Engagement
23:12

Building a Culture of Frontline Empowerment at Southwest Airlines

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Episode overview:

How many times have you watched viral videos of Southwest Airlines flight attendants? They sing songs. They crack jokes. They make the safety spiel worth listening to. Southwest team members always seem ready and able to create exceptional guest experiences. However, they work in an industry that’s often known for the exact opposite. So how does Southwest do it?

JD sits down with Ginger Hardage, former SVP of Culture and Communications at Southwest Airlines, to find out how they built an exceptional workplace culture through frontline empowerment. Ginger spent 25 years leading a team of 150 people responsible for building and sustaining Southwest’s legendary culture and communications enterprise. She has received numerous honors throughout her career, including being inducted into the Public Relations Hall of Fame and being named one of Texas’ Most Powerful and Influential Women. In 2017, Ginger launched Unstoppable Cultures, a brand designed to help organizations create and sustain cultures of enduring greatness.

Check out the Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship, a 4-day, interactive Masterclass Experience that teaches proven, effective culture strategies and guides participants in creating their own Culture Roadmap, leading to increased retention, happier employees, and higher-performing organizations.

The 80 Percent is brought to you by Axonify. To learn how you can provide communication and training to your frontline workforce that actually works, visit axonify.com. If you have a frontline story you’d like us to explore on a future episode, let us know at podcast@axonify.com

Join the #FrontlineForward effort by visiting axonify.com/frontlineforward to access free training content, download the 2020 State of Frontline Employee Training Report and subscribe for the updates.

About the Guest(s)

Ginger Hardage

Ginger Hardage retired as Senior Vice President of Culture and Communications at Southwest Airlines after an illustrious 25 years, where she served as a member of the CEO’s executive leadership team. At Southwest, Ginger led a team of 150 people responsible for building and sustaining the organization’s legendary culture and communications enterprise.

About the Host(s)

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

Episode Transcript

JD Dillon:

This episode of the 80% is dedicated to frontline employees is travel and hospitality. The past year has been especially difficult for this part of the global economy. And we don’t know exactly what the future holds for travel. Nevertheless, thank you to everyone who helps travelers get to their destination safely and enjoy their time away from home. There’s a lot we can learn from the hard work you put in every day. Welcome to the 80% where we share stories and insights to help you better support and enable your frontline team. I’m JD from Axonify. On this episode, we find out what it takes to make frontline performance go viral for all the right reasons. We’re joined by Ginger Hardage, former SVP of culture and communications at Southwest airlines who shows us what it takes to build a culture of frontline empowerment. That’s coming up next on the 80%.

Opening Sequence:

I’m doing the right things. I am your competitive advantage. I am making my workplace safe. When you give the people on your frontline, the tools they need to succeed, your business succeeds too. Axonify is sharing free training content and ongoing inspiration to help you move your frontline forward. Head over to Axonify.com/frontlineforward to learn more. I am on the frontline. I am on the frontline. I am on the front line. Together, we will move the frontline forward.

JD Dillon:

I’d like to tell you the story of my best travel experience ever. I used to spend a lot of time on airplanes. On average, I take 60 or 70 flights every year. In fact, airport lounges are my favorite hobby. I’ve had some good airline experiences like the time I managed to score the emergency exit row for my economy flight to Australia, but I’ve also had plenty of bad ones. Like the time I spent five hours sitting on the floor in O’Hare during a delay thinking there has to be a better way, but there’s only one experience that still makes me smile to this day. And that’s the time I was delayed at the gate for three hours when trying to escape Las Vegas. Yes. I said, escape, Las Vegas. Vegas just isn’t my town. I was there for five days on this particular trip to speak at a conference and I didn’t leave the hotel the entire time, but I did still manage to eat at a different restaurant for every meal, uh, Vegas. Anyway, I was sitting in the casino with an airline gate attached to it. When the gate agent announced that the flight was delayed. There was bad weather at the plane’s point of origin. So it was probably going to take a few hours. Get there. [inaudible]

JD Dillon:

Well, I got up in a Huff and started to gather my stuff so I could track back across the airport to the lounge when the most amazing thing happened, the gate agent got back on the microphone and said, I’m sorry, we’re going to be here for a while because of the delay, but we’re in Vegas. So that means we can’t let the fund stop. He then announced the challenge to everyone waiting for the flight. If someone could bring him a coin with the year 1967 on it, they would get a voucher for a free drink on the plane. Well, you’ve never seen a hundred people dive into their purses and backpacks so quickly. After a few minutes, a woman came forward and received her voucher with a round of applause.

