When Creating a Good Culture, Southwest Airlines’ Colleen Barrett Says “All You Need Is ‘LUV’”
By Jennifer Willis
In a packed Williams Lecture Hall, GCU broadcast its very first live simulcast last night when President Emeritus of Southwest Airlines Colleen Barrett spoke about the well-known culture of the airline and how they make the simple act of following the golden rule work in a major corporate setting.
“We are extremely excited to have someone like Colleen take the time to be here tonight,” said KBCOB Dean Kevin Barksdale during introductions. “We are also excited to be able to offer the live simulcast for the very first time so that those who could not be here tonight can still participate.”
Using a question and answer format, former Cold Stone Creamery President Sheldon Harris served as moderator. As a friend of Barrett’s, Harris brought a conversational style to the event that made it less of a lecture and more of an informal chat.
“There could not be a better example of culture in action than Southwest Airlines,” said Harris. “When I visit Colleen in Dallas, employees come running out when they see her approaching. She knows their names and asks them about their families. They feel like they are truly cared about. It’s remarkable to see.”
“It’s a way of life for us,” said Barrett. “Our co-founder and chairman (Herb Kelleher) was raised by a strong mother who pounded into him the golden rule, treat others as you would like to be treated. I was raised the same way. When I went to work for him as a secretary at his law firm, that’s how he ran his firm and that’s what we took with us to Southwest. It’s very basic and simple.”
Forty years later, Barrett said they have been blessed to be able to maintain that same egalitarian spirit, even in today’s troubled times.
Those who fly with the carrier and even those who don’t probably know that they use the word “love” a lot. In fact “LUV” is their stock exchange symbol. It’s just one of many examples of how the airline embodies the culture they have created every day.
“When you say you treat your employees like family, you have to treat them like family,” said Barrett. “If you talk the talk, you need to be able to walk the walk.”
“Ya’ll have families and you know every family has their ups and downs. You may not like them some days and you may not always agree with them. But you love them just the same and you treat them with respect.”
In order for that to work, Barrett said everyone has to be able to communicate. That starts with making sure they hire the right kind of employees.
“We started with about 190 employees,” said Barrett. “Today we have around 45,000 and our turnover rate is only at 2.6 percent. That’s unheard of not only in the industry, but in general. We hire the right kinds of people for our company and then we empower them to make good customer service decisions.”
“If you hire good people, are clear about your expectations, and then follow those expectations yourself, how can you go wrong?” asked Barrett. “Culture is not created by one person or even one team. Culture is a spirit of values that you believe in and you walk it, talk it, breathe it and live it.”
One of the best examples of how this works at Southwest is a story that was widely shared on the internet a couple years ago. A man out of town on business got a call that his grandson had been shot and he needed to get home immediately. Starting with a call to a Southwest reservation agent, a group of seven employees, from the agent all the way to the captain of the plane, made sure that the man got on the next available flight, even going so far as to purchase the ticket for him with their own credit card.
Because of the culture at Southwest, the employees knew they needed to do whatever they could to get this man home. There was no sitting around and waiting for permission from a supervisor or passing him off to someone else.
And the employees didn’t do it for the recognition. The one who bought the ticket with her own credit card didn’t even ask for reimbursement. In fact, Barrett said that corporate leaders didn’t even know what happened until two weeks after the boy’s funeral, when the grandfather wrote a letter of gratitude.
“We teach from day one that our number one customer is our employee,” said Barrett. “When we treat our employees that way, it trickles down to the people that they serve.”
“We can’t write a rule book for every single situation that our employees will come across. So we empower them to make good customer service decisions. As long as it does not compromise safety, is not illegal, immoral or unethical, then make the decision that your heart and brain tell you is right.”
When asked what advice she would give to students and graduates that have yet to set out on their own career path, Barrett did not hesitate in her answer.
“You’ve got to have passion for what you do. People whose vocation is the same as their avocation are the luckiest people on earth. I have been blessed to be one of those lucky ones.”