Southwest Hopes to Fight Off Low-cost Imitators with Its Culture

Everywhere you go, they are held up as the standard for a successful employment brand. They have managed to take their customer promise and make it real to the employees?or vice versa.?

When your customers can see your employment brand in action, that’s when you know you’ve been successful.

That’s what one employer told the agency Bernard Hodes about Southwest Airlines. One person whose job will be to continue the success of that employment brand is Jeff Lamb, the company’s new vice president of people and leadership development.??

Lamb, who started at Southwest Airlines in 2004, is now piloting the recruiting, learning, and leadership development function for a company that has long been one of the most admired in the workforce management field. It’s serving 62 cities, employs about 32,000 people, and hired 2,766 last year.

Despite 33 straight years of profitability, Southwest is not without its changes and its challenges.

It considered, but has discarded the idea, of moving from Dallas to Phoenix. Southwest is testing out assigned seating in San Diego, a move some Southwest junkies consider heresy. While in some ways Southwest is becoming a little bit like other airlines, less-maverick airlines are becoming a little bit like Southwest. Other carriers, for example, are phasing out their old pension plans, and will thus be operating their retirement benefits more like Southwest.

Southwest has joined the blogging world. Lamb is a contributor.

Its “careers” website (still considered by some to be one of the best) may be due for an upgrade soon. Currently, Southwest currently uses Deploy to handle the back-end processing of resumes. Lamb and his recruiting team (100 in all, about half of whom are recruiting) are paying particular attention to massaging the back-end of the site as well as all of the company’s online recruiting to make sure the airline is compliant with new government rules about online applications.?

Despite the fact that more than a quarter million people sent resumes to Southwest last year, it is the skills shortage and not these new government rules that causes Lamb the most insomnia. “The labor market, the aging baby boomers, have to be near the top of everybody’s list. How you find great people with wonderful attitudes, which Southwest is known for.”

Sure, there are markets (like the Texas panhandle city of Amarillo, where Lamb grew up) where father time isn’t moving so rapidly. But there are others where Southwest is adding departures and the local economies are growing and changing quickly, making hiring more difficult. These include northern Virginia, the Baltimore area, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.

“We’re very, very fortunate to have an ample pool for our flight attendants and pilots,” Lamb says. “It’s more difficult to fill individuals we employ on the ramp, handling baggage. And customer service people.”

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What about the challenge of living up to expectations at a company where some candidates foam at the mouth for the chance to work there — and might envision their future jobs there as one big party?

“That’s a pretty insightful question in terms of the challenge,” he says. “I’ll give you two different perspectives. One, we way, way, way understate what a great company it is. It’s much better [than perceived]. People here just take for granted some of the stuff that makes it so great. Family medical is $40 a month. And there are the flight privileges. It’s really hard to communicate a culture you will come into, and you have no idea what you’re in for when you have this many people who love working together–we have to close the door sometimes because there’s so much laughing ? come here and I could walk you down the hall and I guarantee you’ll hear laughing.”

The second perspective, Lamb says, is one of “junior people on the ramp with a lot of overtime. They may ask themselves, ‘where’s the culture?’ In large, growing airports working a lot of overtime, they don’t have the seniority.”

To help bring that culture to new employees with tough jobs in fast-growing cities, Southwest its focusing more on onboarding. The process can include orientations in Dallas, lunches with senior officers, “spirit parties,” and more. Southwest has been improving its online orientation as well.

It’s the Southwest culture that will continue to make the company different, according to Lamb.

“We’ve got a lot of low-cost imitators out there. We can’t control if other companies imitate our success practices. But it’s very difficult to describe and even more difficult to imitate our culture and our people. A thousand little things add up over the years. When you create an environment to give employees the creativity and innovation, you end up with a different approach to buying fuel. You end up with the ability to turn a plane around faster.”

Lamb is a former employee of the star-NFL-quarterback-turned-businessman Roger Staubach, who Lamb says shared Southwest’s view of leadership. The author Jim Collins describes these leaders as Level 5 leaders. They’re highly ambitious, but their ambition is poured into making others — the company, the shareholders, and the employees — satisfied and successful, rather than expanding their own egos.

“We know we can get better and improve,” Lamb says. “I know there’s a consistent effort to hire people who don’t take themselves too seriously and don’t think more of themselves than others. We’re very humble.”

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