At Southwest Airlines I've risen from secretary to president—and never stopped treating employees like family.
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Even though I am a woman working in an industry run by men, I have been given extraordinary opportunities throughout my career. But things were always much better for women at Southwest than at other airlines. When we first formed the company, in 1971, we sat down and wrote a description of who Southwest was, and we wrote it in the feminine gender. We referred to the company as “she.” I said that to someone the other day, and they looked at me like, “You are kidding.” Well, no, I wasn’t kidding. We started with two hundred people, and more than 50 percent were women. And 31 years later, more than 50 percent of our workforce, including supervisors, managers, and directors, is still female. Within the halls of Southwest, it was never unusual to have a female manager. There are a few traditional jobs, such as pilots, in which there are very few women, but to the extent that we got female applicants, we were wide open to the idea.
It was certainly wide open for me. I started out working as a legal secretary in 1967 for [Southwest’s co-founder and chairman] Herb Kelleher at his San Antonio law firm. I was lucky. As long as I was willing to take the initiative, Herb was willing to let me—or anyone else at the firm—basically do anything we wanted. I went to Washington with him, walked into U.S. senators’ offices with him. If Herb was out of town—I almost cringe when I think about this—I would sometimes visit state senators’ offices in Austin by myself. I wasn’t smart enough to be intimidated. So over time, I became a sort of office manager for the nonlegal staff at the law firm. Not because it was something I aspired to. It’s partly because I had organizational and administrative skills and partly because I have one of those faces—people come and tell me stuff. Sometimes I would just prance into a senior partner’s office and tell him I thought that someone wasn’t being treated right. I’m not like a union radical or anything, but I never minded communicating about issues.
When we founded Southwest, the company and I were a perfect fit. Think about it: Southwest, the low-cost carrier. I grew up very poor, with no money, and my two years of junior college were financed by baby-sitting. We had great Christmases when I was growing up, but we sure as hell didn’t have expensive presents under the tree. My mother taught me to enjoy things, to appreciate things. And I always loved family camaraderie. I was always the one who was planning junior proms and pep rallies and that sort of thing. So early on, Herb would say that I could go ahead and have these big employee parties I wanted to put on but that I couldn’t spend any money. It was exactly who I knew how to be. I had to teach myself skills, but I think my desire to please is what made me such a great secretary. Of course, Herb and I are absolute opposites on almost everything. We took a Myers-Briggs personality test and scored two thousand percentage points apart on the last section. The facilitator said she didn’t know how we hadn’t killed each other. Herb doesn’t know what time it is, what day it is, or what month it is, honestly. He loves to talk. If I could just teach him to talk and walk at the same time, we could add two hours of productivity to the day.
I know that today, when you talk about Southwest’s red and orange colors and hot pants and go-go boots, that it just sounds so bizarre. But in the seventies, fifty-year-old women in San Antonio were walking down the street in hot pants. It was the thing. Red and orange were the in colors. We were going into an industry trying to attack a service that was 100 percent lacking, but we had no money. That is important to remember. So we decided we had to make up for it with spirit and personality. To make up for the advertising we couldn’t afford, we decided we were going to be fun, zesty, and a little irreverent to generate a buzz. We used all of these words right at the beginning. We capitalized on Love Field. We had love machines, love tickets, all of that stuff. We knew we would be talked about because we would be different.
A lot has been written about our corporate culture, and many people wonder how we ended up like this. I think it’s that we love what we do. We love people. I think it is as simple as that. We use the word “love” a lot. That’s pretty edgy in corporate America. Today, managers say they want their organizations to have a family feel, but we had accomplished that intent within two years of formation. You can see this in the way we solve problems. When we built this building [Southwest’s corporate headquarters at Love Field, in Dallas], Herb said, “Here is the plan. You have no money, but you need to fill the building.” We couldn’t buy art or spend money on furniture. I mean, hell, until two years ago, Herb had a desk that Rollin King [Southwest’s co-founder] bought in 1966 at a garage sale. I am not lying. And even when I replaced it, I had to do it while he was out of town because he never would have authorized the money. So anyway, I had to decorate somehow, and I began thinking, “We are big into celebrations, but we don’t have a lot of money to spend. So how do families celebrate?” Well, they celebrate with scrapbooks, and that is what our walls became. In our halls hang thousands of pictures of our employees. One reporter told me that the whole atmosphere reminded her of a fraternity or sorority house.
I’ve always been a supporter of putting employees first, treating Southwest like a family. I remember in one of our executive planning committee meetings, we were debating something, and all of a sudden I said, “There is no one in this room whose specific charge is our customer, and my God, we have been telling people that we are in the customer-service business.” We got into this. We went around the room answering “Who is your customer?” and it was fascinating, because in many instances it wasn’t the passenger. For example, a mechanic’s first customer was the pilot, the provisioning agent’s was the flight attendant, and so forth. We sat down and we actually drew up profiles, and that was when we drew the diagram, the upside-down pyramid, where we said employee first, passenger second, shareholder third. This is very different from most company models, but we realized that if you do things right at the employee level, the rest of it should fall into place. If you mess up at the employee level, then how in the world are your employees going to turn around and be smiling at your passengers? And that was also when Herb created the executive vice president customers position, which he gave to me.
So I think that the sentimentality of family, the sharing, and the loving are the basis of who we are. Some people are nervous about using the word “loving,” and others will occasionally throw it in your face. An employee will say, “I didn’t get any Southwest Œspirit’ when I got fired yesterday.” Well, you know what? You practice tough love all the time with your kids. I do not feel that that is inconsistent, as long as you tell people what the expectations are. Basically we are a 24-7 operation. On-time performance is everything. You can’t turn airplanes around on time and meet the schedule if people aren’t where they need to be when they’re supposed to be. It is really that simple. We come on like drill sergeants about this, starting on the first training day. If you’re not there on time, we lock the door to the classroom and we don’t let you in. You can’t imagine the letters I have gotten from mothers: “How could the Œlove’ airline be so cruel?” Well, the point is, we tell them over and over and over. There are no surprises.
At any other airline, I would probably not have been given the opportunities that Southwest has offered me. But let me make it very clear: I always loved being a secretary. I never really desired to do anything other than be the best legal secretary I could be. Today, nobody wants the “secretary” title, and that’s painful to me because I was always proud to say I was one. Bottom line, if everything goes to hell in a handbasket, I could at least make a living being a darn good secretary.
Colleen Barrett, 57, is the president and chief operating officer of Southwest Airlines. She lives in Dallas.