A rapping flight attendant. In-flight cocktail parties. Laughter-filled safety briefings. These are just a few manifestations of the legendary Southwest Airlines culture, a philosophy that has made the airline not just one of the best in customer service, but a top employer of choice. Repeatedly landing on every Best Place to Work and Most Admired Company list, Southwest has become the perfect case study on how an amazing culture can transform a business, even in an industry as averse to change as the airline industry.

To learn more about the airline’s fabled culture – The Southwest Way - Max Chopovsky spoke with the Southwest Airlines SVP of Culture and Communications, Ginger Hardage.

Q: What role do your values play in the company’s culture?

Our values describe how we behave as an organization. We call it “Living the Southwest Way” and it consists of having a Warrior Spirit, a Servant’s Heart, and a Fun-LUVing attitude. First and foremost, we hire against our values, specifically looking for People* who bring those values to our organization.

We continue to reinforce those values through storytelling and programs that model the behaviour we are seeking. An example is “Winning Spirit.” Through this program, we showcase Employees who have gone above and beyond so other Employees will see the CustomerService orientation brought to life.

An example of a story from “Winning Spirit” is when a Pilot saw that one of the Passengers was not going to be able to travel because he didn’t have the approved pet carrier. When the Pilot saw this, he bought a pet carrier, with his own money, for the Passenger who was then able to board. That Passenger’s family later reached out to us and told us how grateful they were for what our pilot did. They informed us that the Passenger was actually homeless and estranged from the family, but was finally going back home. They were grateful because he would have never boarded the flight if the Pilot hadn’t bought the pet carrier–allowing their family member to return with his only possession, his pet.

When recruiting, we always look for Employees who have the Servant’s Heart. When they come onboard, these are the stories we share. One of our other values is having a “Fun-LUVing Attitude.” You can see several examples of this on YouTube when our Flight Attendants make flight announcements that are fun and will get people to listen to them. Flight announcements can be really boring, but we allow Employees to get creative and make it their own.

Q: How were your values created?

They were created about 10 years ago, when our Leaders got together and started testing different values amongst our Employees; we studied the existing behaviours of our groups and identified those which resonated. Once we discovered that, we began to build and implement the values. We began to strategize on incorporating those values to two specific groups: current Employees and future Employees.

Some other strategies we used were Employee focus groups and observing how our Executive Teams worked together. In reality, we weren’t trying to find anything new; we were simply looking for something comfortable for everyone and that could be a reality for our Employees. Our purpose was not to change the Culture but really trying to figure out who we are as an organization.

Q: Why is LUV so symbolic to Southwest?

LUV is our symbol on the NYSE. Our branding is all about the Heart, which is representative of love. From our logo to our airplane liveries, you will always see a Heart as a symbol for Southwest. The Heart, though, is also a special symbol to our Employees as we have a Heart placed on the belly of the aircraft so that every time an airplane takes off, the heart is close to us. It’s a great symbol and reminder that without a Heart, the airplane is just a machine.

We also express love to our Employees. An example is our Internal Customer Care group. Any time an Employee has a major life event like a wedding, birth of a child, etc., Leaders make sure that the CEO’s Team knows about it. Our CEO, Gary Kelly, will then send them a note congratulating them on their wedding, grievances if someone passed away, etc. We aren’t one dimensional workers that just come in and work. We bring our whole self to work and we want to make sure we acknowledge that with our Employees.

Q: What have been some other strategies that have helped maintain this culture of LUV?

One example is what we call our Culture Blitz. Every year we have our Leaders and Culture Committee “blitz” several Southwest Airlines locations. We might bring food for Employees in the call centre or prepare food for maintenance Employees who work into the wee hours of the morning.  Another example is when a flight arrives, we will be present as the flight doors open and we tell the flight crew that we are going to go in and clean the aircraft for them so they can take a break and relax. This is just one of many examples of how we show our love.

*Southwest capitalizes every reference to People, Pilots, Employees, Mechanics, and other roles, and combines hyphenated or separate words, e.g., Customer Service, into one. It’s all part of “Colleen’s Bible,” a not-so-informal guide from President Emeritus Colleen Barrett on recognizing the employees at Southwest and their roles.

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