Why We Should Thank Herb Kelleher

Thanking Herb Kelleher

Anyone who has worked with me understands that I have tremendous respect for three specific brands who have a unique perspective on customer service. What attracts me to certain brands is how they refuse to conform to the norms of their industry and seek out ways to best serve their employees and customers. One of those brands is Southwest Airlines, and last week, the visionary founder, Herb Kelleher, passed away. Anyone in business would do well in reading Herb’s story on how he built one of the most successful airline carriers at a time of massive upheaval and financial loss within the industry. He is a business leader I have admired throughout my career.

In 1967, Herb Kelleher and Rollin King came together and from a napkin sketch created one of the most successful airlines and employee cultures in United States business history. With four planes and seventy employees, they began the process of disrupting an entire industry and introducing the concept of low-cost air travel in the U.S. Their vision for Southwest Airlines was to serve the public by making the process of flying more affordable so that the average person could participate which has led to continuous profits for more than forty years.

But what made Herb Kelleher’s approach unique was not the ‘no frills’ flying, but the incredible employee-first culture he created at Southwest. He unabashedly understood that the organization’s employees came first, and by treating them with respect and making the culture fun, it lead to employees working to make the customer experience the best it could be. To that point, Kelleher would have job candidates go through a series of rigorous tests to make sure anyone added to the company had a servant’s heart and desired to collaborate to solve problems over any self-focused desires.

Kelleher was famously known for his statement “the business of business is people.” Southwest backs this concept up with core values such as hiring the right attitude, enhancing a corporate family-feel, always smiling when talking, finding the child in everyone and quickly immersing newcomers into the culture. If you’ve ever flown Southwest, you might have experienced some of their corporately-supported hijinx such as flight attendants singing to their customers, rapping the airline rules or even giving employees the right to reward customers with free items as part of their antics. This same levity is what makes all of the employees throughout the company search for ways to help Southwest improve their processes and better serve their customers.

While the world has lost a business visionary who knew how to apply the Golden Rule within his business, all of us are better for knowing that a business can still be profitable and successful when it treats its employees and customers the right way.