Southwest Airlines’ Julie Weber on What It Means To Create a Purpose-Driven Culture

Living the Southwest Way!

A desire to act with courage, persevere and innovate; the ability to put others first, and a fun-LUVing attitude – these are the values that Southwest Airlines, the World’s Most Loved Airline, looks for in its employees and fosters through its talent management. Talking to The HR Digest, Julie Weber explains how the company’s “Hiring for Attitude” motto has helped forge an outstanding performance culture.

Julie Weber
Julie Weber, Southwest Airlines Vice President and Chief People Officer. // Stephen M. Keller, 2019

The HR Digest: Southwest Airlines is held up as a role model for its effective ‘Employee First’ philosophy. What forms does this take at the company?

Julie Weber: Our Employee First philosophy takes so many forms and it starts with our belief that Happy Employees = Happy Customers = Happy Shareholders. We have a Mission Statement to our Employees which says “We are committed to providing our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.” We encourage Employees to grow and develop their careers within Southwest by offering personal and professional development through Southwest’s University, tuition reimbursement and opportunities to promote. Our Mission Statement to our Employees also states, “Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.” We believe that our special brand of Hospitality is achieved when BOTH Employees and Customers feel welcomed, cared for and appreciated. Three vital elements to our Culture are appreciation, recognition and celebration. We have numerous ways Employees can celebrate with and recognize each other, including formal recognition programs and company-sponsored events like our annual Rallies, Chili Cook Off and Halloween celebration. Our Employee First philosophy and commitment to providing a stable work environment has also resulted in job security, competitive pay and exceptional benefits. We help Employees prepare for retirement with a generous 401K match and ProfitSharing. We help our Employees take care of themselves and their families with medical coverage options in which Southwest picks up a generous amount of the cost. And, we have never had a pay cut, involuntary furlough or lay-off.

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The HR Digest: You once said, “An employer must work to keep employees engaged by offering good pay and benefits, opportunities for development and advancement and a collaborative, mission-driven culture.” What does it take to maintain a sense of purpose at Southwest Airlines?

Julie Weber: It starts with hiring the right People. We are famous for “hiring for attitude” and that means we hire to our Values and Expectations – Warrior Spirit, Servant’s Heart, and Fun-LUVing Attitude. Our expectations are thoroughly defined, and we’ve built our interviewing methodology around these expectations. We have a bold view on Employee Engagement. We view engagement as a two-way street. Yes, an employer must work to keep employees engaged by offering competitive pay and benefits, opportunities for development and advancement, and collaborative, mission-driven culture. But you also have to hire people who are engaged from the start, whose values are in sync with the organization.

Our Company purpose of connecting People to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel is something that all our Employees rally around every day. It’s taking a grandmother to see her grandbaby for the first time. Sadly, it can also be transporting someone to see a sick family member for the last time. No matter the reason, our Employees understand the importance of our purpose and know how their individual role contributes to that.

One of our recognition programs is called Winning Spirit. It recognizes Employees doing what they do best and that’s delivering exceptional Southwest Hospitality, displaying tremendous acts of Courage, demonstrating outstanding Teamwork, showing heartfelt Compassion to a Customer or fellow colleague in need, or even celebrating their volunteerism in their community. Awards like the Winning Spirit Award reinforce our Purpose and how much we believe that it is truly our Employees who make Southwest Airlines successful.

Julie Weber
Julie Weber, Southwest Airlines Vice President and Chief People Officer. // Stephen M. Keller, 2019

The HR Digest: Today work has become an indispensable part of life, wearing away our priorities. Is there a need to reexamine our understanding of what work ought to be?

Julie Weber: If what you do feels like your calling and if who you do that with feels like family, then work becomes harmonious with life. We often talk about work-life balance but that assumes that something always has to give. I believe that Human Resources is my calling. Even though I went to school to become a counselor and took a job as a recruiter just to pay back my student loans, I have never looked back. I ended up in HR by chance but have stayed with this profession because it simply feels like this is what I was meant to do. And, at Southwest Airlines, I am practicing HR at a company that matches my values and I am working alongside People I consider my family. I love the fact that I am not alone in feeling that what I do for Southwest Airlines is my calling. When Employees are asked on our Employee survey if they feel like their job is “just a job,” “a stepping stone,” or “a calling,” nearly 75 percent of Southwest Employees selected, “It’s a calling.”

The HR Digest: What would you say is the most effective non-cash motivator?

Julie Weber: Appreciation! I have always believed that Employees don’t leave companies, they leave leaders. And, what I mean by that is that it is critical for Employees to believe that what they are doing makes a difference and is appreciated. We have several formal and informal recognition programs at Southwest, including celebrating service anniversaries with pins and also with big parties for major milestones such as the 10 Year Anniversary Gala and the annual Anniversary Banquet for Employees celebrating 20, 25, 30 and even 35 years of service. We also have a great program for recognizing Employees doing good work in the moment with incentive-type awards. Over the last few years, we’ve been able to add electronic elements that allow our Employees to quickly recognize each other with just a few clicks of a button.

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The HR Digest: When the time comes for you to give aspiring leaders advice about their lives and careers, what will you say to them as you reflect on your own experiences?

Julie Weber: Be kind to yourself and just as you extend grace to others, extend that to yourself. I have the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with college students through our internship program at Southwest Airlines and through the work I do with the University of Dallas and Colorado State University. Graduating students have expressed a lot of concern over picking the right first job opportunity. While I encourage them to do their homework in researching companies and to be selective in considering only those that match their values, I also tell them that it's really okay if that first job is not quite right. It will be a learning experience and our careers are truly journeys that will have twist, turns and stops along the way. As long as you are learning, you are growing. If you take a wrong turn, you can correct it. But, if you don’t take risks or don’t try, there will be little opportunity to progress.

This article was published in the April 2019 issue of The HR Digest magazine.

Julie Weber | Vice President and Chief People Officer, Southwest Airlines

As Vice President People, Julie leads all aspects of Human Resources, including hiring the right People at the right time with the right attitude, providing Employees with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth, providing competitive and attractive benefits packages, and assuring quality and depth of Leadership throughout the Company.

PHOTOS: SOUTHWEST AIRLINES

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