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Lesson #3: Personality is Power
Kelleher wanted Southwest to be more than just another airline carrier. He wanted it to be both a place where employees enjoyed coming to work, and where customers enjoyed coming to fly. He knew that it would take more than just generous benefits and cheap fares to keep them, respectively, coming back for more.
Today, Southwest has a reputation in the industry for not only hard work but high spirits. It was voted Best Place to Work in America in 1998 by Fortune magazine, thanks in large part to Kelleher’s own personal mandate.
In hiring employees, Kelleher looks for more than just academic qualifications. “We have a good many MBAs, but we look at them for attitude as well,” he says. “We will hire someone with less experience, less education, and less expertise, than someone who has more of those things and has a rotten attitude.” Why? “Because we can train people,” he says. “We can teach people how to lead. We can teach people how to provide customer service. But we can’t change their DNA.”
Kelleher likes to hire what he calls “humble MBAs – people who think they’re just starting out on their career and have a lot to learn.” He does not want people working for him who think they know everything. He wants someone who is willing to take the time to learn the soft skills that Southwestern so values – how to treat people, how to handle customers. “Once they’ve done all that,” says Kelleher, “then they’re ready to start doing planning and all those other things.”
In the hiring process at Southwest, many applicants are made to take personality tests. Once, the vice president of Southwest’s People Department was having a hard time finding a new ramp agent, she came to Kelleher to voice her frustrations. She said she was embarrassed that she had already interviewed 34 candidates for the position. Kelleher told her to interview 134 people if that was what it would take to find the person with the right attitude for the job.
Kelleher also ensures a positive working environment by encouraging cross-training among his staff. Pilots are given instruction on cleaning cabins; ramp workers are showed how to sell tickets. Even Kelleher himself often helped in loading luggage, processing tickets, and mixing drinks on board. Despite statistically working harder and longer than employees at any other airline, Southwest employees do not seem to mind.
That is because they love their jobs. Pilots tell jokes over the plane speakers; they distribute peanuts by throwing them down the aisles during take off; they have fun. It is that sense of personality that Kelleher has worked hard to cultivate throughout his company, often times leading by example. Once, Kelleher suggested an arm wrestling match against the CEO of another airline over the rights to use a slogan. And, when he was told that night-shift employees would not be able to attend company parties, he used to show up at 2 a.m. to throw them their own special barbeque.
Kelleher once said that spirit was “the core of our success. That’s the most difficult thing for a competitor to imitate. They can buy all the physical things. The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty – the feeling that you are participating in a crusade.”
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