A few years ago, while visiting friends in California, my fiancée bought a wedding dress. A few alterations and six weeks later, I flew back to California to fetch the finished dress and bring it back to Massachusetts. Now, you cannot cram a wedding dress into your suitcase, or even stuff it in the overhead: it has to hang. Upon boarding, I discovered there were no closets. Uh-oh.
On any normal plane, this would have been a problem. But this was not any normal plane: it was a Southwest Airlines plane. Hearing of my plight, the pilot took the dress with him up to the cockpit, where it hung safely throughout the flight—and when I changed planes, the pilot on the second flight did exactly the same thing! For this issue, I got to talk with the person largely responsible for the extraordinary culture that led a team of highly trained commercial airliner pilots to serve as my wife’s valet for three thousand miles.
Colleen Barrett likes to say that her qualification for becoming the president of a large corporation was that she was a legal secretary with an Associate’s degree. A native of Vermont, Colleen moved to Texas in 1967 and began working for a lawyer named Herb Kelleher in his San Antonio law firm—one of whose clients had started a little airline. After a series of brutal legal battles with a handful of other airlines, the little-engine-that-could airline emerged a bit bruised around the edges—and crystal clear on its purpose: they were going to be the airline that treated people right. With Herb taking the helm as President and CEO and Colleen as Corporate Secretary, Southwest Airlines grew to become one of the most widely admired, studied and emulated corporations on the planet. In 1986, Colleen was named Vice President of Administration; four years later, when Herb invited her to choose whatever title she liked, she created the position of Executive Vice President of Customers. She became President in 2001, a role she held until July 2008.
Among her dozens of awards, Colleen has been included in Fortune magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” (twice), Fast Company’s “Top 50 Leaders,” and Forbes’s “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” (twice). But her most cherished title is the one she has held since her first days at Southwest: Employee. “I want people to think of me as an employee,” says Colleen. “I’m no different today than I was in 1967. I’m still part of the team.” — JDM
Colleen, I want to thank you for our wedding dress’s survival—you are probably the cause of our successfully getting married.
We claim many a love couple. Open seating isn’t all bad.
So how does that happen, exactly? What creates a huge, world-class airline that treats people like human beings?
I love the fact that you get that we get it. I’ll tell you what it is. First of all, we’re real. We’re authentic. And we empower our people to bend the rules for their customers—as long as it’s not unethical, immoral or illegal. We have to follow our governmental authority. But short of that, we tell our people that all rules and procedures are simply guidelines, and they’re written to be bent or broken when the situation dictates that it’s the right thing to do.
And they know that we mean it—because they test us. We have to show them that empowerment is not just an idea or a phrase we use, but it’s real.
It sounds like you put an extraordinary level of trust in your employees.
We do—but they earn it. And then we have to earn their respect, to show that we will religiously follow through on that trust, whether they’re giving somebody a “we’re sorry” gift or a refund, or giving a wedding dress special treatment.
We encourage our employees to be individuals. Of course, you have to know your audience, to know what’s appropriate and what’s not. But if we tell them, “If you’ve got a good sense of humor, then use it,” and then we get some stick-in-the-mud as a passenger who says, “Oh, that’s not very professional,” we can’t not back our employees up, as long as they didn’t do anything that was wrong or in poor judgment.
We empower them to do the right thing. It’s really that simple.
We have a golden rule philosophy. We expect that our employees will respect it and follow it, and we try to lead by example by doing the same.
A few days ago I flew Southwest. As we landed, the flight attendant came over the PA system and said, “We’d like to welcome you all to Jamaica … but we can’t, because we’re landing in Hartford.” As everyone laughed she added, “We want you all to know it’s been a real chore serving you—a real joy, I mean.” The passengers loved it.
We used to get complaints that our PA announcements weren’t serious enough. The FAA investigated. We showed them hundreds of letters from people who said they listened to our PA’s more than they would to any other airline’s, because the others just drone on and are so dull that people shut them out.
The FAA concluded that our announcements were just fine; we were covering all the facts we were supposed to cover, and the ones who used more personality were actually calling more attention to those facts than most other announcements.
I’m happy to say, we don’t get those complaints anymore.
