If there is an airline organization emulated and copied by other airlines operators in and outside the United States, this could be no other than Southwest Airlines. From a humble beginning of operation within three destinations in Texas, the firm is able to sustain a consistent growth of 10% throughout its more than three decades of operation in West America. The airline is popularly known for its efficiency and cheap low-fare with short-haul destinations in the country. In an industry like commercial transport where the competition is aptly described as a cutthroat one, this feat of continuous growth for a very long duration of time is something out of the ordinary; a feat that is almost impossible considering that the airline industry in United States experiences gloomy economic prospective especially after the September 11 terrorist attack.
How then Southwest Airlines has able to withstand the ups and lows of the American airline industry for such a long period of time and even able to cash in profits during those gloomy times when almost all other airlines are laying off employees and even filing bankruptcy due to inability to even make it break even?
Looking back at how Southwest Airlines started and earned brand recognition in the minds of air travelers, the company was not just become famous for its low-fare fee but also because of its excellent and friendly and most of all outrageous services it offered to its patrons. An example of this outrageous type of service was the novel way it used to dispense air-borne services to its patrons: this was when its stewardesses don hot pants and called its ticket registers “love machine.” This act of playfulness and freedom to be creative on the part of the employees of the airlines only serves as a hint to the organizational and human resource structure that is part of the tradition of Southwest Airlines.
Transformational Leadership: Foundation of Human Resource Structure of SW
One major component to the dynamic human resource structure of Southwest Airlines emanated from the charismatic leadership spearheaded by the company’s founding member Herb Kelleher. The style of leadership of Kelleher borders on novel and almost idiosyncratic management style in the world of corporate life. Everything that is the structure of how employees dispense their jobs to the company has the signature of what Kelleher created a vision and mission statement for the company to follow. Right now, even if Herb Kelleher only stand at the background behind the present leadership of the new management of the airline, his visionary corporate style is so ingrained in the whole organization of the firm that it can function like the way it used to be as if Kelleher did not retired from heading and directing the company.
The lingering question is what really is the legacy that Kelleher sow in the culture of the organization that up until today Southwest Airline continues to lead the domestic commercial aviation industry in the United States of America.
Foremost to the corporate leadership that Kelleher nurtured in every aspect of the organization of the firm is the clear, firm belief that the primary asset of the airline is not the fleet of planes under its wings or even for that matter the very people who patronize its services. For Kelleher – and this will be shown later on in the discussion of this paper – the important asset of the company and the very reason why the company operates and reaping sustained growth for the past three decades of its existence is its employee. At the lobby of the airline’s headquarter in Metroplex, Foxworth, Texas, there displayed the summary of what Kelleher’s corporate perspective about his employees. Embossed in bronze at the marble column at the center of the building’s lobby is the gratitude and personal conviction of the company that its employee is foremost in its list of assets.
This corporate belief of the company to its very people stem the very core of the mission statement and business philosophy of the company and at the same time the shaper of the human resource structure of the firm.
Southwest Airlines Philosophy
Given that leadership, coordination, and culture are critical factors to the success of an organization, the rags-to-riches tale of Southwest Airlines does not start (or end) here (Gittell 16). If we would go deeper and poke on the underlying factor as to why the airline company has withstood the test of time and stiff competition thrown before it by its rivals, it is important to study carefully the components of the firm’s mission statement. From its mission statement influenced by their charismatic founder Herb Kelleher, the very fabric of human resource structure of the firm is given an amorphous, dynamic space to improve and develop.
Base on the study by Laszlo (91) the credos or mission statement of the airline can be summarized into these eleven points and components listed below::
Ø Southwest Airlines is a service organization
Ø Employees are number one
Ø Think small to grow big
Ø Manage in good times for bad times
Ø Irreverence is okay
Ø It is okay to be yourself
Ø Have fun at work
Ø Take competition seriously, not yourself
Ø Hire for attitude and not for skills
Ø Do whatever it takes
Ø Always practice the golden rule – both internally and externally (91)
Taking into consideration these aspects of the mission statement of Southwest Airlines based on the case study of Laszlo (91), a cursory look at the list showed above strongly suggests the partiality of the company in treating its workforce as the main and major subject – even throw in the purpose and reason – for the existence of the company. One out of these eleven components only talked about the company in general. The rest of the components of the philosophy of the airline deals about the attitude, character, spirit and objectives of people who work as employees for the airline. This employee-centric philosophy of Southwest Airlines stands as the fundamental foundation of the firm’s human resource structure.
