"Culture is one of the most precious things a company has. So you must work harder on it than anything else".
- Herb Kelleher, Founder, South West Airlines.
It's difficult not to read about Herb Kelleher and not feel inspired. He was a free spirit, and he not only surrounded himself with other free spirits, but he actively encouraged their freedom and nurtured their will to succeed.
Herb was onto something, and the record of South West Airlines demonstrates just what is possible through nurturing a culture of entrepreneurship and free spirit. In 2018 it recorded its 46th consecutive year of profitability, which is a unique achievement in any business, but especially in the airline industry.
South West attribute their success to their unique business culture which nurtures, encourages, and protects the free spirit of their people. The business leadership recognises that everyone is an entrepreneur, and they encourage autonomy, ownership, and accountability to their peers.
South West has become a guiding light for entrepreneurs around the world that want to emulate their stunning business performance - not just for their financial results, but also for their customer satisfaction and employee engagement.
We've said before that business is a uniquely human endeavour. Data, systems, and processes are secondary, and they either support your desired entrepreneurial culture, or they inhibit it (here's looking at you Telstra). A lesson from South West is to put people first, most notably employees, and then build your 'way of doing things' around their needs so that they can best serve each other, and then the customer.
Many business leaders balk at the idea of putting their employees first. They see their employees as inputs, in the same way as raw materials and utilities. Take a look at the financial performance of these businesses though. Most often, their performance just tracks the performance of the market. They run at the whim of the economy, not through the inspired will of their people.
South West is courageous in the way of people with a cause.
The organisations that inspire contribution, engagement, and loyalty are those that stand for something. The business itself has a passion, as though it were a person. They are fighting for something. People should care because they stand up for the little guy, they fight for fairness and equity, they represent freedom, or they enable us to imagine wonderful things. Whatever it is, the cause binds 'their people' and they stand shoulder to shoulder whether they be employees, customers, suppliers, or investors. They are driven by it.
We call this this clarity of purpose. It's the reason why the business exists at all, and it's why others should care about its success.
So Change Agents, what is your purpose? This isn't about marketing, or self promotion. It's about how you want to spend your discretionary effort, and how you want others to contribute. It's how you want to embrace your free spirit, and recognise, nurture, and protect that spirit in others.