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Conscious Capitalism Chicago: Blog

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Why Are Southwest Employees Always Smiling? – by Lee Capps

January 12, 2019 5:12 PM | Deleted user

I’ve become a relatively frequent flyer on Southwest, so I’ve learned a bit about their ways. For instance, passengers board in groupings labeled A, B and C, depending on how quickly you check-in online (or whether you’ve purchased an early check-in privilege). The running joke is that C stands for “check bag” (because there won’t be enough overhead space) or “center seat” (because that is all that will be left).

On one recent trip, I ended up with a high C number. So, I scanned for a center seat near the front of the plane, and – lo and behold – there was one. Except it had two Southwest pilots sitting in the aisle and window seats, chatting together with great animation. The last thing I wanted was chatty neighbors, but it was a choice seat. As I did the customary nod with raised eyebrows, they immediately acknowledged me, and the pilot on the aisle rose to allow me to sit. Once seated, I said, “OK, fellas, I’m looking forward to a quiet flight, so please don’t think you’re going to talk to each other over top of me.’ They laughed, and we settled in.

As we prepared for take-off - and realizing I had a captive audience - I said, “So, all the commercials and advertising for Southwest show happy employees. Give me the inside scoop: what’s it really like to work for Southwest?” Without missing a beat, one of the pilots said, “AWESOME!” (I have to acknowledge that I hate that word – it’s so overused and inexact – but it’s the word he used, and the caps do reflect his spontaneous enthusiasm.) I swiveled my head and looked at the other pilot, who was nodding vigorously. “Exactly what I would have said…”, he agreed.

So, I probed deeper – why was it so awesome? The first pilot said that his objectives were clear and that he felt empowered to take the necessary actions to accomplish them. As you might guess on your own, the objectives were to: leave the gate on time, make customers happy and save money. “For example”, he said, “when I’m sitting at the gate, I choose to have only one engine running to serve the electrical and airflow needs of the plane; but, at the same time, I’m saving gas. And, no procedure manual tells me to do that; I just do what makes sense.” The other pilot chimed in, “And, it’s in our best interest, since we’re shareholders, too.” The conversation continued, but you get the idea.

These employees had clear success criteria, felt a very real sense of ownership for results (and costs), appreciated the importance of the customer, and felt empowered to make decisions and act on them.

Southwest has a stated purpose to “democratize the skies”. In pursuit of that purpose, it has recognized the importance of all stakeholders in its ecosystem, not just the shareholders. This value orientation requires them to balance the needs and welfare all stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers as well as investors and shareholders. None can win at the expense of others, and all need to align on the overall approach.

If shareholder return is depressed, this model would not fix that problem on the backs of employees or customers. We’ve seen this discipline reflected in countless business decisions by the company, ranging from their customer treatment to employee empowerment to fuel purchase and flight pattern design. And, their shareholders trust this balanced approach – or they can choose to take their money elsewhere.

Interested in engaging further with stakeholder orientation?

The Chicago chapter of Conscious Capitalism is hosting a panel discussion on January 16 from 6:00-8:30 at Studio Movie Grill (SMG) at 210 W 87th St. in the Chatham neighborhood. SMG’s purpose is to “open hearts and minds, one story at a time”. They are committed to delivering on that purpose to all of their stakeholders – customers, employees, the community, shareholders and partners and suppliers. The panel will include representatives from those stakeholder groups here in Chicago along with SMG’s CEO Brian Schultz. Join us for a rich evening of connection and learning. You can register here.

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