Simon Sinek is Right About Southwest Airlines – Here’s My Experience


At the recent Melbourne “Start With Why” Conference Simon Sinek spoke glowingly about Southwest Airlines approach to people before profit and 3 Years Ago I wanted to see if the Hype was Real……………’s a Post I first wrote in 2015

Herb Kelleher the Founder of Southwest Airlines once said “the core of the company’s success is the most difficult thing for a competitor to imitate. They can buy all the physical things. The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty—the feeling that you are participating in a crusade,”

Southwest Airlines is a company that continually states that its first responsibility is to its people. They believe strongly that by serving the people well as a starting point will flow on to serving the customers well and then ultimately result in business benefits to the stakeholders. In the past 40 years it has made record profits, paid the employees generously compared with industry standards and have rarely laid any staff off over that period.

Notice something about the order here?

Employees – Customers – Stakeholders

The common language that comes from the traditional organization is that we need to deliver a return to the stakeholder or shareholders. We must treat the customer as our No1 priority. Without customers we wouldn’t be here. Where is the employee in all of this? Usually on an organizational chart as an “employee number”.

So it might look like:

Stakeholders/Shareholders – Customers – Employees

Simon Sinek in Leaders Eat Last states that one of the shortcomings of using numbers to represent people is that:

“numbers lose their connection to people and become just numbers, void of meaning”.

A person without meaning to an organization becomes merely an overhead, part of a cost line and most likely indispensable when the shareholder returns are not acceptable and there’s a need for a quick rebalancing of the balance sheet. This I would argue is not what it is to be human.

Imagine for a moment if the same rules were applied in the environment of the family. I had this exact conversation with my family not too long back. Having taken a redundancy recently (yes my second one and yes my behavior was very different to the first one) I said to Allison, Sam, Amy and Zoe the following:

Having set up my own practice now with what I term the “redundancy runway”; I have a small window to establish myself in a regular cycle of paid work. It’s a tough market with plenty of competition and I will need to work hard to become self sufficient. Lets say for instance that I have about an 8 month window to transition from no earnings to an acceptable level to pay the mortgage and other major bills; and have a nice holiday each year.

Come month 6 and the work isn’t coming in, would I simply draw up a new family organizational chart and advise Sam (my eldest at 21) that due to financial challenges I had made the decision to “let him go” (I’m sure most of you would know that children stay at home a little longer these days). This would give me a short-term relief from the challenges and lengthen the runway. Sounds a little inhumane when reflected as a family unit.

Well it’s basically what happens in most organisations when they hit a “rough patch” or “shareholder requirements” are not being met and no-one blinks an eye. At the same time the employees are asked to do “more with less” which usually means two or three jobs and feel thankful that they have made it through the first wave of cutbacks. Remember they’re just a number.

Back to the Southwest Airlines story:

In the mid part of 2014 I spent an amazing 4 weeks with my youngest daughter Zoe on a “Dad and Daughter” adventure through Canada and The USA. We were travelling to places such as Vancouver, then via the Rocky Mountaineer to Banff, New York City, Washington DC, Nashville, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. A great chance to get to see some beautiful places and most importantly spend some time getting to “hang out” together and know a little more about each other.

My wife Allison who is a practicing accountant and a part owner of a small practice; also spends time on her other passion as a “travel planner and consultant” and planned the most amazing trip for Zoe and I. My one request was that I wanted to fly Southwest Airlines at some point in time to find out for myself it is was really true about how their employees genuinely seemed happy and proud to be part of the organization; and secondly did this flow onto the customers as part of their service.

The answer was ABSOLUTELY YES.

From the check in, boarding process and cabin service I witnessed the most amazingly happy employees and the best customer service to go with this. Make no mistake – they were genuinely happy, always looking to serve those in their care and very respectful and united as a part of the Southwest team. So much so that midway through the flight from Baltimore to Nashville I took the opportunity to go online and write a note to the HR team on my insistence to fly and “test out the hype” and the amazing experience I had. Apparently another 43,000 customers who experience the Southwest Airlines way do the same thing each year

So could it actually be true that by not only stating but more importantly living the idea that putting the people under their care as their first responsibility Southwest Airlines have “cracked the nut” and reversed the order with spectacular results. The answer is yes. I thank them for an amazing experience and the faith they’ve given me that this approach can work and is sustainable. Remember Southwest Airlines work in one of the most cut-throat industries where margins are tight and they not only rate extremely highly in their financial returns and customer experience data but also in their employee engagement numbers. It starts with their mantra that they put their employees first in their decision making process.

Their simple philosophy is based around 4 key statements:

1. Secure employees are happy employees

Unlike any other American airline, Southwest has been profitable every year since 1973. Southwest has never had a major layoff, never cut salaries, and has always paid their employees generously. Southwest is a conservative, cautious company that doesn’t take risks with their employees jobs or security.

2. Sacrifice for your employees, and they will sacrifice for you

When Herb Kelleher, former chairman of Southwest, asked the pilot’s union to agree to a five-year pay freeze, Kelleher offered to apply the same pay freeze to his own salary. It showed his employees that he was willing to make sacrifices for the good of the company and the continued prosperity of all employees. Showing solidarity and fairness to your employees will go a long way to building trust across all levels of your organization.

3. Employees are motivated to reach specific goals

Southwest initially struggled to compete with the larger, more established airlines. In order to operate with less planes, they introduced an initiative to reduce turnover time from 45 minutes to 10. Southwest’s employees rallied behind this simple and specific goal, and now Southwest turnarounds average 23 minutes, vs. 35 or more for most major airlines.

4. Work can (and should!) be fun

Southwest has always cultivated an atmosphere of relaxation and creativity. When faced with a lawsuit to determine who could use the slogan “just plane smart”, Kelleher challenged South Carolina aviation to a charity arm-wrestling match. And flight attendants are encouraged to spice up their announcements with jokes and songs. A little flexibility and joviality goes a long way to relieving the tension and tedium of most jobs. Though it may not be as “professional”, most customers will enjoy a more relaxed and memorable experience, where employees are free to be genuine and joyous.

But their proudest achievement remains their position atop “Best Place to Work” lists like Reuter’s to Forbes, because Southwest knows that the success of their company is predicated on the security, happiness, and productivity of their employees.

Let me compare that with a flight some 3 years ago from Perth to Melbourne where the cabin staff were actually happy to offer up to me that morale was low right across the business; due to the continual reference to tough times and not meeting shareholder expectations by the senior management. A fresh round of layoffs had also recently been announced. On that flight I was greeted with the fake “cheesy smile” and “welcome aboard” that had no conviction behind it. Not a great way to start the journey I must say.

So why do some organisations take one path and others an opposite?

Perhaps Southwest have a greater connection to what it is to be human.

Be Human

Mark LeBusque is the Human Manager. He has a track record in helping clients add more Human to their businesses and drive up Employee Engagement, Customer Experience and Business Results; and his 7 Step approach is based on his own experimentation as a Manager.

Mark’s first book BEING HUMAN – Why Robots are not the Answer to Business Success was launched in February 2017. For Orders click below