SOUTHWEST AIRLINES: ACCOUNTABLE LEADERSHIP, ACCOUNTABLE TEAMS

Sam Silverstein Blog

Accountable leadership creates accountability in the workplace!

You may have seen an amazing piece on the news recently about a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, Vicki Heath. Her story, which quickly became the kind of viral social media topic most companies only dream of generating, was a testimony to that airline’s remarkable, enduring capacity to make passengers feel not just good, but great about its brand. In these days of crowded terminals, late flights, and customer-service breakdowns, that’s an achievement, one that’s worth examining closely. First, I’m going to tell you Heath’s story, just in case you haven’t heard it yet. And then I’m going to tell you why accountability made that story possible.

On a flight out of Houston, Vicki Heath struck up a conversation with one of her passengers, Tracy Sharp. Sharp has Down Syndrome, which as you may know is a genetic disorder associated with mild to moderate intellectual impairment. As they chatted, Sharp happened to mention that becoming a flight attendant was one of her major aspirations in life.

How unusual is it for a flight attendant to have a conversation like that with a passenger? Maybe not all that unusual. What was unusual, though, was how Heath followed up on that chat.

Vicki Heath started reaching out to her superiors at Southwest about an idea she had. What if Tracy Sharp flew one of the flights that Heath was working – and served as a kind of assistant? What if, for one flight, Tracy Sharp were to help out Heath, and support the rest of the flight crew? What if Southwest could help one of its passengers to fulfill her lifelong dream of working in the skies as a flight attendant?

That kind of conversation, I submit, is unusual, especially within the organizational structure of a major airline. And what was just as unusual was the response Southwest’s leadership gave Vicki Heath when she floated her unorthodox idea. In essence, leadership told her: Go for it.

As a result of those two unusual outcomes, Vicki Heath helped her passenger Tracy Sharp turn a dream into a reality. If you’re interested in what the fulfillment of that that dream looked like as Tracy boarded the plane for duty, check out the video.

WHY THIS HAPPENED

So: That’s the story. I think you’ll agree that it’s a wonderful human-interest piece, and that it serves as a major P.R. coup for Southwest. But now I want to look at something that I don’t think many people have examined, even though this event has received wide media coverage: What made this story possible? Why did it even happen?

The answer is: Accountability.

Let me explain. I believe the reason you didn’t hear about this happening at of many other major companies and the reason you did hear about it at Southwest, is that leadership at many of the other major companies, by and large, aren’t accountable to their employees when it comes to making them feel safe enough to propose out-of-the box ideas.

Southwest, by contrast, does make its people feel safe enough to do that. Creating a place where employees feel safe leads directly to greater accountability in the workplace.

Make no mistake: Having a safe place to work really does mean feeling safe enough to share your ideas with leadership, even if (especially if) the idea is a little unorthodox, and you’re not sure whether your idea will be endorsed!

Not only that: Leadership at many other major organizations, by and large, aren’t actually committed to the principle of caring for and listening to their own people. That means that their employees, in turn, aren’t committed to that either, when they interact with customers. Understand: I’m not talking about what shows up on the topic of listening in a policy manual that employees read once and then forget about. I’m talking about how they actually feel on a day-to-day basis when they interact with their managers. And I’m suggesting that if you look closely at the other major airlines and at other companies, you’ll find there is a lack of accountability on the part of management to fulfill their commitment listen to and care for the people who interact with the customers.

So it’s not at all surprising that the employees of other organizations are less likely to listen to, and act in support of, their customers in the dramatic way that Vicki Heath did. Heath was only able to do that because she trusted those above her to care enough about their relationship with her as an individual to hear her out when she asked for permission to do something out of the ordinary!

WHY THIS MATTERS

Why is that important? Because time and again, in poll after poll and survey after survey, Southwest seems to come out on top in terms of customer satisfaction among the major US carriers. If you are curious about what makes that possible, and I hope you are, consider the following. Southwest’s employees are led by leaders who accept accountability first. They commit to being accountable for creating a physically and emotionally safe working environment, an environment where people can and do feel comfortable sharing creative ideas. And Southwest’s leaders also hold themselves accountable to fulfilling a commitment to listen to and care for their employees as people. Not just talking about that – doing it. Guess what? That kind of accountability rubs off … and makes employees more likely to act in the same way when they interact with customers. That’s accountability in the workplace!

Accountable leadership creates accountable teams!

Ultimately, this is not just a story about a single good decision, the decision to make a passenger’s dream come true. Rather, it’s a story about how to build the kind of organization that makes those kind of good decisions consistently, day in and day out, by being accountable leaders.

To get the real point of Vicki Heath’s story, you need to understand what made that remarkable flight with Tracy Sharp possible. And to do that, I think you need to ask yourself these five questions:

  • What message does a company send to the rest of its team when it gets behind a team member’s idea… in the way that Southwest’s leadership got behind Vicki Heath’s idea?
  • What is possible when you create and defend the kind of physically and emotionally safe workplace where your people share their ideas with you … without fear of being criticized, humiliated, or marginalized for doing so?
  • What is possible in an organizational culture when you consistently show, not just with words but with actions, how much you truly care about people?
  • What lessons are you teaching your people about how they should interact with customers … by how you interact with them?
  • What happens in an organization when accountability in the workplace is the goal and leadership accepts the responsibility to have accountability start with them?