“You Built It”

Posted by jlubans on January 12, 2021

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Caption: Southwest Airline Engine (and plane) over Rocky Mountains, west of Denver, CO, USA. January 9 2021

Early in January of this new year I was waiting for my return flight from Denver, Colorado to Portland, Oregon.
I sat across from my departure gate – just waiting and looking at the passers-by of which there were surprisingly many streaming past, all masked.
I was on a SWA dedicated concourse – full of arriving and departing SWA travelers and crews - so it was not unusual that there was a SWA flight crew sitting nearby. I was by myself having a take-away glass of wine (thank you virus!) .
One of the flight crew, a man, asked me if I was going to Spokane, the destination at the next gate and the one his crew were working. That got the conversation rolling.
I asked him about the last president of the airline, Colleen Barret, if she was still working several hours a week in spite of her retirement. He said no, she was less and less involved.
Then I mentioned my meeting Herb Kelleher (1931-2019), the co-founder of the airline and how welcomed I felt sitting in his office. From the first second, it was like visiting with an old friend.
This was in Dallas, Texas, which is where SWA is headquartered.
I mentioned my asking Herb – there was nothing of the “Mister” about Herb – about SWA’s culture of excellent customer service. I asked if the underlying values would change on his retirement.
“No”, he said, “it’s in the DNA.”
I related that story to the flight attendant, “He said that, did he?” he queried.
“He sure did.”
Hearing that, he pulled out his phone and said he had a picture to show me.
It was one of him in ramp agent* gear sitting next to Herb – in a suit - chatting away.
In other words, that’s the CEO hobnobbing with one of the workers.
He told Herb - the CEO - how appreciative he, the ramp agent, was of the “empire” Herb had built – the Southwest Airlines empire, the company.
Herb responded, “I didn’t build it, you did.”
So, here we have one of the workers with a picture of the CEO on his phone. How many workers do you know who carry around a picture of their CEO?
Just think about it.
And think about Herb’s perspective about who’s in charge, who’s responsible for SWAs success, about who should get the credit.

*We know what flight attendants do.
The lesser known “Ramp Agents” guide the plane in to and out of the gate, help get passengers off and on the plane, and unload luggage and cargo and make sure the luggage gets to the right person. They also re-provision the plane – water, snacks, drinks, paper goods.
And, on January 9th they de-iced my plane before we took off for Oregon.
Some ramp teamers, like the flight attendant I met in Denver, aspire to become flight attendants.
See my “No Bean Bags Here” essay.

Also there are chapters on Southwest leadership and culture in my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle. Amazon has it.

© Copyright photo and text John Lubans 2021

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