would have the courage to do what Mr. Kelleher did back in 1992? But he was having fun. He epitomized Southwest’s culture on that night. He didn’t take himself too seriously.

But even after Kelleher left the CEO post in 2001, Southwest was able to retain the culture. From the outside looking in, the culture that Kelleher was such a big part of has continued to thrive.

Current CEO Gary Kelly admits that “the Southwest Culture has thrived, but it hasn’t been easy.” He adds that the culture’s longevity “has been both our biggest accomplishment and our most significant challenge.” Creating and maintaining a positive corporate culture is hard work.

Here are a few secrets Kelly shared about creating a winning corporate culture:

  1. Make culture everyone’s responsibility, ask everyone to own it.
  2. Create a a culture committee. Southwest has two. Both Local Culture Committees and a Corporate Culture Committee are responsible for keeping the focus on culture.
  3. Make the key components of your culture a part of your leadership expectations. In other words, don’t promote people who don’t reflect the company culture.
  4. Include a section on culture on your annual employee performance appraisals. What gets measured, gets done.

By my estimation, Southwest has the “culture thing” figured out. We can all learn a lesson from them on how we can create and sustain a culture that not only makes our companies better places to work but also helps us succeed. Southwest has done it and done it right.

You can hear Cheryl Hughey, Southwest Airlines director of people, speak about Onboarding 2.0 — how Southwest Airlines nurtures its new hires to boost employee retention and embark on the “flight of their life” at the Social Media and HR Summit Dec. 2-4 in Chicago.

2 thoughts on “Corporate Culture Done Right: Southwest Airlines”

  1. I was just searching around the internet for information for school when I came across this letter. I had the pleasure of flying with South West once and I’ve never forgotten the experience. Our pilot was having a good time pretending to be Captain Kirk on the star ship Enterprise. The flight attendants were making jokes about how to find the exits and first caught everyone’s attention by having us look for a wallet that wasn’t really lost. As we landed, the co-pilot was a horse that needed to be calmed down. I never laughed so hard on an airplane. It was the most fun I’d ever had on a flight.

  2. Wow. I’ve never read an article that had my mind seeing this in action. I’ve never flown on SWA but after reading this article, I’d love to fly SWA just to have the pleasure of experiencing such great staff.

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