Managing Director Culture & Engagement Whitney Eichinger knows the importance of keeping Southwest Culture healthy and vibrant through a turbulent 2020.
The Future of Corporate Culture: Evolving and Being a Trailblazer
In Southwest’s early years, Founder Herb Kelleher and President Emeritus Colleen Barrett had faced seemingly endless hurdles—legally and operationally—pretty much on all fronts. As former Senior Vice President Culture & Communications Ginger Hardage recalled, “The incredible thing that Herb and Colleen set up from the very beginning was active involvement of all Employees.”
Everyone understood that they played a personal and pivotal role in the survival and success of the Company. That cornerstone of Southwest’s Culture would prove critical in facing the extraordinary challenges that erupted almost 50 years later.
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and the resulting quarantines and shutdowns directly tested the resiliency and adaptability of the People-centric Culture that has connected Southwest Employees for decades. Simultaneously, in the wake of widespread protests of racial injustice in May 2020, the Company also had to take a very intentional and admittedly hard look at its Culture practices through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion.
These tests brought out the best in Southwest’s People and reaffirmed the critical importance of a strong, vibrant Culture as the Company launched into an uncharted future. Southwest’s People responded with characteristic resilience, energy, and fresh ideas.
“When you look at how to keep the Culture strong, nothing weaves it together closer than a crisis,” said Managing Director Culture & Engagement Whitney Eichinger. “It’s about how you feel working and the Teamwork that is inherent within Southwest Airlines.”
The pandemic and the renewed focus on racial justice became launching pads for shaking up Southwest’s processes, procedures, and thinking. “It’s making us see this nitty gritty—I hate the term scrappy—but old-school Southwest,” Whitney said.
One way Southwest is evolving its Culture is in how the Company is learning to use technology to keep people connected, learning, and talking about the issues that matter. “I’ve been struck with how we have been able to use technology to still maintain the closeness,” said Vice President Southwest Airlines University Elizabeth Bryant. She had previously felt that Southwest Culture relied so heavily on in-person relationships that it would often prefer in-person classes and face-to-face meetings. “Yet this, the largest pilot study ever for remote working, has taught me that our foundation is so strong we can utilize technology and still find those connections, and still have real meaningful relationships.”
Southwest Culture, which sometimes has had Employees and Leaders dancing on the ramp.
At a recent video conference sendoff for a departing Team Member, the combination of large-group appreciation and breakout sessions with Heart-shaped word clouds created an unexpectedly warm and textured collection of spaces. People still shared stories. “That’s the feedback that we’ve gotten,” said Elizabeth, “that our Employees have felt so celebrated at a time when we can’t even be together. . . . To me, that speaks to the tenacity and the strength of this Culture.”
Elizabeth’s Team also launched the Southwest Learning Portal after the shift to working remotely in the spring of 2020. “We knew that we had to quickly adapt to the fact that we had 60,000 Employees that still needed training” in various forms, whether it’s technical procedures or how to talk about racial injustice. “So with the combination of a virtual learning platform and our learning center, we were able to accomplish that.”
In taking steps to make access to education and skill development equally accessible to all Employees, Southwest made a major shift in its approach to learning resources. “One of the significant changes that has happened since the racial injustice discussion,” Elizabeth said, “is that we’ve had to rethink how we get learning and topics to Employees for discussion.”
Traditionally, some programs had been available only when an Employee had been hand-picked to attend them. But that’s changed. Curricula that were previously set aside for selected Leadership programs, for example, were made available to everyone in the learning portal. Online class modules on many other topics were also opened to any Employee looking to learn new skills. “I’m super proud of what the Team’s accomplished,” Elizabeth said. “This is really democratizing learning for Southwest.”
Adapting the Southwest Culture to embrace a philosophy that democratizes learning has also helped create an environment in which Employees can tackle big topics such as diversity, inclusion, equality, and justice. These discussions became even more critical to Southwest’s Culture evolution in 2020, and Leadership quickly took action to address them.
Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly speaks in the introduction to an online skills training.
Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly led a series of sessions about diversity with the Senior Management Committee. Elizabeth and Vice President Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Ellen Torbert spoke with officer groups about the significance of what they call a “season of listening.” They asked, “How do we ensure, as the Senior Leaders of this Company, that we are doing absolutely everything we can be doing to elevate the conversation around race and ensuring that Black lives matter and that every single Employee feels heard and valued?”
The series of internal discussions was a chance to ensure the long-term resilience of Southwest’s Culture and its responsiveness. This included rethinking what equity and diversity mean for Southwest and its Leadership development strategy. Managers were encouraged to ask questions about growing their Leadership pipeline and to think deeply about succession planning. In discussions, Ellen urged Leaders to look ahead one decade. “If you don’t have anyone lined up that’s diverse behind you, that slows the entire organization down.” That direct look at future Leadership brought the message home, Whitney said.
Stepping up to meet the challenges of a global health pandemic and adapting to new ways of listening, learning, and connecting has only reinforced the core of what makes Southwest’s Culture unique: its Employees and their commitment to both the Company and to each other.
“I think it’s making us better, and I think it’s making us sharper, and I think we’ll be better for it as we move forward,” said Whitney.