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  • Writer's picturetony

Culture Clubbed

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Sharing something that I posted on my internal NSA blog in 2012.

This might seem a bit dated, especially after Southwest Airlines' holiday meltdown in December 2022. But that event is also a reminder that corporate culture is complex, fragile, and deserves a lot of leadership attention. It's also not a separate "thing" to be created and managed, but it is deeply tied into, and flows from, company operations and leadership actions.


Culture Clubbed 2012.02.15 - 06:45 am

Two aspects of my life occasionally come together with amusing results (well, amusing to *me*):

1) As a manager, I am inevitably a "corporate culture watcher" - someone who tries to observe and think about how people in an organization think and act based on the collective values, customs, and traditions (often unwritten) of the institution.

2) My wife is a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines - arguably one of the strongest, best-defined corporate cultures in American business.

So last week, I attended a Southwest "Message To The Field (MTTF)" - an annual event where the CEO and many of the senior corporate officers travel to several Southwest base cities to speak directly to the workforce in an open Town Hall setting. It's an impressive investment of time by their senior leaders. This is the second time I have attended one of these.

Let me set the scene for you. Especially for you NSA ISTJ Managers (ed. note: "ISTJ" is a Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, MBTI, "an introspective self-report questionnaire indicating differing psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions". Whether you believe in the MBTI or not, it was a big "thing" at NSA for years. And by far the most common MBTI type among NSA Managers was "ISTJ". ). A rented local auditorium filled with people. Noisy, happy, outgoing people. Many of whom (especially Flight Attendants, Customer Service Reps, etc.) were specifically hired for their people skills and natural empathy. Southwest people based not just at BWI, but many from nearby airports, with a scattering from across the rest of the Southwest system. An incredibly diverse group, with everyone from baggage handlers to alpha-cat ex-military pilots. James Brown blaring from the speakers. Door prizes. The hugging, the high-fiving, the cheering! Oversized beach balls bouncing around the crowd. And, EVERY SEAT IN THE AUDITORIUM was equipped with "ThunderStix".

Oh, the humanity! Oh, the insanity!

And that was just the warm-up.

After an introduction by the head of the Company’s “Culture Department” (Yes, they have such an organization), out walks the CEO to a standing ovation and raucous cheers. (Uh, how many American Companies today might host such a scene?). Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest, is a very visible and well-regarded CEO. He spoke for 40 minutes or so in his plain-speaking, credible, folksy way. Very impressive, with a great mix of positive corporate cheerleading (backed with numerous facts), as well as a challenge to improve.

This is a company with *focus* on key themes like cost control and "Positively Outrageous Service." They are consistent in their messaging from the top officers, at every Company event, and in every communication to the workforce. And not all of the messages are positive. The competition is fierce, and the low-cost advantage they once held over the "legacy carriers" is slim. He also pointed out that *every* major carrier that existed when Southwest was formed has gone bankrupt (and only a few reconstituted). And he issued a key challenge - to improve the rate of absenteeism by employees, which has gone from best to worst in the industry. He described in very specific terms how many "extra" employees the company needed to cover for absenteeism, how that number equated to the total number of employees in several bases, and how many additional millions of dollars in employee profit-sharing would result if they could cut the rate in half.

With that last factoid, Mr. Kelly was aiming right at one of the cornerstones of Southwest culture - the notion of "employee ownership". Not by coincidence, the Company theme for the year is "It's My Southwest." When employees feel ownership (literally in terms of stock and/or figuratively in attitude) of an enterprise, amazing things happen. This struck me at the first MTTF I attended when, during the Q&A, people who appeared to be front-line folks like baggage handlers, mechanics, staffers, and flight attendants stood up to ask pointed and sophisticated questions about company accounting practices, currency rate issues (if they added non-US destinations), and subtleties of airplane re-routing. Uh, these people are not just slinging suitcases and peanuts around and cashing their checks. My wife once told me how startled she was the first time she was on a flight and they were very tight on time to turn around the flight, and the First Officer came cheerfully bounding out of the cockpit to help collect the trash - "we've got to turn this plane around, let's go!". And the people working the boarding would come running down the ramp to help if needed. (Have you noticed that Southwest does not outsource its trash collection? When the Flight Attendant asks you to dig through the seatback pocket and collect your trash, they mean it. Otherwise, they have to do it.). And you'll often find FAs who are "deadheading" (commuting or riding along on standby) pitching in to help serve drinks and snacks.

No, I am not naive. Not every Southwest employee is so fully invested emotionally. And not every one of them will tell you jokes or sing to you on the flight (My wife will often sing, but I am not sure that's what you really want). But if your dominant corporate culture is about ownership of the enterprise, and from the very top down the focus is on service to customers *and* to employees, then you can have a success story like Southwest. From a 2 airplane start-up to the largest domestic carrier, while remaining a "scrappy, lovable, maverick", as Mr. Kelly referred to the Company.

Lessons for us at NSA? Well, there's no question that Southwest operates in a more bounded business domain than we do, which gives them the opportunity to bring great focus on specific issues like cost cutting and customer satisfaction, and to have the financials to allow better measurement of success or failure. But if it's so easy, why doesn't the competition do it?

Having read everything I can find on the company and from living with a company insider, I can tell you we can learn a lot, and I'll write more about this later.

In some ways, we use "mission" as our equivalent of "employee ownership" as the tie that binds us, and that works pretty well. But if there's one thing that I wish we could borrow from their culture, it's the enthusiasm and unbounded joy that's evident in their events and their daily work.

Go back to the picture I tried to paint of the warm-up for the MTTF. And now the image in my head? Sitting in Friedman Auditorium all afternoon as part of "Senior Day." (ed. note: "Senior Day" at NSA meant all of the Senior Executives gathered in the main auditorium, politely applauding at all of the Perfect Powerpoint presentations.)

I'll say no more except that I think we need to start issuing ThunderStix for all executive meetings....


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