To build a valuable company you can walk away from – whether to sell or to leave just for a vacation – requires that you figure out how to get your employees to care as much as you do.
Mr. Blanchard is about to release a book about Southwest Airlines Co. with president emeritus Colleen Barrett, tentatively called Lead with Luv , a nod to Dallas Love Field Airport, where the airline got its start. Mr. Blanchard began the conversation by explaining how Southwest gets employees to care:
Mr. Blanchard: Southwest has posted a profit in each of the last 37 years – a time when the entire airline industry in the United States has posted a net loss. They have a truly special culture.
A friend of mine recently flew Southwest and told me about a flight attendant who came on the PA system to explain that the crew was tired and didn’t have the energy to come through the aisles to pass around the peanuts. Instead, she explained that she would leave a pile of peanut packages loose at the front of the plane and that, when the plane takes off, she went on, the peanuts will start sliding down the aisle and passengers could reach out and grab a pack for themselves.
True to her word, the plane began to taxi, gather speed and, as the front wheels came off the ground, the peanuts started to slide to the rear of the plane. The cabin erupted in laughter as virtually everyone inside appreciated the flight attendant’s touch of humour.
There was one person who took offence to the stunt and wrote a letter to complain about the breach in safety protocol.
Normally, when the head of an airline gets a complaint letter, someone in their office sends the obligatory form letter back explaining that they will look into the matter and include a coupon for an upcoming flight.
[Ms.]Barrett wrote a letter that simply said, “We’ll miss you.”
The implication is clear: At Southwest, one of their values is to operate with a sense of humour, and [Ms.]Barrett was not going to reprimand or criticize an employee for living the Southwest culture.
Mr. Warrillow: I think most CEOs would have tried to win the customer back.
Mr. Blanchard: Maybe, but, at Southwest, they consider their first, and most important, customer the people who work at Southwest. The second most important customer group is the people who fly in their planes, and the third most important group are the shareholders.
Mr. Warrillow: Is getting employees to care really that simple?
Mr. Blanchard: It starts with making employees your most important customer, but you must also have a compelling vision. At Southwest, they’re on a mission to democratize air travel. When they first started, the only people who could fly were relatively wealthy business people, and [Southwest co-founder and former CEO]Herb Kelleher‘s vision was to offer everyone the chance to visit a friend or relative during a happy and a sad time. That’s a vision employees can get excited about.
If you ask a Southwest employee what business they’re in, they’ll tell you they are in the customer service business and they happen to fly airplanes.
Mr. Warrillow: What else did [Ms.]Barrett do to get her employees motivated to serve customers?
Mr. Blanchard: Southwest employees’ behaviour is guided by four operating values. Firstly, safety is at the top of the list for obvious reasons. Second is to operate with a “warrior's spirit,” which is to say [that]if you are going to do something, do it better than anyone else. Southwest can turn around a plane in 10 minutes – better than anyone else – because everyone pitches in. Even the captain helps pick up trash to turn the plane around faster. Their third value is to operate with a fun-loving spirit, which explains stunts like the flight attendant with the unique peanut distribution strategy. Their fourth value is to have a “servant’s heart.”
Mr. Warrillow: What exactly does it mean to have a “servant’s heart”?
Mr. Blanchard: The typical organization is a pyramid, with the boss at the top and a group of employees underneath. At Southwest, they flip the pyramid over so that the boss is there to help the leadership team succeed and, in turn, the leaders are there to help the front line succeed. It is exactly the opposite of most other companies.
Max De Pree, former CEO and chairman of Herman Miller Inc., used to say his job was similar to that of a third-grade teacher: Just keep saying the vision and values over and over again.
At my company, we have 300 employees spread across offices all over the world, and I send them all a voice mail each morning with a message from me about why our work is important, and a reminder about one of our values. I call myself our company’s “chief spiritual officer.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. He writes a blog about building a valuable – sellable – company.