JD Dillon:

A few minutes went by, as people settled back in for the delay when he came back on the PA system. Now it was time for the kids paper airplane contest. Children of all ages went running to the desk to get their pieces of paper so they could play. The gate agent ran four more group activities before the plane finally arrived. I didn’t see one person complain about the delay. I didn’t see one person fall asleep across half a row of seats. And I never went back to the lounge. I don’t remember anything about the flight itself. I assume it was just a standard Las Vegas to Orlando trip, but those three hours while I was delayed at the gate, turned into the most memorable travel experience I’ve ever had. And it was all thanks to a Southwest gate agent who sees the opportunity to turn disappointment into an engaging, fun, brand-defining moment. But how did he do it? Why did he go that extra mile when so many other people in his role, just sit behind the desk and field complaints. Was he trained to run fun group activities, or was it something bigger, something more foundational to the workplace culture at Southwest Airlines? To find out I spoke with Ginger Hardage.

Ginger Hardage:

One thing that is true at Southwest and any great company, culture is everyone’s job.

JD Dillon:

Ginger is the former SVP of Culture and Communications at Southwest, where she spent 25 years leading a team of 150 people responsible for building and sustaining your organization’s legendary culture and communications enterprise.

Ginger Hardage:

Yeah, people are feeling like they’re able to be themselves and bring their total selves to work every day. That makes such a difference.

JD Dillon:

In 2017, Ginger launched unstoppable cultures, a brand designed to help organizations create and sustain cultures of enduring greatness.

Ginger Hardage:

That frontline employee experience that, that empowerment those employees have to really make a difference, can turn your experience around.

JD Dillon:

Let’s learn what it takes to create a legendary frontline culture from Ginger Hardage.

Ginger Hardage:

Oh gosh. How do we start that one over?

JD Dillon:

What comes to mind? When you think of Southwest Airlines? It could be the big blue planes. It could be the heart logo. But for me, it’s the lack of assigned seating. Southwest is the only airline I’ve ever flown that lets me pick my own seat when I get on the plane. But where did this idea come from and why are they the only ones doing it?

Ginger Hardage:

From the very beginning, it leaned where the customer they wanted to have the customers feel special. It was a different kind of airline didn’t assign seats for example, and that was a new concept, but one of the reasons Southwest didn’t: it costs more to do that. It takes more time to load the aircraft. So if people are allowed to choose their own seat, the aircraft spent more time in the air and less time on the ground and I think that’s one of the things we’re all looking for in our companies is “how are we able to do things more efficiently”? It became a defining point for Southwest and almost soon to be 50 years later, it’s still following that mantra of not following anyone, but being a leader, leaning toward the customer, and that has created differentiators for the company.

JD Dillon:

To lean towards the customer, you first have to understand the customer who they are and what they want from you. It doesn’t matter if you’re an airline or a retail store or a financial services institution. You have to do your research.

Ginger Hardage:

One of the things Southwest does is send out a lot of emails asking for customer feedback. You may have gotten one. They look at net promoter score. How likely would you be to recommend this airline after every flight? So Southwest is able to look at what happened in every aspect of your flight.

JD Dillon:

These insights then help you really understand what people need, and make decisions that will help you stand out from your competition.

Ginger Hardage:

I think some of the reasons you’ll always hear as the flexibility. We won’t nickel and dime you. If you need to change a flight, if your meeting ended earlier and you might need to change your flight. There’s so much flexibility there. Bags fly free – there’s another reason. If it’s a family trying to go to Disney World and they’re going to have six bags for all their family, two bags fly free with each customer. So I think it’s that, thinking about how the customers really do fly. They need that flexibility, they need the low fare, which Southwest is always focused on. So those are some of the features that you might see. Then, throw on top of that great customer service… it’s really going to make a difference in your experience.

JD Dillon:

That last point, combining great features with great customer service is a critically important point. It’s getting harder and harder to compete based just on product availability or price, especially in an increasingly digital marketplace. Today, businesses have to differentiate based on experience and that experience is delivered by frontline employees.

Ginger Hardage:

But one of the things that we knew intuitively before Southwest started doing that level of research after every flight was, we knew the flight attendants had the ability to really influence your flight experience. Let’s say you had a tough time getting to the airport or a weather delay occurred, but we can tell that the great flight attendants, the way they handled the customers in flight can totally turn around your experience. If you ever hear about the flight attendant, he might crack a joke or one who might sing a song, or just, the one who has a great empathy and is checking on you often. That frontline employee experience, that empowerment that those employees have to really make a difference, can turn your experience around.

JD Dillon:

My story about my best travel experience ever is just that – an experience. It wasn’t about my seat or the luggage fee. It was all about an experience created by a frontline employee who knew what to do when things didn’t go as planned.

