Southwest's Founder Explains Why There's No Secret Behind Its Great Culture

Herb Kelleher

Photo: Southwest

Southwest is one of the most admired companies in the country, respected in an industry that’s better known for delayed flights and bad customer service than a great corporate culture.Not to mention the fact that it’s remained profitable in a sector that rarely is. 

One of the reasons for that is its founder, Herb Kelleher, who put an enormous amount of emphasis on culture and the customer experience, something that’s persisted even after he stepped down as CEO. 

Naturally, throughout his time at the helm, and even now, companies have wanted to know the formula, the secret behind Southwest’s culture and success. In an interview with Fortune’s Jennifer Reingold, he reveals that there isn’t one:

We held Corporate Day for many, many years, and we had a good many companies that came in. And they basically wanted to know how we hired, how we trained, and how we motivated. And so we would tell them. And many of them, I think, were looking for some formula, you know, that you could put on the blackboard. The concept is simple, but the execution takes a lot of work and a lot of attention.

… It’s not formulaic. The way I describe it is this huge mosaic that you’re always adding little pieces to, to make it work. And it’s not a job that you do for six months and then you just say, “Well, that’s behind us.” It’s something you do every day.

According to Kelleher, really focusing on every person at the company, not just their work but them personally, requires a huge information network. Everybody has metrics and business intelligence, but very few companies are willing to put that much effort, time, attention, or money into proving to employees that they care. It seems like an odd thing to focus on as a business, but one that’s worked for Southwest.  

Kelleher was reluctant to call it a strategy, saying that people only like the word because “it sounds important, like the Strategic Air Command.” But his core message, having a simple set of values and committing to them, is actually a way of getting things done faster.

“Having a simple set of values for a company was also a very efficient and expedient way to go,” Kelleher said. “Because if somebody makes a proposal and it infringes on those values, you don’t study it for two years. You just say, “No, we don’t do that.” And you go on quickly.”

It’s a simple way to do things, but certainly not an easy one. It only works if the people in a company understand and define the culture for themselves. Southwest started out doing that, and because there’s no formula or quick fix, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to replicate at all in a world where initiatives are often measured in months. 

Find the full interview here

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