Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager, explains how Southwest Airlines sold workers on its business mission.
Author Ken Blanchard
To build a valuable company you can walk away from—whether by selling it or just to leave for a vacation—requires that you figure out how to get your employees to care as much as you do.
For advice on the matter, I spoke with Ken Blanchard, whose books, including Raving Fans and The One Minute Manager,have sold more than 13 million copies worldwide.
Blanchard, who is about to release a book about Southwest Airlines with president emeritus Colleen Barrett, started our conversation by explaining how Southwest gets employees to care:
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 were 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 humor.
There was one person who took offense 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.
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 humor, and Barrett was not going to reprimand or criticize an employee for living the Southwest culture.
Warrillow: I think most CEOs would have tried to win the customer back.
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.
Warrillow: Is getting employees to care really that simple?
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 businesspeople, and 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.
Warrillow: What else did Barrett do to get her employees motivated to serve customers?
Blanchard: Southwest employees' behavior 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 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.'
Warrillow: What exactly does it mean to have a 'servant's heart'?
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, used to say his job was similar to that of a 3rd 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 voicemail 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.'