Culture as a Competitive Advantage Organizational Culture (OC) is a bedrock of Southwest Airlines, and arguably one of the main reasons for its un-paralleled success. Southwest’s culture has been established by fearlessly implementing and protecting their OC Equation. The beginning of which is their values. Southwest’s stated values include:

  •          a warrior spirit
  •          a servant’s heart
  •          a fun-luving  attitude

(the way Southwest spells “love”)

Although these values are proudly displayed and touted throughout the organization, they are backed up with carefully articulated philosophies. For example, Southwest Airlines has instilled in their employees that:

  • A warrior spirit means being fearless in terms of delivering the product and being sensitive to the reasons customers travel and their needs for schedules and space.
  • A servant’s heart means treat others with respect.  Follow the Golden Rule.  Put other people first. In an interview with Forbes magazine, Ginger Hardage, the airline’s chief communications officer, stated “We believe we need to connect people to what is important in their lives through friendly, reliable and low cost air travel.  If you respect their concerns and needs, and still provide low-cost and low-fare terms, then you do indeed have a servant’s heart.  The customer, hopefully, is getting more than he or she paid for.”
  • A fun luving attitude means hiring for and supporting an attitude where employees are proud to work at Southwest. Employees who have a fun and luving attitude toward customers and co-workers. Employees who don’t take themselves too seriously.

This culture has resulted in a hugely loyal customer base and amazingly little turnover among their employees, in other words, it’s created a competitive advantage.

Case in Point – The Power of Culture

For a little over 2 years, I lived in Nashville, TN but worked in Iselin, NJ. So literally, every week I would fly to NJ on Monday and then fly home the following weekend. When I first started this crazy schedule, I gave little thought to the OC of the airline I chose. As a matter of fact, I solely based my flight decision on two competing priorities: price and frequent flyer program (it’s amazing what a few “points” can entice you to do).

Shortly after starting this insane schedule, my focus began to change. As our country fell deeper into the Great Recession of 2008, airline prices began to spike while employee attitudes toward passengers began to plummet. As if the weekly travel wasn’t bad enough, now it cost more than double and the flight attendants and ground crews were positively retched to deal with.

That was the moment when I made the decision to find an alternative to those skyrocketing pricing and curt, chastising attitudes – and that alternative was Southwest Airlines! The only problem was, at that time Southwest Airlines didn’t provide service into Newark, NJ, so an alternate airport would have to be located. Shortly after beginning my quest, I discovered Southwest serviced the Philadelphia airport and that wasn’t all that far from NJ!

The cost and time commitment were similar, but to make it work, I would have to add an additional train leg to my journey – landing in Philly and then taking the NJ transit train to the Iselin train station where I would then walk 2 or so blocks to my office building literally dragging my bag and briefcase along behind me. In my mind a small price to pay for a smiling face and people who “luv-ed” the fact that I was there – and let me tell you, it’s no easy feat making a 4:30 am passenger feel “luv-ed”! I maintained this crazy schedule for a little over two years, until I decided to start my own business in Nashville, TN, but that’s another story for another time. Now, fast forward to today. I no longer fly weekly, as a matter of fact

I usually only fly 4-5 times per year. But even today I still make every attempt possible to fly Southwest – it’s that loyalty thing. As a matter of fact, I’ve been on 6 Southwest flights over the past 2 weeks, and there it was staring me in the face – a subtle change that lesser traveling passengers might never pick up on – I wasn’t feeling the “luv”!

Previously a trip on Southwest was akin to a Saturday Night Live skit – the flight attendants were funny, engaging and professional. But recently the wackiness, the politeness, the “luv” seem to be missing. The employees are suddenly taking themselves “too seriously”. But why I wondered???? airtran_colThen I realized, in 2010, Southwest Airlines made a major acquisition. They bought and merged with Air Tran, a much more traditional airline with a totally different OC. And like what happens in most organization, employees began taking advantage of the additional opportunities for growth and advancement and transferring to other assignments.

The AirTran culture was slowly eroding the traditional Southwest Culture. And that’s what happens, if you have an incredible culture, it can easily be lost through subtle changes (especially organization changes) if you’re not very intentional and deliberate about preserving it. Have you noticed a change in the Southwest attitude? We’d love to hear about your experiences and observations. Join the conversation below!