How Colleen Barrett builds a culture of high-flying spirit to fuel growth at Southwest Airlines

Little things matter
What keeps employees wanting to work so hard for their employer is, in part, self-interest in keeping Southwest in business so that they can reap the rewards of ownership. But Southwest also works hard to take care of its employees, creating the kind of place they want to stay.

Barrett has a seven-employee internal customer care team that keeps track of every single employee’s birthday, significant anniversaries, the birth of children and other important events, and makes sure that cards go out for nearly every occasion. Barrett’s office sends out about 75,000 cards annually, and she knows it is meaningful to employees because she hears from them if she misses something.

“You really have to be good about it,” Barrett says.

What may be the key for Southwest is sincerity. Barrett says no company can sell employees on a fun family culture if it isn’t practiced, and believed in, from the very top down. The message from management has to be the same for both employees and customers, and it has to be honest and sincere. “We’ve always underpromised and overdelivered, and we’ve always kept it simple,” Barrett says. “We do not purport to be all things to all people, and we don’t make any bones about who we are and what we stand for. We talk openly, both internally and externally, from the same mouth, if you will. We don’t worry a lot about inconsistent messages because we don’t use them. Sometimes we’ve been ridiculed, and we’ve been the butt of many jokes, but it works for us.”