Southwest Airlines Motivates Its Employees with a Purpose Bigger than a Paycheck

Jan 23, 2014 10:00 AM ET
SWA employees give Jessica and her kids another chance to say goodbye to their dad before he leaves for Kuwait

Original article on Forbes

If you’re one of the 100 million passengers who fly Southwest Airlines every year, you might have noticed their award-winning service—happy, friendly employees who go the extra mile to satisfy their passengers. In fact, for many people, service is the principle reason they remain loyal Southwest customers. In recent discussions with Southwest executives, pilots, and employees, I’ve learned that what Southwest passengers don’t see is largely responsible for what they do see during their trip.

Southwest Airlines has been operating for 43 years. Remarkably, after 40 consecutive years of profitably, they never rest on their laurels. Like all true customer service champs, Southwest executives and employees are always striving to improve their service, culture, and to create even more loyal customers.

In January 2013, Southwest unveiled a new corporate vision and purpose, intended to motivate an internal audience of employees to raise their game. Now, let’s face it. Nearly every company seems to have a “vision” statement, which, in most cases, is largely forgotten soon after it’s rolled out. Southwest doesn’t want that to happen, so it’s using the power of storytelling to make sure each one of its 46,000 employees pursues the vision each and every day. Southwest is doing so by rallying employees around a common purpose. Let me explain because the Southwest model offers a valuable lesson for any company seeking to motivate and engage its employees.

First, let’s start with the difference between vision and purpose. A vision is aspirational. It casts a dream for what you want your company to become. It should be ambitious and audacious. In January 2013, Southwest told its employees:

Our vision is to become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline.

In order to accomplish its vision, Southwest needs every one of its executives, pilots, and employees to work together for a common purpose. A paycheck is usually enough to get most people to work on time, but only an inspiring purpose beyond a paycheck will encourage people to go the extra mile. According to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, “Southwest is a great place to work and brings the greatest joy because we have such meaningful purpose.” A purpose should answer the question, “Why do we exist?” At the same time Southwest revealed its new ‘vision,’ it also announced the following purpose:

 We exist to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.

The next step is where communication really plays a starring role. Storytelling is the single most effective way to remind employees of the company’s purpose and to reinforce the purpose in their day-to-day interactions with customers. Every week Gary Kelly gives a “shout out”—public praise—to employees who have gone above and beyond to show great customer service. Each month the Southwest Spirit magazine features the story of an employee who has gone above and beyond. Southwest highlights positive behaviors through a variety of recognition programs and awards.  Finally, internal corporate videos like this one are filled with real examples and stories to help employees visualize what each step of the purpose looks and feels like.


Continue reading the original article about Southwest employees on Forbes.