Much has been written about Southwest Airlines and co-founder Herb Kelleher, particularly with regards to the people-centric style of leadership. But in many respects it was Colleen Barrett who created that culture.
There aren’t too many major airline executives quite like Southwest
Airlines’ Colleen Barrett, 63, who rose from legal secretary to the
front of the corporate suite over a span of 23 years. It was Barrett,
working closely with mentor and company co-founder Herb Kelleher, who
pioneered Southwest’s unusual and now legendary approach to customer
service, which aims to treat the company’s 35,000 employees like
family, to make the workplace fun — and then to carry that upbeat
attitude to consumers. It’s a strategy that has made an upstart
discount carrier into America’s busiest airline by passenger volume.
Let’s dive into that a bit.
"Customer service is really my passion," Barrett said, adding that
she probably spends 85% of her time as president dealing with worker
issues — what she called "pro-active customer service to our
employees" — with the underlying idea that a happy and motivated
workforce will essentially extend that goodwill to Southwest’s
customers. "When we have employees who have a problem — or have
employees who see a passenger having a problem — we adopt them, and we
really work hard to try to make something optimistic come out of
whatever the situation is, to try to make people feel good whatever the
dilemma is that they’re dealing with," Barrett said.
On unusual aspect of her philosophy is that employees come before customers, although that’s intentional in order to ultimately drive the most value to the customer.
It was Barrett who made the Golden Rule — which was drilled into her
by her mother when she was growing up — into the company motto and
model. She also developed the unusual pyramid that focuses on employee
satisfaction and issues first and foremost, followed by the needs of
the passengers, which in turn creates a profitable business that
satisfies the shareholders below them. A typical move by Barrett,
during an earlier economic slowdown, was to offer reservation clerks a
chance to stay with the company rather than laying them off.
That philosophy, coupled with the brilliance to hedge fuel costs, is creating remarkable success even in today’s floundering air industry. Once again, it all comes down to people.