Want to be World Class? Start with Culture.

Portrait of Ginger

Southwest Airlines has been on Fortune’s most admired list for 24 consecutive years. For much of that time, Ginger Hardage was Senior VP of Culture and Communications establishing and sustaining Southwest’s legendary culture around three key values. Her team of 150 people were responsible for Southwest’s internal and external branding, which included public relations, social media, emergency response, charitable giving and cultural activities. These days, Ginger shares her lessons learned at Southwest through Unstoppable Cultures, helping executives institute a culture of enduring greatness in their own organizations. CEO Vern Oakley of Tribe Pictures, whose related expertise centers on using video to drive high-performance culture, caught up with Ginger after meeting her at a Conference Board gathering for a fascinating conversation about building and sharing your culture story. Take a look at their conversation below.

Q: We know that culturally aligned organizations consistently out-perform on the most significant business metrics: stock price, profit, employee satisfaction and retention. What defines a successful culture in your mind?

Ginger: Successful cultures are those that put their people first. All cultures start with hiring. We all want to identify that right cultural fit for the people we’re bringing into our organizations. There’s a book by a man named Mel Kleiman and the title is what I love– it’s Hire Tough Manage Easy. That is a great hiring philosophy. We need to take the time to bring the right kind of individuals into our organizations. Obviously, we seek the right talent level to match the job, but also individuals with the right attitude and values that match our organization. That’s why at Unstoppable Cultures we want to show that there are many different kinds of cultures and there’s no such thing as one size fits all. Culture has to be tailored to the organization. How are organizations hiring against their values? For example, at Southwest Airlines, in a typical year the company might receive about 370,000 applications. Out of that, only 6,000 people are hired. In other words, only 2% of the people who apply actually get to work for the organization. Those are pretty high standards and it really does reinforce the importance of hiring tough to be able to manage easy. The goal is to reduce turnover costs and eliminate a revolving door of new hires. In some industries, the turnover rate of hourly workers can be as much as 50% in the first 18 months; that’s an incredible drain on the organization from the standpoint of training dollars and management time. Finding that right cultural fit and making sure that it sticks is critical for both the employer and the employee.

Q: What really moves the needle in creating a culture?

Ginger: The strongest cultures are relentless in weaving the values through every employee experience–starting with hiring, through onboarding, through training, through their customer delivery and all the way through performance feedback. The values at Southwest Airlines are to have a Servant’s Heart, Warrior’s Spirit and a Fun-luving Attitude (LUV is the stock symbol of Southwest Airlines.) A Servant’s Heart was appropriate because of being in the customer service business. Are you treating others like they’d like to be treated? A Warrior’s Spirit refers to going the extra mile to serve the customer’s needs. A Fun-luving Attitude means not taking yourself too seriously. Enjoy yourself and enjoy the customers along the way. We worked hard on continually reinforcing all three of those values by weaving them through video and using the power of storytelling.

Q: I would say the three values of The Servant Heart, The Warrior Spirit, and The Fun-Loving Attitude that you describe are some of the best, most unique, values for any company in all the companies I’ve ever read about. How did Southwest develop them?

Ginger: The values were developed many years ago. It was a thoughtful process. What I would encourage organizations to do is develop values that are unique to their particular organization and make sure that if you charge a group of executives to be responsible for them, actively involve your employees. There’s nothing worse than coming up with a set of values that employees do not see as real within the organization. Employees must see values come alive every day. I also encourage companies to be as specific as possible about the organization values. Not every organization would use a “fun-living attitude” as one of their values, but it certainly fit for Southwest Airlines. We see this value reflected in all levels of the organization: from the advertising to the sense of humility of not taking ourselves too seriously. Look for those unique ways in which your organization sets itself apart from its competitors.

Q: How did you drive culture in a large organization like Southwest?

Ginger: The Culture Team would work alongside multiple departments: human resources and hiring, training, diversity and inclusion, communications and marketing to position ourselves as a “best place to work” organization. We didn’t see culture as one particular department’s job. Culture is everyone’s job. Leadership involvement was a key ingredient in ensuring that Southwest’s culture stayed first and foremost. We had many programs that specifically addressed culture. Just one example would be recognition. Most organizations have a multitude of recognition programs, but are they really delivering the results you want? Are they tied back to the values of the organization? Recognition is a great way of modeling the type of behavior you are seeking. I’d encourage organizations to survey often to see how employees are feeling. Keep a benchmark. What is the internal temperature of the organization in terms of culture? One of the things we discovered is we didn’t have enough recognition programs that related to the front-line managers. In most organizations, they’re the hardest working people. We developed a program that would allow front-line leaders to actually recognize their employees firsthand. It was called “On the Spot.” When a leader saw an employee doing something great they were allowed to issue an “On the Spot” card that would give an instant gratification back to that employee. This program is one example of a recognition program that worked, because those front-line leaders were able to put it to use to make a difference in modeling the kind of behavior we were looking for in our employees.

Q: One of the things you talk about on your website in terms of driving culture is relentless storytelling. Can you talk to me about that?

