Thursday, January 22, 2009

Managing Corporate Culture During Hard Times

Austin's most dynamic technology companies should all be attending TEXCHANGE!

Last night over 140 local professionals were in the audience to listen to Southwest Airlines legend Colleen Barrett talk about managing corporate culture during hard times.

Ms. Barrett had a very relaxed speaking style. She had no prepared remarks, but instead just allowed her mind to free-flow a stream of consciousness. She talked to the crowd like a next door neighbor, sharing her anecdotes and passion about corporate culture. Clearly sage advice.

To Southwest Airlines culture is their difference. While a company needs a good business model and strong business thinkers, good people in at all levels and a passion for customer service can propel a business ahead of the competition.

The company is fanatical (almost arrogant) in their hiring process. It would not be uncommon to interview thirty people for one baggage handler position. Why? Because the right person can help the company succeed, but also a bad hire can sour the whole department. From the beginning of the company in 1967 they have looked for employees who viewed the airline as not a "career", but a "cause".

When Herb Kelleher began the company, but before they were flying passengers, the bigger airlines (the bad guys) filed law suits to block them. This move by the large carriers (who lost the cases) directly made a difference for the success of Southwest Airlines. It gave the employees a "spirit" - a fighting spirit! Had they not had this battle to forge their dedication and culture, they may have never made it into the 1970s. But instead they became scrappy warriors who fell in love with their cause.

The company requires those who work there to exhibit three traits everyday: Spirit, A Servants Heart, and A Fun Loving Attitude. They take business seriously, but do not take themselves seriously - from the top down.

They are proud of the fact that they changed the face of the airline business. In 1967 only 13% of adults flew commercial airlines. Now it is up near 90% of adults, but also people of all ages fly on planes regularly. They made air travel affordable and accessible. They have cherished their passengers and they hear back from them that they make a difference in their business and personal lives. (Brian Krpec of Performix who was sitting at my table at the dinner met his wife on a Southwest Airlines flight...and now they have four kids. Hey, that's not just a bag of peanuts!).

In hard times the corporate executive's commitment to culture is even more important. Your company's culture builds a bond with people (employees and customers), and it makes them WANT to see you get through the rough times and continue to thrive. Employees will look for ways to help you save money, and clients will look for ways to buy from you in the tough economic climate if they have loyalty and trust. They are all pulling for the company's success when you have the right culture.

It is easier to build a good culture from the start of the business. Changing a culture is hard (not impossible with the right leader, but difficult no matter what).

Finally, Ms. Barrett closed the evening by hitting the point that communication is the key. She feels that email has hurt corporate culture and has made interactions impersonal. She encouraged companies to communicate, communicate, communicate with their employees (and customers) using a variety of mediums, including in person communications. A leader cannot lead via email, so you have to look for many, many ways to ensure your message is being delivered and recieved.

Colleen Barrett was one of the most "real" presenters I have witnessed (and I study the style and poise of anyone who takes the stage). I think it is her genuine quality that has lead her and Southwest Airlines to reach the top.

Have A Great Day.



Anonymous said...

Great post. A business of any size or shape can learn from Southwest's culture. It's palpable and authentic.

Eugene Sepulveda said...

Come to the Feb 27 Conference to talk and hear more about this :)

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