That’s something that intrigues me—you have this human dimension of fun and personality, and at the same time, you’re running a really serious business where there’s not a lot of margin for error.
You can be 100 percent productive and 100 percent efficient, and still provide warm, caring service—and that’s what our folks have learned to do. We have the most caring employees and the most productive employees.
How do you inculcate that sense of fun, personality and caring into the company’s everyday culture?
Have you ever met our former chairman? That would tell you a lot! Herb set the tone for our culture many years ago. He is bigger than life and just loves people.
This is actually a criteria at Southwest. When we’re looking at potential new hires, once we’ve gone over the technical part of the job, we spend a great deal of time looking to see if they have a sense of humor. We want people to take the business very seriously, but not take themselves very seriously.
If you’re going to be dealing with the public every day, you’ve got to take great pride in what you do, and you’ve got to be an unbelievably good team player, but you can’t take yourself too seriously.
You say Herb set the tone for your culture—but didn’t you have a good deal to do with this, too?
I didn’t know anything about the airline business when we started thirty-eight years ago, but I knew about customer service, and that was my passion.
I’ve spent a lot of time on this in the last couple of years, and I have not yet found another organization, no matter what business they’re in, that does not have separate programs for internal and external customer service communication. At Southwest, we don’t have separate programs. It’s all one and the same.
We teach every new employee who their principal customer is—and it may not be a passenger. Even if you never deal with a flying passenger, that doesn’t mean you still don’t have to provide exemplary customer service to your customers.
To our mechanics, for example, we say, “Your #1 customer is the pilot, because that is who you have to please, that’s the person whose needs you have to address.”
For the provisioning agents who stock the planes, we tell them that their #1 customer is the flight attendant.
I explain to my secretarial staff that their #1 customer is whoever they are handling on the phone, whether it’s someone inside the company or outside the company.
You have a philosophy that sounds almost counterintuitive: you say do not put your customers first, but you put your employees first.
Yes, we say so publicly. It’s not rocket science. If people feel good about their work environment and they enjoy it, it rubs off.
We tell our new hires, “We want you to exhibit three attributes every single day—and quite frankly, we don’t care whether you’re exhibiting them to your fellow worker, your supervisor, your manager, or our passengers, because the behavior you display and share rubs off all the way up the ladder.”
And those three attributes are…?
A warrior spirit, a servant’s heart, and a fun-loving attitude. We call that living the Southwest way. And even as president, I couldn’t hold anyone at Southwest Airlines accountable for following those three attributes or following our mission statement if I didn’t do it myself.
We have a pretty egalitarian spirit around here. We have titles, but they don’t mean a whole lot. Everybody understands that it takes every single person making a contribution to make up that pie for the day.
When someone joins us who doesn’t buy into that culture, even if we make the mistake of hiring them, they don’t last. In fact, we seldom have to let people go; if they’re not a good fit, they self-eject. If they can’t laugh at themselves and take themselves too seriously, then they aren’t comfortable in this environment.
And even if they don’t figure it out themselves—which, by the way, they usually do, and very quickly—there’s so much pride among the workforce that their peers figure it out.
It’s a very interesting thing to watch.
Whether it’s you, or Herb, or Gary [Gary C. Kelly, the current president and CEO], you can’t be everywhere at all times; how do you infuse that “living the Southwest way” spirit throughout a company?
I used to get that question all the time, especially when Herb was in the process of stepping down. But Herb would be the first to tell you that our culture, our family spirit and our love for one another are not the result of any one human being.
I worked at several law firms when I was young, and from what I can see, I think it’s human nature to hire people who are pretty much like yourself. Herb has always done this; he could fire his best friend and still remain his best friend, if he didn’t think that person was following our values and our philosophies. And he would do it in a minute. In his mind, there would be no conflict.
So you focus on hiring kindred spirits …
And then we have disciples, so to speak, and evangelists who take that spirit and carry it throughout the organization.
We also have a Culture Committee, which I created back in the early nineties because of that foolish Wright Amendment.
The Wright Amendment restricted us from interstate service out of Love Field, which made it ridiculously expensive and complicated for new hires to come visit us at Love Field. I said, “Well, if we can’t bring them to the culture, then we’ve got to bring the culture to them.”
