How Motivated Employees Drive Business Success
In June 2001, James Parker became the CEO of Southwest Airlines. Three months later, one of his first challenges was dealing with the impact of 9/11 on his company. He took a path not many airline executives followed at the time. Parker decided to drastically cut fares in October through December 2001 to encourage customers to fly again. While other airlines suffered declining revenue, Southwest’s revenue during the period was less than one percent off year-earlier levels.
It’s telling evidence of what Parker calls “doing the right thing.” While the story of Southwest itself is not the focus of Do the Right Thing: How Dedicated Employees Create Loyal Customers and Large Profits, the way the airline did, and still does business, sets the tone for his management philosophy.
According to Parker, Southwest’s senior management was fond of saying they were in the customer service business, not the airline business. He realized the way in which Southwest succeeded where other airlines failed could be attributed to one thing — the quality of the company’s people.
At Southwest, Parker learned that “leaders are everywhere” — not just at the CEO level or in the executive suite. He believes companies succeed because there are great leaders at every level who help drive consistently excellent performance.
Just as important, writes the author, “great leaders make the people around them better.” Leaders must honestly embrace the collaboration of their subordinates and describe a successful accomplishment as a team effort. In the event of failure, a great leader takes personal responsibility for his team. Great leaders, says Parker, have a way of knowing what people can do, helping them get what they need to do it, and making them understand why their roles are meaningful.
Parker spends a fair amount of time discussing how to look for, recruit and hire the right people. In particular, he says, interviewing and hiring for attitude is a key determinant in the success of a potential employee. With the right people, it is that much easier for everyone to understand that their jobs affect each other. He calls it the “shared mission.”
The author makes the point that this attitude extends to the pilots of Southwest. In some airline cultures, he says, a pilot’s decision-making authority is unquestioned. At Southwest, however, pilots are trained to be receptive to input. Although they must be confident and self-assured when making difficult decisions, pilots need to listen to the crew, no matter how junior, when flight safety is an issue.
Employees Must be Empowered to Succeed
Getting employees to “think like owners” is another area Parker addresses. At Southwest, he recalls, “we were sometimes asked who we sought to serve first — employees, customers or shareholders. We always said employees come first.” This seems to be an important distinction between companies who do the right thing, and companies who do things with a singular focus on improving shareholder value.
Parker believes that employees must be empowered to succeed. He recognizes that frontline employees can make mistakes, but he thinks if they are “trained, and motivated, and if they think like owners, they will usually make good decisions.”
Perhaps most importantly, Parker says, the company’s culture should be such that employees want to take ownership and do the right things. Parker doesn’t overlook the employee attribute that has become a Southwest trademark: their people always seem to be having fun. He says whether you are the CEO or any other employee, you need to find something enjoyable and have fun doing it.
While Do the Right Thing does not break new ground, Parker’s style is infectious. He writes in simple yet passionate terms, using little if any jargon. If nothing else, the book reinforces the belief that a humanistic management style respecting the value of employees is the best way for a business to be both admired and profitable. If the success of Southwest Airlines is any measure, then as its CEO, James Parker surely did the right thing.