Not many in Italy will be aware of Herb Kelleher: one of America's most famous CEOs, who passed away in January 2019. Fortune said "Kelleher was the best CEO in America". He changed the world and his model is taught in all business schools as a case study. Herb was the CEO and co-founder of Southwest Airlines, the largest low-cost airline in the world, originally born from an idea by Rollin King and Herb Kelleher and elaborated by the two during a dinner (pinned on a paper napkin!). The history of Southwest Airlines is representative of their leader: they were bold, a small startup that flew a single route between Houston and Dallas Love Field. In a short time they became a regional, then a national, and finally an international power.
Herb Kelleher led the low cost airline for 46 consecutive years of profitability: 130 million paying passengers and operating revenues in 2017 of approximately $ 21.2 billion! No layoffs and no pay cuts. For more than two consecutive decades, his company has consistently ranked among the very first positions among the most admired companies in the world.
At the base of the great success of Southweast Airlines we therefore find the figure of Herb Kelleher, whose incredible corporate culture has always been exemplary. It is no coincidence, therefore, that when it comes to Southwest Airlines, many analysts agree that the company has always been very close to all its employees. Kelleher used to explain how the most important thing for a company was to put first not its customers, but its employees.
According to Kelleher, if the employees are happy everything turns out to be easier and the happiness of the customers will simply be a natural consequence of what has been done.
Upon his passing, 16,000 employees bought a full page in USA Today to express their affection for their "boss".
Herb believed that employees should be treated like customers and celebrated to go beyond their call of duty. He stated:
“Who comes first, your employees, your shareholders, or your customers? My mom taught me that your employees come first. If you treat them well, they treat customers well, and that means your customers come back and your shareholders are happy"
Herb loved to tell this anecdote: he was in the elevator with the CEO of another company who didn't even recognize two of his employees in the same elevator. This person, a Chinese CEO, then asked Herb how he could bring Southweast culture back to his company. Herb simply replied "You could start by saying 'hello' to your people".
He was very attentive to hiring, showed a lot of attention to young people and gave a lot of autonomy to new hires, asking managers to focus on the attitudes of the new hires, not on their skills, and to teach Customer Service throughout the trial period. The HR department for Herb was not supposed to be the boss, but just had to give guidelines to teach them the autonomy and flexibility to make and make decisions.
Another famous anecdote, which Herb told in an October 2016 speech at WOBI, is reported in this video How Southwest Airlines built its culture | Herb Kelleher | WOBI - YouTube, in which he collects and tells all the culture and success of his creature, of his family (as he used to say):
“I got a letter from a probationary employee in Baltimore. Due to bad winter weather, they were unable to fly from Baltimore to Long Island. This person, who had been there a few months, walked out of the airport, hired 5 buses, and took passengers from Baltimore to Long Island (not really close). Only later did he write to me and tell me about it. And what do you think we told him? We gave him an award for his initiative and his courage"
The airline's motto therefore always remains the same: control finances in the years of growth and protect the company during the most turbulent periods, but above all always protect customers' employees first. Once, in the beginning, when cash flow became a problem, his advisors suggested firing some of his employees to save money. He rejected this idea (which proposed a solution at hand) and did something that lives on in the legend of Southwest Airlines: he sold one of their planes and filled the cash gap until their wheels rolled up again and flew higher. On boards of directors he always said "the business of business is the people".
If love is something you do for someone, there is no better example than Herb Kelleher.
He was also a very practical and practical CEO: his business model as an airline was very simple and efficient, almost scientific. For example, one of the first decisions was to fly into an airport where they couldn't turn their planes in 30 minutes or less. They also chose a one-of-a-kind, fuel-efficient aircraft model, the Boeing 737, while maintaining optimized operating costs and concluding profitable multi-year insurances with maintenance providers. He also stated that he did not need first class because no one was to be treated as second class: this is why the company has no differentiated classes.
As Southwest Airlines itself recalls on its website, Kelleher's love for his company was as great as the love for his own life. A laugh, a very friendly managerial style, an almost fatherly attention to their employees and an uncommon leadership ability then did the rest.
Its history, its successes, are even more a lesson for any organization in this period. His example collects everything that is necessary to be successful and live the job well. The web is full of anecdotes and articles that tell its story. The greatest writers (starting with Simon Sinek) cite it in their books just as an example for the present day. Leadership, Management, Innovation, CEO, Market leader: every one of his interviews is a starting point for all of us.
His great legacy:
did not leave something to the people,
he left something in people.