Any “holiday” is an opportunity for a Southwest celebration! Members of West Palm Beach’s Culture Committee enjoy an ice cream sandwich with a Flight Crew on National Ice Cream Sandwich Day.
To Preserve and Enrich: The Birth of Southwest’s Culture Committee
One morning in 2005, back when Vice President Southwest Airlines University Elizabeth Bryant worked in the People Department, a buzz went through the office: A Team Member who had been out for months to get cancer treatment was finally coming back. In minutes, the local Culture Committee turned it into a celebration. Everybody stopped what they were doing. “We went out to the lobby and the next thing we knew,” Elizabeth said, “we all just lined the hallway to welcome him back.”
This wasn’t an orchestrated photo op. There was no memo. “It was just an impromptu . . . ‘we want to show him that we love him’ moment,” Elizabeth said. That is the beauty of Southwest Culture.
“When I think about our Culture Committee,” she said, “it’s more of a conversation that would just lead to something happening.” The Committee essentially is Southwest People “who deeply care about each other, wanting to do the right thing.”
In 1991, President Emeritus Colleen Barrett, who was Executive Vice President Customers at the time, formed the Culture Committee to ensure Employees from across all departments and locations could contribute to the celebration of Southwest’s 20th anniversary. That impulse kicked off more organized inclusion efforts and led to making the Culture Committee permanent after the anniversary.
Colleen said, “My thinking was, if we can’t bring you to the Culture, we have to bring the Culture to you.”
The Committee’s early gatherings became famous. When Managing Director Culture & Engagement Whitney Eichinger joined Southwest as an intern in 1999, the Culture Committee was the “be-all, end-all group” that you wanted to join. It was the bull’s eye for sharing ideas and connecting with others in a vital way. “You felt like you were at the epicenter of the most special part of what makes Southwest so great.”
At first, Colleen said, a few Leaders away from Dallas heard about the Committee and thought, “These people are out to tell us what to do.” But for Colleen, that was never the purpose. The aim was to spread the Culture through listening and sharing.
The quarterly meetings brought Committee Members together from all over the system, and Colleen listened. “Whatever was on People’s minds, they would bring in,” she said. “I let those Employees that came in bring up every single issue that they heard about.”
When she heard similar concerns from several locations, she flagged the issue. Then the Senior Leader responsible for that issue also was invited to listen. “I mean, it wasn’t our responsibility to fix it, but it was our responsibility to bring information back to those People.”
Participants left each meeting with two assignments: to gather information and implement what the group decided.
“The meetings were legendary for alumni coming in, having fabulous speakers,” recalled Whitney. You would be in the conference room talking with Herb and Colleen. It was a surreal, old-school-yet-fun atmosphere where you could be open. “People shared heartwarming stories. People would cry in there. People would hold each other accountable in that room,” Whitney said. “And then the work that you did was so impactful.”
The Culture Committee became a force multiplier, celebrating the best ideas from across the entire Company. As the airline grew, the Committee expanded to include local Culture Committees in every city Southwest serves. “Colleen was absolutely adamant that the Culture is embodied in each and every one of us,” Whitney said.
The Culture Committee provided a rare connection, both laterally across all Southwest Teams and vertically from top Leadership to Frontline Teams across the country. It offered a rare, personal way to draw together stories from all of Southwest. Well before the advent of video conferencing, email, or text exchanges, the Culture Committee produced connectedness.
One of the Committee’s ideas for appreciating Crews was to have Culture Team volunteers surprise a selected Crew as they open the door upon arrival. The Volunteers jump on board and clean the plane, cross the seatbelts, and get the trash. This surprise support gives a rush to Flight Attendants handling their post-landing tasks and relieves them of some duties required during a turn. It makes them feel valued and supported.
A Houston Culture Blitz in July 2018 surprised Ramp Agents and Crews with popcorn, music, and camaraderie!
That same care and spirit goes into Culture Blitzes. A Culture Blitz brings an infusion of Culture to that location. You don’t need a special occasion, Whitney said. The point is to celebrate every Employee at that location. “They’re making sure that people know that Southwest is a special place.”
Even with the Company facing a pandemic in 2020, the Culture of Southwest remained a powerful resource, said Whitney. Southwest Culture helps its People “be immensely creative, and I think it’s reminded a lot of us of when we were a smaller Company and when we were having to make things up on the fly.” The Committee proved to be a vital artery for sharing that spirit.
The innovation, heart, and energy of a trailblazing startup—they continue to be the heartbeat of Southwest.