Though many companies and corporation from different industries try to follow this employee-centric philosophy, Southwest Airlines do not practice these tenets as a mere lip service to guarantee that their employees are first in their corporate responsibility.
During the time when the civil aviation transport in the United States sank in an economic turbulence after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the firm remained steadfast in its commitment not to lay off employees (Gittell 5). This conviction of the company concerning this matter goes way back to the times when the establishment was still young and new in the industry. Herb Kelleher made it a policy for the company not to take as an option in times of financial strait laying-off employees since, as has been emphasized before, he considered them as the company’s important asset. The decision of the airline under the new management then, according to airline’s old-timers, is consistent to the tradition and culture of Southwest (Gittell 6). As an old employee stated: “That’s part of our culture. We’ve always said we’ll do whatever we can to take care of our people…” (Gittell 6). This praxis on the part of the airline company even more bonded together the relationship of the management and employees. Much more, the prevailing human resource structure in the whole organization is reinforced with solid, concrete and tangible support from the management.
This labor philosophy is continuously reinforced by the management of Southwest Airlines. The management knows their power rests on the power of purpose. What vision and values of the organization is not merely put in words but in action as well. This vision statement emanated from the firm that created a bond tested by time between the management and the employees. This unique corporate relationship can well be described as emotional and intellectual for both parties. The two are tied based on company’s philosophy which resulted to a firm commitment from the part of the employees. The workforce – from the pilot to plane crew to plane mechanics to front desk ticketing staff – already transcends the notion of merely complying with the company rules and just doing their jobs as a compulsory task to earn money. The job now attains a deeper purpose for employee, something that is significant and important to his welfare and the whole organization; something that creates a bridge for family and work divide.
Family and Work Divide
It is not uncommon to hear that we must separate business from family issues. As idiosyncratic is the corporate philosophy as viewed by the hardcore conservative concerning business matters, the organizational make-up wherein the human resource structure is embedded creates a sublime connection between the employee’s life as a worker of Southwest Airlines and his role as a family man.
First and foremost, this issue primarily stem from the corporate policy and conviction of the founders of Southwest Airlines that laying-off employees during or when the company is experiencing financial or market low will never be an option. From this corporate conviction, which is rare in the business world, a platonic and almost ideal relationship is formed between the company and the employee. The employee in this term has only one positive response to it: this is to treat the company as the extension of his personal family. The company takes care of him as a family member who will never be abandoned even in the times of hardships. Herein lays the foundation of what will be the human resource structure of Southwest Airlines.
Employees Role in the Company
Southwest Airlines as a company gets the distinction as a company with leadership credibility and care and at the same time the firm virtually created a deeper familial bond familial with its employee through its corporate mission to treat its employee its most important asset. Herein now enters the proactive role as nurtured by this philosophy of the company.
Since the company treats its employee as an asset, this equates to the implicit agreement and approval of the company to let its employees speak their minds out. Unlike in any other companies where airing an employee’s suggestion or comment about a particular operation of the company in the goal of making it better is consider as a form of irreverent or a slap in the face of their superiors, Southwest Airlines allow this practice. Even though the company is usually criticized for its unstructured planning method, it usual conducts meetings, without overwhelming pomp and ceremony, to encourage employees participate in the planning process of the company.
And how can employees participate with development suggestion, for example in the operational method of a department, when they are not informed of the plans of their managers. So employees are always aware of the business objectives of the project being employed by the management. This corporate style thus creates an atmosphere where the employees perform their functions in congruent with the major objectives of the plans. At the same time, this encourages them to make their own initiated contribution.
When there is case for example where an employee bring up some issues to the management, this employee is given the freedom to be involved in making the feasibility studies and research to further enhance his feeling of belongingness and stake in the company. Talking to a head is encouraged and the employee is even more encouraged to take the freedom to find the solution to whatever problem or issue he finds in his job.
