On January 3, just four days ago, the world lost a game-changing leader at age 87. Few people can say they changed the way the world saw things. But that can be said of Herb Kelleher, the co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines.
There are few people who have not been touched by his business sense and direction. Whether or not you have flown Southwest in your life, you have experienced the change in the industry fostered by his vision and leadership. Furthermore, the vision paid off financially, with Southwest posting an unheard of 45 years straight of profitability in an industry rife with buy-outs and bankruptcies.
He was a rough-talking, chain-smoking, hard-driving tough negotiator that absolutely backed his employees and they backed him. When he retired they took out a full-page tribute to him in the Wall Street Journal. When he passed away, another full-page tribute from his employees followed the next day.
What bred that loyalty. Here are some excerpts from the Wall Street Journal’s obituary yesterday.
“Southwest has reported profits for the past 45 years in an industry known for boom and bust….The secret, Mr. Kelleher insisted, was putting employees first – remembering their birthdays, commiserating with their sorrows, letting them figure out how to solve problems. That, he said, made them want to please customers, which took care of the bottom line. A company’s spirit was ‘the most powerful thing’ he said”.
“…Much of Southwest’s success came from Mr. Kelleher’s ability to make employees feel valued. He had an extraordinary ability to remember their names…On the other hand, he once couldn’t find his car and reported it as stolen, then was reminded he had taken it to a garage for servicing.”
Can you capture the concepts, the profoundly basic approach that produced such good results?
1. Put employees first
2. Remember important events
3. Stay with them in tough times
4. Have confidence that they are smart enough to figure things out…
And the result?
Employees that are self-assured enough that they take care of the customers and keep them coming back. You have heard this many times before, both in this blog and in the leadership reading. So nothing new…just proof, 45 years of it, that it works.
And, with the world of healthcare being in such flux, consider the following comments after his retirement:
“Some employees said the airline became less like a big boisterous family under his successors. In a 2014 video he offered this advice for employees upset by efforts to reduce costs and otherwise evolve: ‘what we’re talking about here is your future. If we don’t change, you won’t have one'”.
I would venture to say that he was able to be that blunt because his employees trusted him. You can talk that way when you remember someone’s birthday, or name, or have had their back in tough times.
This has made me reflect on my leadership. I hope it does the same for you.