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

Hire smart
So how exactly do you engage your employees in helping grow your company? Barrett says it starts with hiring the right people.

Southwest has defined what kind of personality matches nearly every type of job within the airline. For a customer service representative, the company looks for proactive extroverts who won’t be afraid to lean toward customers when talking to them. “We have learned over many years how to talk to people,” Barrett says. “It doesn’t matter what the subject. When they answer us, words that they use in their answers will give us certain kinds of personality characteristics that will be a good fit for each job that we have profiled. We have profiled almost all jobs at Southwest.”

Conducting interviews in a group setting is one way Southwest both culls applicants at a quicker pace and sees how applicants deal with people they don’t know. Some 50 to 60 people are interviewed at one time for similar jobs. “In a group setting, we are really looking for the superstars,” Barrett says.

The main interviewer has the participants play a few games to warm the group up and tells them they are expected to be respectful of each other. The interviewer then asks individuals to answer questions in the midst of the group and watches not only how they answer but how others in the room react to them. Are they looking at the person who is speaking? Do they laugh when the person says something funny?

Barrett says the company also sometimes watches how applicants act when they go to lunch in the Southwest cafeteria. Do they talk to others while they are in line? Do they sit in a group with people they don’t know and converse easily? Or do they find a quiet corner and sit alone, hoping to be unnoticed? The better fit for Southwest, in most cases, is the natural extrovert.

In the book “Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success” by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg, the authors tell the story of a pilot being interviewed for a job at Southwest who is rejected because he is rude to several employees during his trip to the interview location. His credentials were sterling, but his personality was all wrong, so he was not hired. “If you are not a warm-spirited, touchy-feely person, you are going to feel so out of your element that you are not going to be happy here,” Barrett says, which is even true for the company’s managers. Barrett recalls one comptroller whom she helped find a new job after he confessed he didn’t like the warm-and-fuzzy culture.