Ginger: Organizations should tap all of their channels for storytelling. One thing that the CEO of Southwest Airlines, Gary Kelly, does so effectively is to record a message to employees every week. He tells them what might have happened the week prior and what might be planned in the week ahead. Gary ends every message with a shout out to employees. Oftentimes those stories come directly from customers who have been blown away by something that an employee has done. One example that Gary cited recently was about a businessperson whose flight landed late on a Sunday evening in Columbus, Ohio. Unfortunately his luggage didn’t arrive with him. Sometimes things don’t go as planned, but it’s how you make up for it that matters. Again, it was late at night and the gentleman wasn’t going to be able to find a suit at that hour. The employee helping the customer locate his luggage said, “Wait a minute, you and I are about the same size.” The employee literally went home to retrieve a suit and let the customer borrow his suit. The customer shared what started as a bad experience. The employee turned the situation around by taking initiative and solving the customer’s problem. What a difference that made. This is the type of storytelling that models the behavior you seek.

Q: You tell stories in so many different media, from print to online to audio to video. At Tribe, we guide companies in the development of video strategies to drive fully integrated business cultures. For instance, we show how video is one of the best tools for making sure current and future employees are connected and engaged. So we’re pretty partial to video. What do you see as the strengths of video in driving high-performance?

Ginger: With video, you can actually see and hear the emotions. You can see the authenticity of that particular customer and the relationship with the employee. YouTube channels are something that a lot of leading organizations use to continue to tell the story of their organization. They talk about their product yet allow their people to be the true storytellers. Anyone could go on the YouTube channel at Southwest Airlines and easily see how storytelling, either through the eyes of the customers or employees, brings the brand to life. There is one particular story I’ll always remember. A young woman told her story of traveling alone to have open heart surgery. When she approached the ticket counter, the employee instantly saw that the customer was in distress and really focused on her as an individual. The employee took the time to understand what was going on in her life. The employee followed up with her, checking on her in the hospital. The young woman said that having that one person who didn’t know her, but who took the time and cared about her situation, really bolstered her confidence about the experience she was getting ready to have in the hospital.

Q: What are the traits you observe in unsuccessful cultures?

Ginger: Unsuccessful cultures often start with a management team that is not cohesive. Successful cultures start with leaders who are servant leaders. They realize that their role is to serve the organization. I learned a great lesson about that very early on when I started at Southwest Airlines. As part of my onboarding, I was supposed to hear the founder, Herb Kelleher, speak. Herb was already an icon in the business world, so I expected him to be behind the podium getting ready to speak… Oh no. I walk into the room and here he is helping set down plates of food and serving the attendees. He’s modeling the kind of behavior that he expects in others. I’m a brand-new employee, so what do I do? I immediately got two plates of food and started following his lead. That was a wonderful lesson in servant leadership. Successful organizations understand the importance of servant leadership and setting the right tone that empowers our employees and shows them what is expected. I think we all admire leaders that set up organizations in which leaders serve the employees.

Q: How do you build a great culture if your leaders aren’t servant leaders?

Ginger: You must make sure that the leaders of the organization are held to the same standards that employees are when it comes to living the values of the organization. One of the ways to do that is through performance evaluations that literally have the values of your organization as an integrated part of that performance feedback. Continual dialogue with your employees is critical. Listen through your employee surveys and have the courage to correct something if it’s not working. Turning a culture around requires an appetite on leadership’s part to have the kind of culture where employees give discretionary effort. If leaders aren’t living the values of their organization, they probably need to be serving in another organization that would better match their values.

Q: I suppose you’d say culture is something that starts at the top?

Ginger: Culture does start at the top and it also fails at the top. Toxic organizations, ones in which leaders don’t put their employees first or have a management entitlement philosophy are going to erode over time. Those are the organizations that are going to start seeing high employee turnover and high employee dissatisfaction. None of us want that in our organizations.

Q: For people who understand the importance of culture, what metrics would help them sell it to their organization?

Ginger: One metric that points to organizational health is retention rate. The goal should be to be seen as an employer of choice and have a best place to work reputation.

Q: Value statements, Mission statements and Purpose statements often blend together for people. I wonder how you talk about them?

Ginger: For your employees, the purpose statement can almost be their elevator speech about how they would describe their feelings toward the organization. For example, at Southwest, the purpose was to connect people to what’s important in their lives, through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel. Employees could live the purpose every day. That’s also a competitive advantage, because other airlines couldn’t be a combination of all three of those things: friendly, reliable and low cost. What is rare and individual within your organization is what sets your purpose apart.

Vern’s FYIs
If you would like to get in-person culture coaching from Ginger Hardage let me recommend the exclusive four-day Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship masterclass. There are still openings for the November 12-15th retreat at the luxurious Four Seasons Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship
Ginger Hardage LinkedIn

Ginger Hardage’s Recommendations

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni

EntreLeadership with Ken Coleman
Coaching for Leaders with Dave Stachowiak
(Expanding your horizons)
NPR’s Hidden Brain–A Conversation About Life’s Unseen Patterns

Sign up for The Slate: A Weekly Tip for Using Video to Grow Your Business.

“It’s one thing to understand the role of video in business communication, it’s another to know how to use video to solve actual business problems. Vern Oakley gets that.”


When you work with Tribe, you’ll get…