Ginger Hardage:

That is exactly what Southwest employees are empowered to do. So if something isn’t going right, what are they empowered to do to try to make it better? So a delay such as a weather delay, and you’re still in the airport absolutely they’re encouraged to play a gate game and employees, even in recent years have come up with another idea, it’s called a hospitality cart. So in some of the airports, they might roll that out. What a wonderful idea to empower your employees to turn situations around.

JD Dillon:

Analogy of modern business is that you can’t plan for every situation. You can’t make a checklist for every possible thing that might happen. Instead companies like Disney, Zappos, And Southwest provide employees with basic guidelines and then enable their frontline to do whatever’s necessary, within those guidelines, to make the situation right.

Ginger Hardage:

So I call that freedom in a framework, you have this basic framework: they need to get your flight out on time, they need to check you all in. They have certain things that are part of the framework, but what can they do outside of that framework that gives them total freedom to use their personality. So I’d encourage listeners to think about that in their own organizations. You’ve got certain jobs that have a framework, but don’t create such a strict framework. That you’re not empowering your employees. And that’s what leads to great employee engagement and also longevity with the company. If people are feeling like they’re able to be themselves and bring their total selves to work every day, that makes such a difference.

JD Dillon:

This idea of a freedom within a framework extends to every frontline role, even those whose basic responsibility is customer safety.

Ginger Hardage:

And another example of that is the training of flight attendants. So flight attendants, aren’t trained how to be funny, but they’re trained to use their own superpowers. And some employees have super powers of humor, some have super powers of seeing they might be great at interacting with people. And really, what we should all be looking for is ways that our employees are able to use the personality that we actually hired them for – to be able to deliver and provide that great customer service.

JD Dillon:

Of course, this doesn’t mean letting employees do whatever they want. It means weighing the pros and cons of true employee enablement.

Ginger Hardage:

Well, I think a lot of people think that if you empower your employees, you might lose control, but you know, think of the upside, what you’re able to allow your employees to create. I tell a story about employees, for example, uh, found a loss cell phone and, you know, they actually took a selfie and that customer to hold that story virally. So how are we enabling our employees to do those kind of out of the box things because we don’t need a long rule book. We need to make sure we’re hiring the right people to execute upon our values and they’ll delight and surprise us every time.

JD Dillon:

These moments of enablement, these moments when employees access their personal superpowers, are the moments that go viral and build brand reputation. It’s not all of those times when people went by the checklist and refuse to bend to a specific customer need, but to motivate people to make this extra effort on a consistent basis, you have to make sure you’re hiring the right people first.

Ginger Hardage:

Great cultures start before. Hiring those people that are on the front lines. Those leaders in our organizations that are bringing more people that are the hiring leaders, bringing people into the organization. My counsel to them is to hire tough so you can manage easy. And what that means is making sure you’re bringing people into the organization that already share your values. So when you’re interviewing them, ask them if one of your values is great customer service, ask them questions about what they have done, not what you would do, but what did you actually do in this job that allowed you to deliver great customer service, really drill down on whatever your particular values are in your organization to make sure that that employee would fit in hire tough so you can manage easy. if you’re bringing the right kind of people in your job is going to be so much easier,

JD Dillon:

Then, you have to make sure people feel that they’re important and that you’re taking care of them.

Ginger Hardage:

When employees feel that the organization is putting them first, they’re going to feel safe in their environment. So many organizations are focusing on the safety of their employees. So that’s kind of baseline. What are you doing to show with your actions, to your employees, that their safety is most important to you? You’ve seen what companies have done with plexiglass, with wearing mask. Other companies have gone on to have courses in mental health, helping employees balance work life. If you’re a parent at home and you’re homeschooling and trying to work, what kind of flexibility as an employer are you giving? That’s how we need to lead. By example is environment having the empathy for employees and understanding all the various stresses they may be under in this particular environment and showing to them with our actions, how well you’re keeping them safe,

JD Dillon:

Then you have to make sure they have the knowledge and skills they need to do their job safely and productively. So they’ll have the confidence. They need to create great customer experiences. Even when things go wrong.

Ginger Hardage:

Training really says to our employees that we trust them and we want them to act like owners. So we want to set them up for success in the best way possible thoroughly training them shows, respect for that employee, that we want them to be the best equipped that they can possibly be in the organization. But in this current environment, how are you retooling your training for remote training? That takes a different level of expertise to make sure that the training is able to be done online. And there’s lots of great tools. And I know that’s what organizations are doing now is looking at that again, is how are they retooling their training to be able to do it virtually?

JD Dillon:

Another thing Southwest has in common with Disney is the understanding that one of the most important parts of training, especially when it comes to helping people live and breathe your culture, is storytelling.