The very first committee consisted of forty-eight hand-selected people who I knew exemplified the Southwest spirit. Today, it’s about 112 people from all regions of the company, who are nominated by their peers and serve three-year terms. Once a year we roll off half the committee, so there’s always new blood. They serve as something like our goodwill ambassadors.
Herb once said he thought the Culture Committee was probably the most important committee we had at Southwest Airlines. That statement made me just about as proud as I’ve ever been of anything in my life.
You said earlier that you didn’t know anything about airlines when you started. Mary Kay used to love to say that the bumblebee can fly only because it doesn’t know it can’t.
I love that!
Do you think people in leadership positions in business run the risk of over-qualifying themselves with too much academic training and not enough contact with everyday reality?
That’s a darn good question; no one’s ever asked me that one before. Though it often comes up in another way: people will ask, “What are your requirements for new hires? What degrees do they have to have?” My response usually is that I am not as interested in degrees as I am interested in performance and passion.
I am not so naïve that I don’t realize I probably could never have held the various positions I’ve held here at any other airline—first, because I’m female, and second, because I didn’t have any background or experience.
The reason I was able to do it here, frankly, is because Herb never saw gender when it came to performance. Gender just didn’t enter into it. In fact, we started out with a 53 percent female workforce. And we do so much growing and promoting from within that we’ve pretty much kept something close to that percentage. Which is most unusual, because even today, this is pretty much a good-old-boy industry.
As far as MBA’s go, I’ll say this: I think some of the programs are probably great, but what I find lacking at most of them is practical experience. And if you don’t have real-world experience, academic exercise won’t get you very far.
Would it be fair to say that Southwest Airlines was built not on one person’s personality, but on a duo—so you were looking for resonance in other people from the very start?
I’ll tell you what it was: it was a group of survivors. I don’t know how familiar you are with our history.
I know there were some awfully tough legal times in those early days.
It was awful. It took us three-and-a-half years after we got our Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity to put our first plane in the air. We were fighting the big guys, the legacy carriers, who didn’t want us flying. I think it was the best David-and-Goliath story the business world has ever seen. We won against all odds.
I laugh about it today, because if those big bad guys had left us alone, we probably would have been out of business in a week! But the more that they fought us, the more Southwest Airlines became a cause.
Herb never intended to run this company. He loves the practice of law and had no desire to run an airline—but Southwest Airlines became a cause for him, because he thought it was just sinful, the way we were being treated.
So that time served as a crucible that forged the values that have become such a strong part of your company’s DNA.
Exactly. And because this business is already so challenging and ever-changing, we haven’t had to do this much, but over the years, whenever things got a little too quiet, Herb was known to create a battle or two just to get those juices flowing.
I was going to ask if it’s especially hard to maintain a culture of love in an industry typically so beset upon by external challenges. But maybe that actually helps!
That’s what bonds us together. It goes back to that warrior spirit.
I grew up with two younger brothers, and they constantly fought like cats and dogs. But let someone else say something about one to the other, and Katie bar the door!—the baseball bats and boxing gloves would come out.
That’s how it is here. We have our fights, but we are a family. We celebrate together and we grieve together. If our employees are hurt, we hurt with them.
I’ve had employees come in and say, “Hey Colleen, I’m not feeling any love, I don’t feel the Southwest spirit—I was just disciplined for this and that…” And I’d say, “Wait a minute—were you ever disciplined by your parents? Have you ever disciplined your child? That’s called tough love, honey. I had to do it with my teenager!”
That’s all part of the family—but it doesn’t mean you stop loving.
I don’t want you to think we walk around and BS each other, and I’m not saying it’s all wine and roses every day. But people here enjoy what they do and genuinely care about each other. It’s intangible and hard to measure, but it’s very real. And you see that love manifested in a billion different ways.
I just got a solicitation a few minutes ago from a former Southwest employee, asking me to donate something for a fundraiser for a guy who has not worked for us for ten years. He was paralyzed in a car accident, and all his former coworkers from that time—they’ve stayed in touch, even though most of them are now retired—are throwing a huge fundraiser for him.
That’s the Southwest family.