I flew Southwest Airlines recently. One of their mottos is “Don’t Make the Easy Hard” which seems to be exactly what they have done. Herb Keller knew that a valued employee would offer an extraordinary customer experience. Done well, this would ultimately result in the company and shareholders profiting. Somewhere along the line, they lost their way.
Around a decade ago, SWA leadership shifted from investing in and caring about their employees to focusing on shareholder return. They also slowly moved from being empowered, employee driven to being central management driven. In an article in Newsweek, a pilot says, “What is maddening and sad is that Southwest Airlines was built on the principle of putting the ‘employees first’…[today] it is easy to tell what the company truly values. Devaluing employees is a slippery slope: it is very easy to prioritize ladder-climbing over workplace, and worker, value.”
Culture is an organic result of leadership. Leaders act on their beliefs and those actions create the environment everyone else operates in. The point we can take from SWA is that if leadership changes their actions, they will change the culture. That blade cuts both ways. Leaders who are not value culture centric can change and become committed to demonstrating the intrinsic and equal value of everyone. However, leaders can get lost and shift their focus to revenue and shareholder return just as easily.
At SWA, it took over a decade to lose enough of the culture and employee empowerment to foment the scheduling disaster of December 2022. Hundreds and thousands of decisions led up to the failures of that Christmas which impacted so many customers and almost all the pilots and crew. The culture is so bad that recently 97% of the 10,000 SWA pilots voted to authorize a strike. I would say the leadership no longer has the trust of the team.
Profit and shareholder return are important. People are just more important. One of Kimray’s officers likes to say it this way, “We do not live to breathe; we breathe to live.” Profits are the breath of a company. They provide the needed components for the company to remain vital and alive. The point of that vitality and life, however, should not be profits; it should be to maximize the experience (culture) for the health, safety, and development of all stakeholders.
It is much easier to maintain a positive, people-first culture than it is to create or recover one. It is still work. It requires being diligent in maintaining the core values and mission that got you there in the first place. It requires not succumbing to the pressures of the current management trends. It requires constant communication with all stakeholders to remind them why we do things this way and how successful it has been. It’s work, but it’s easy compared to the other option.
It is much more difficult to change a culture to, or back to, a value culture when it has been lost or never existed. It requires significant investment in rebuilding trust through consistent people-first decisions. It requires humility to acknowledge that things are not okay and that leadership is the reason. It requires standing up to factions that are happy with the way things are and conviction that the better culture will ultimately be better for everyone. It’s hard work, and there is nothing easy about it.
Southwest Airlines had a value culture that propelled them to a level of success and stability that is seldom found in their industry. They maintained that culture for four decades. It only took one decade to destroy it. It is anyone’s guess how long it will take to rebuild it if they even try. Leaders must remain diligent where their core values and mission are concerned. Being committed to keeping the easy from becoming hard and staying true to the value culture is The Bison Way.