Ginger Hardage:

The most important thing in any type of training is that real life examples come from the front lines who are dealing with that. So having frontline employees, their stories of how they dealt with a particularly difficult situation and giving those scenarios back to the employees and training so they’ll have them.

JD Dillon:

Culture is based on stories. I’m not just talking about the workplace, I’m talking about culture in general. Heritage, beliefs, what we stand for as people, how we make decisions – it’s all based on the stories we were told growing up and the stories we create and share once we’re out on our own. Every great company recognizes this connection between people and stories, and then leverages this connection with their customers and their employees.

Ginger Hardage:

Organizations that are great storytellers are going to go much further with their culture because stories are what allow our employees to understand the limitless possibilities that they can go to. So we ask leaders to share those stories. Employees love to share how they might’ve solved a particular problem. So how is your organization set up to capture those stories? And then what are your methods for sharing those stories back out in the organization? And I’ll give you one example of that: at Southwest, the CEO is Gary Kelly and Gary has been CEO of Southwest airlines since 2004. And one of the things he started doing, in 2004, was a message to employees every week. And back in 2004, he would record it and you had listened to it on your flip phone, right? The world has changed. Now you can read it on the internet, but you’re also probably listening to it on your smartphone, or you can read it, but what Gary has done…

Ginger Hardage:

And this is a great example, whether you’re a leader of five or 500 people, you can do this, but have a regular way of communicating with your employees. So Gary will talk about what might’ve happened that week. What’s coming up in the next week, but he ends every one of those messages (since 2004) with a shout out to an employee. So he has an employee story usually coming from a customer, or it could be coming from up here, another employee. And he talks about what that employee did. That was amazing, terrific, what they did to solve a customer problem, what they did to help support a coworker. And those are the examples of modeling the kind of behavior and reinforcing the values that we all want to put forward. Any of us can do that regardless of where we sit in the organization, we can share those stories. So if you’re a leader and you have a staff meeting every week, are you sharing those stories in your staff meeting? Do you have a slot in your agenda for every staff meeting you have to share success stories? Again, it’s part of that storytelling that models and helps that culture build upon itself because it reinforces what’s important .

JD Dillon:

Finally, to empower frontline employees, to create great customer experiences, you have to empower their managers too.

Ginger Hardage:

As that frontline leader act like you’re the CEO of your particular area – you’ve brought in great people, are you communicating with them completely? Or are they thoroughly trained to do their job? Are you supporting them as a servant leader? Are you giving them great feedback, whatever those characteristics of a great leader, start building those characteristics now because it’s going to enable you to continue to move up in the organization.

JD Dillon:

If you’ve listened to this podcast for a while, you might have caught on that the most successful and respected companies in the world all seem to do a lot of the same things, especially when it comes to supporting their frontline. So the simple question becomes, why aren’t you doing those things? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just doing things the SouthWest way in your business. Instead, you have to reflect on your own culture and figure out how these common principles of frontline empowerment relate to the work that your employees do every day and the results your organization wants to achieve.

Ginger Hardage:

I always caution companies to make sure that whatever they are doing, it fits their own culture because one size does not fit all. And not every culture needs to be the same or should be the same. But if you’re trying to set up a customer focused culture, helping your employees understand what their customer’s priorities are and what their needs are. Those are the things that employees appreciate and truly do feel like owners when they’re able to be in charge of making those changes and making those adjustments when they’re actually delivering whatever products they might be delivering for your company.

JD Dillon:

The great news is that Ginger might just be able to help you on your journey towards creating a great frontline forward culture.

Ginger Hardage:

I now have the pleasure of working with other organizations. One of the things I do as I speak – now doing more virtual encounters, of course, in the COVID environment. But I also, I have something I call an unstoppable cultures fellowship. It’s like a masterclass in culture. Is a hands on training and we will get back to that environment is in Santa Fe, New Mexico companies from across the globe come, but it’s very, hands-on, it’s limited to about 60 people and we focus on helping you develop the kind of culture you’ve always wanted. So some of the speakers we’ve had have been from Disney, from Zappos, from Chick-fil-A, from the Marines we bring in some of the best known cultures. So you can learn from those historic cultures, but make it about the culture you’re trying to create for yourself.

JD Dillon:

Thank you to Ginger Hardage for sharing her insights into frontline culture and empowerment. Check out the show notes to learn more about Ginger’s work with unstoppable cultures, including their four day interactive master class experience: The Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship. If you enjoyed this conversation and want to hear more frontline forward stories, subscribe to the 80% on your favorite podcast app, you can also find all of our episodes online at axonify.com/podcast. Thanks for joining me for this episode. I hope you’ll join us again for another story about how we can help frontline employees do their best work every day and make a difference in their organizations and communities. Together we will move the frontline forward.

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