People First


People First

There is no ambiguity in the message that Southwest seeks to project: While the airline's paying customers are important, its employees are even more so. Says Barrett,

We are very up front, even with our passengers, in saying we have three customers at Southwest Airlines, and this is their order of importance: number one is our employee, number two is our passenger, and number three is our shareholder. The philosophy being that if we take care of the employees and make them feel good about who they are, and how they are to be the owners we want them to be, then they're going to deliver the same kind of respect and earn the same kind of trust with their passengers that the company earns from the employees.

At corporate headquarters in Dallas, the corridors are covered with thousands of photos of Southwest employees—snapshots of people with their families, their motorcycles, their pets. Instead of Human Resources, the company has a "People Department," one whose philosophy is to hire for attitude, not credentials. After all, Barrett was Herb Kelleher's legal secretary when he co-founded the airline in 1967.

Furthermore, Southwest's mission statement is in two parts, with the second (and longer) section geared specifically to the airline's employees (see p. 165). When I asked Barrett about Southwest's mission statement, she told an interesting story:

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SOUTHWEST AIRLINES' MISSION STATEMENT

The Mission of Southwest Airlines
The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.

To Our Employees
We are committed to provide our Employees with a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.[5]

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It was probably in the early eighties—we never had a mission statement. Herb is a great leader and mentor and coach, but he's not too much into the formulaic way of doing things. He really wasn't too keen on having a mission statement. He's a real visionary, but again, he doesn't like to define things, either. At the time, our VP of People—our human resources department—was just insistent that we have a mission statement, because everyone had a mission statement. She hired a consultant to come in and work with our senior management committee, which was probably twelve or thirteen officers at the time, and they were going to draft a mission statement. Herb went to the first all-day session and he fired the consultant at the end of the day.

According to Barrett, Kelleher then drafted a mission statement, including the longer portion dedicated specifically to employees. The committee then helped fine-tune the statement, maintaining its focus on employees:

I think all we were trying to do there was to show that our commitment to our employees was as critically important as any commitment to our shareholders. And at the time we hadn't defined the pyramid, where employees were first, passengers second, and shareholders third. But I think we were already philosophically there—even though we might not have articulated it—we were already approaching customer service internally the same as we were externally. And I suspect that's why we [created the mission statement] that way.

[5]From http://www.southwest.com.