Cases like this is best exemplified by the story when Herb Kelleher was approached by an employee and talked about the present problem plaguing the fulfillment of his duties, Kelleher replied to the employee to think for himself and approach him again but now to tell him how the problem can be addressed and given solution.
Nature of Human Resource of the Company
Given that Southwest Airlines believes in their corporate philosophy that their main asset is their employees, it follows thus that the company believe in the potentials of their employees in the field that they are engaged in. When the company organizes a project, the firm sees to it that the project can be achieved because of the people behind the activity. The company in order to strengthen its human resource capabilities also studies every efforts being exerted by itself as to whether this help develop, enhance, encourage and nurture to the fullest the maximum potential of the employee.
There is clarity now to the nature of the human resource structure of Southwest Airlines just by giving the above mentioned details about the human development efforts being implemented by the management of the firm.
First and foremost, through the genuine conviction and belief of the company that its employees are its important asset, plus the underlying policies of the organization to support this mission statement, the human resource structure that it has built for itself is one that is proactive, fostering goals and objectives for employees that will help the company become better, and a structure wherein each individual employee can enrich himself to his full potential. These human resource policies is reason behind why Southwest Airlines is very competitive as shown by its rapid rate turnaround that allows frequent departures of its planes (“Select Knowledge” 14). One of thee human resource policies are flexibility in union rules so resulted to well-paid gate and ground crews (“Select Knowledge” 14).
At the same time, as these factors run underneath the current of physical operation of the company, the firm is inculcating the importance of fun and character in each every employee while dispensing their jobs. The human resource structure of Southwest Airlines therefore is not all about nurturing skills of perfectly doing a job like an efficient robot and doing it all because of financial gain. The human resource structure of the company is directed more to a holistic, if not spiritual, development of its employees.
From this backdrop, the method of hiring a new generation of employees to work for the company is designed more to identify the attitude of the soon-to-be employee than merely studying the merits of an applicant’s skills (Reed 43). As stated in the summarized mission statement done by Laszlo (91); the company hire for attitude and not for skills.
If there is an airline company being emulated for its success in the industry of civil aviation, it is no other than Southwest Airlines. The corporate history of the firm consistently pegged a growth rate of 10% for the last three decades. The question that other companies could not get is the nature of human resource structure of the organization that catapulted it as the leader in domestic air transport industry in the United States of America. First and foremost, the shaper of the amorphous and dynamic human resource structure of the firm is the charismatic leadership of one of its founder, Herb Kelleher, and the mission statement that he had instilled in the mindset and culture of the organization.
Kelleher set the fundamental corporate policy and vision of the company to treat its employees as the firm’s main and important asset before anything. From this belief stem the objective of the company’s mission statement whose components are all geared towards the attitude, character, philosophy and perspective of the firm’s employees. Main parcel of this mission statement is the explicit policy of the company never to take the option of laying-off its employee.
Emanating from this employee-centric philosophy of the company is the vibrant, dynamic and proactive participation of all employees on the operation of the airline. Suggestions and feedbacks coming from employees are encouraged, and much more the management since beginning of the airline gives the employee the freedom to resolve any operational or management glitches that he sees as a problem to the company. Southwest Airlines on the other hand is dedicated in fostering an environment where the full potential and talent of every employee will be developed to its maximum limit.
What then is the nature of human resource structure of Southwest Airline but a structure that promotes bond between employees and the company. Much more, the human resource structure of the firm is a dynamic force that is always behind each successful project of the company. And for the next generation who will become as employees of Southwest Airlines, the company is ready to hire them according to their attitude rather than their skills.
Gittell, Jody Hoffer. The Southwest Airlines Ways. New York: McGraw Hill Companies, 2003
Laszlo, George F. “Southwest Airlines – Living Total Quality in a Service Organization.” Managing Service Quality 9 (1999): 90-95
Reed, Alec. Innovation in Human Resource Management. Exeter: Short Run Press, 2001
“Select Knowledge.” People Development. Select Knowledge Ltd, 2001