Southwest Airlines’ Managing Director of Culture, Cheryl Hughey, speaks about the elevation of workplace culture
That a publication devoted to employee engagement would include Southwest Airlines will come as no surprise. Southwest founder Herb Kelleher all but invented the discipline.
But the airline’s well-established reputation for engaged workers is exactly what worries Cheryl Hughey, Managing Director of Culture at Southwest. The creation of a highly motivated workforce, after all, is a process without end. “When you think you’re there, you’re in the danger zone,” says Hughey, a 37-year veteran of Southwest. “It’s nonstop. It takes work. It takes resources. It takes commitment by your senior leaders.”
The number of moving parts in a Boeing 737 is nothing compared with the human requirements of running a major airline, a feat that no carrier in the world accomplishes with more consistency and success than Southwest. It has posted 44 consecutive years of profitability, a record unmatched in the US airline industry. Southwest established the American industry’s first profit-sharing plan in 1973, and has long been a fixture in the top ranks of lists of the best places to work.
Hughey says there is no checklist of amenities or privileges that creates an engaged workforce. Like being a good friend or family member, being a thoughtful and inspiring employer requires constant attention and adjustments. As society and technology change, so do the needs of employees.
Each year, Southwest holds rallies at four different locations around the country. Thousands of employees travel on their own dime to these rallies to hobnob with executives and listen to inspirational speeches. In addition, the airline also holds employee events called Spirit Parties, Culture Summits and Blitzes.
The creator of this vibrant culture, Chairman Emeritus Kelleher, understood from the outset that employees “luv” (the Southwest spelling; it is also the company’s NYSE stock symbol) being part of a team that treats every member as important. He also engendered the playful spirit of the airline, whose flight attendants often amuse passengers with jokes and serenade them with songs.
Current CEO Gary Kelly has sustained and even expanded that tradition. At Southwest rallies, Kelly, CEO since 2004, shoots T-shirts into the crowd from a bazooka-like contraption.
One reward for that emphasis on culture is a strong loyalty: the average tenure of a Southwest employee is 11.5 years and, with 55,000 employees, turnover hovers around 2.5 percent. Employee satisfaction, in turn, translates into exemplary customer service and superior shareholder returns that consistently outperform competitors and indices – between September 2013 and 2017, Southwest’s share price grew nearly 400 percent.