Listen and learn, or a meltdown may be just around the corner.
I pulled out eight or ten books on leadership skills for this article, and I came up with the same conclusion—the best manager skills are to listen and learn. Listen to your employees because they are often not just thinking about themselves. Employees want to work for the best.
The best managers get out of their office, mingle with their employees, and get their hands dirty. The best managers get the best tools for their employees to do their jobs. The best managers plan for succession.
The holiday demise of Southwest Airlines (SWA), my all-time favorite way to take to the sky, might have been prevented. After reading countless articles and doing some financial research, I have realized that SWA’s past leadership may have made the biggest mistake in SWA’s history.
They should have listened to their employees, invested in internal infrastructure to get staff where they needed to be, and not focused only on the bottom line and what customers could observe on the surface. Throughout my consulting years, I have recommended that employers invest in their employees. SWA continued to use antiquated, out-of-date, and keep-it-working software, no matter what, to move employees to where they needed to be for flights.
After the Snowmageddon of 2022, SWA’s executives are rethinking utilizing out-of-date software. The same executives knew that an event like this could happen. Kicking the can stopped in December 2022. I am confident that the new leadership will not allow a mistake like this to occur again and will make the necessary updates by investing in the infrastructure and implementing and training staff on better software. As a consumer, we will need to be patient. That is what loyal customers do.
In the meantime, the past of SWA is worth revisiting to see how the airline got to 2022. Herb Kelleher, the founder, reminds me of an old-time Mark Cuban; charismatic, brilliant, and slightly rough around the edges. Herb knew what his employees needed, and his customers wanted. I remember a 60 Minutes sequence of Herb back in the early 1990s partying with his employees. I knew they were employees because I recognized an old roommate. The bottom-line Herb was an authentic leader who managed by walking around.
Herb’s philosophy about his employees was to put your people first, empower them, love them, respect them, and take very, very good care of them, and then and only then can you deliver on your promise to serve your customers at a meager cost. Colleen Barrett, who started as Herb’s secretary, and was Herb’s immediate successor, disagreed in 2019 that airline profitability can only come at the expense of customer satisfaction.
Heck, Ken Blanchard wrote a book called Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success from conversations with Ms. Barrett. I love accountants but if the board of directors tasks an accountant with increasing the bottom line, beware that employees’ concerns may need to be addressed. In 2019, SWA posted its 46th consecutive year of profitability. Gary Kelly was CEO from 2008 to 2021. Money makes the world go around until it does not anymore. The wheels came off the bus for SWA during Snowmageddon. In defense of Gary Kelly, the airline business is complex at best and may be one of the most challenging industries in the world. But so is the oil and gas industry.
However, great leaders must balance and balance so many factors. As Jim Collins says, Greatness is a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.
Old software does not cut it in today’s world. The best software for your employees to be scheduled, paid, and moved to strategic locations is never antiquated software. It needs to be the best money can buy. It is not software developed in the 1990s.
Employees need to be proud of where they work. I read an account by a Texas-based SWA pilot who was embarrassed that SWA had failed their customers. The pilot said he felt like he had been punched in the gut after Snowmageddon.
Remember, success breeds success. When you say your motto is people first, that means your employees too.
Employers need their employees to be happy and proud of where they work to improve recruitment and retention. Proud employees will sell your organization to prospective employees, improve your bottom line, and allow you to grow.
Utilizing older technology in the short term worked for SWA. The good news in the Permian Basin is that many local companies have moved to a fully integrated Human Resource Information System. Deploying critical staff and getting them paid is crucial to employee and customer satisfaction and retention.
Lastly, succession planning. Have you planned for your successor? Who picked Herb’s successor? An article in Texas Monthly from the late 1990s said SWA encourages camaraderie among employees, revelry on the job, laughter in the halls, individuality, and wearing play clothes like the hot pants of the 1970s. In the same decade, Fortune Magazine named SWA one of the best places to work. I worked for Continental/United Airlines around that time. There were better places to work.
If your organization is going to continue, invest in your employees, and it is okay to have a little fun at work. Like the SWA of the past and I hope the SWA of the future, employers need to work hard to find the best employees, give them what they need to do their jobs well, and retain them.
My husband and I flew to Dallas in mid-January. I am happy to report, as I bet many of you have noticed, that the SWA of the past is reappearing. There is laughter, and the staff is having fun again. Keep it up.
Herb’s Golden Rule was to love your customers like they are family because they are. Well, so are your employees.
“Your employees are the heart of your organization.” Dr. Michele Harmon is a Human Resource professional, supporting clients in Texas and New Mexico that range in size from five to more than 3,000 employees. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org