He let Employees be themselves
“Your People come first, and if you treat them right, they’ll treat the Customers right.”
No one made Herb laugh harder than Carroll Herzog, a 40-year veteran of the Company who works in Customer Service at Hobby Airport in Houston. The stories she tells reflect the Culture that Herb built that allowed Herzog to be herself and underscore how the Company took on his personality.
Shortly after 9/11, Herzog and her fellow Customer Service Agents were tasked with searching Customers’ luggage. It made everyone uncomfortable, Employees and Customers alike. Herzog went out and bought an enormous pair of white cotton underwear and a red garter belt. She stashed them behind the counter, and every once in a while, she would hold one or the other up in front of unsuspecting Customers whose luggage she was searching and ask, “Is this yours?”
Another time, a businessman was annoyed that he had bought a nontransferable ticket. He wanted it to magically become transferable, and he expected Herzog to make it so, and he didn’t want to pay for it. She wanted to help but told him she couldn’t do that. Speaking right in front of her, he muttered that she must have PMS. She quickly fired back, “Yes, I do: profit motivated syndrome.”
Herb laughed again and again at those stories. They weren’t just funny; he thought they represented good business practices and modeled what he wanted Southwest to stand for. Herb, who in 1978 elevated from Southwest’s corporate counsel to Chairman of the Board and permanently became President and CEO in 1982, insisted Employees should come first and that the Customer isn’t always right. Empowered by the knowledge the boss had their back, Employees would treat Customers well. Those satisfied Customers, in turn, would become repeat Customers, which would please the Shareholders.
Herb also believed that making smart decisions was more important than following rules to the letter. He wanted creative risk-takers, not automatons. More than anything, he wanted Employees to have fun at work and Customers to have fun on his planes. A rigid adherence to, say, line 23, subsection E, paragraph 90, would squelch that. So instead of some 500-page Employee manual, Southwest produced 30 pages of “guidelines.”
“You know what the first line was?” he said in a 2017 interview with the San Antonio Public Library. “‘Guidelines for leaders: These are only guidelines. Feel free to break them in the interest of our Customers.’ And our People did. They were, I think, somewhat apprehensive at first. They didn’t believe we really wanted this kind of world. But after six months or a year, they were into it, big time.”
That attitude became the foundation of the Southwest Culture. That Culture was created by Herb and Barrett based on the Golden Rule—treat others as you’d want them to treat you—something both learned growing up.
Even as Southwest grew, the Company never lost its sense of humor, because it kept hiring people like Herzog. Whenever Herb flew through Houston, he would show up at Herzog’s counter with a new friend and ask her to retell the PMS story or the underwear story or another crazy story she had, and laughter would explode out of him like confetti from a cannon. “He always wanted everybody to think they were the greatest, and he wanted to bring the greatest out in everybody,” she says. “That’s such a gift. You didn’t even realize that’s what he was doing when he was doing it. That’s how good he was at it.”