Why We Need More Herbs In The World

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar January 16, 2019

Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, passed away recently. He was 87. Harvard Business Review called him “a true business original” and “one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time”.

Decades ago Herb build an airline from scratch, growing Southwest from a regional carrier with only a few destinations to a company of >50,000 employees operating >4,000 flights each day—to >100 destinations.

More importantly, Southwest became world-famous for its progressive culture, a people-centric philosophy, and their ‘employees first’ mantra. These made them one of the best workplaces, according to many—including Glassdoor, Forbes, and Fortune.

Some say: ‘When you learn from the best, you become the best’. As Herb was one of the best, what we can learn from him?

Some say: ‘When you learn from the best, you become the best’. As Herb Kelleher was one of the best, what we can learn from him?
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It's not a business, not even a mission, but a revolution!

In 1971 Herb didn’t just start a business. He started a revolution to “democratize the skies”. That’s why Southwest doesn’t just fly planes. They don’t aim to be another (low-cost) airline.

They fight for a cause—to improve the quality of life of every American. They want everyone to have the possibility to travel affordably and flexibly. They fight for the “freedom to fly.”

What can we learn from this? Start a revolution, not a business. It's not about what you sell. It's about what you stand for!


A revolution needs freedom fighters

When you have freedom fighters on board it makes sense to give them freedom too. That’s why all employees at the airline have the right of the “Eight Freedoms”.

It shows that freedom is just as important for employees as it is for customers. Every employee enjoys the freedom to:

  • Pursue good health,
  • Create financial security,
  • Lean and grow,
  • Make a positive difference,
  • Travel,
  • Work hard and have fun,
  • Create and innovate,
  • Stay connected.

What do we learn from this? Make clear what are desired and unacceptable behaviors in the organization. An inspiring and genuine culture is the most powerful inside-out marketing.

Hire for culture

Herb said, “The business of business is people”. So, at Southwest they only hire people whose values are in sync with the rest of the airline. They only employ people who embrace the ‘Southwest Way’, which means the following:

  • A warrior spirit – The desire to excel and innovate. To give 100% every single day.
  • A servant’s heart – The ability to put others first and to treat others with respect.
  • A fun-loving attitude – To have fun at work. To take work seriously, but not yourself.

To maintain this culture they hire very carefully. Typically, they hire less than 2% of all applicants. And it is not unusual for a single applicant to be interviewed by over 100 people. In 2015 they received ~400,000 resumes and hired only 6,000.

They hire for culture and attitude rather than expertise and talent. They figured out they can train people to fly planes and serve passengers, but they can’t train a good attitude. That’s why they work hard to hire thoughtfully, and to weed out non-performers in the 6-month probationary period.

It seems to work! An employee survey from 2014 asked whether people felt their work was ‘just a job’, ‘a stepping stone’, or ‘a calling’. Of all respondents 75% selected ‘a calling’, and 86% reported being proud to work for the airline.

What do we learn from this? Hire for culture and attitude. Hire tough by spending extravagant time on recruiting. And weed out non-performers before they do damage. It will be worth it.


Simplicity as innovation

Southwest Airlines has revolutionized the airline industry. They didn’t do this by following complicated ‘continuous innovation’ programs or other consultant mumbo-jumbo.

They did it via a strong commitment to simplicity and common sense. They became famous, for example, for flying just one kind of plane – the Boeing 737. They fly only this plane—not because they couldn’t fly others—but because it is simpler, cheaper and easier to train pilots and mechanics to fly and maintain one plane type.

What can we learn? Follow the KISS principle – keep things simple, stupid – and use common sense. Most systems work better if they are simple rather than complicated.

Ask employees to act like owners

Herb reportedly learned from his mother that employees come first. She told him: “If you treat them well, then they treat the customers well, and that means your customers come back and your shareholders are happy.”

They take their own people very seriously – be they pilots, engineers, attendants or executives, every voice matters. You don’t need the help of expensive consultants when your 30,000+ employees are all experts in their field.

So when the company needed to choose new flight attendant uniforms, they recruited a task force of flight attendants interested in design to do it—as simple as that.

And when Southwest Airlines is doing well, their people do well: really, really well. They deserve to because they worked for it and they are the company.

In 1973, the airline was the first major airline to introduce profit sharing. Which means they have shared profits for decades now. Moreover, employees reportedly own ~10% of the company’s shares as well.

The results? We heard stories of flight attendants picking up trash and entertaining customers, pilots being cautious with fuel usage and ground crews tracking down borrowed equipment. Why? Because they know exactly how their effort will help company performance and profit.

What can we learn from this? Take your people damn seriously. Make them think and act like owners. Then share the success of profits and ownership.

We need more Herbs

Herb knew that treating employees well creates fans of customers, and thus financial success. It should not come as a surprise that the airline has enjoyed 44 continuous years of profit. They have never had a money-losing year – ever.

Herb Kelleher was a true maverick. He showed the world you can have fun and make money too. That’s why we need more Herbs in the world!
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Herb was a true maverick. Most notably for us, he showed the world you can have fun and make money too. That’s why we need more Herbs in the world!

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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