What were Herb Kelleher’s storytelling secrets?
1: “One day in 1966, two men met for drinks at the hotel’s bar. One was a Texas businessman; the other a chain-smoking, whiskey-swigging lawyer, writes Carmine Gallo in The Storytellers Secret. “Herb Kelleher and Rollin King had been kicking around a business plan, which they now sketched out on the back of a cocktail napkin. First, one of the men drew a triangle in the center of the napkin. At the top of the triangle, they wrote “Dallas,” on the bottom left, “San Antonio,” and on the bottom right, “Houston.” Their vision was simple—to create a small, local airline connecting three Texas cities.
“That business plan, sketched on the back of a St. Anthony Hotel cocktail napkin, would transform the lives of millions of Americans,” Carmine observes.
Southwest Airlines origin story captures the informal and audacious company culture which drives the airline to this day.
In the 1960s, prior to Southwest’s founding, air travel was uber expensive and only 20 percent of Americans had flown on an airplane. Today, airfares have dropped thanks to the airline’s business model, and (pre-pandemic) more than 90 percent of Americans fly more than 700 million flights a year.
2: We are continuing our exploration of the important role stories play in creating and strengthening workplace culture.
There are many legendary stories about Southwest founder Herb Kelleher who was always looking for ways to communicate his message about the pecking order at Southwest: employees first, customers second, and shareholders third.
One of Herb’s stories involves a passenger who wrote a letter to Southwest complaining about the airline’s flight attendants being humorous during the “fasten your seat belts” safety information.
Herb personally answered the letter with six simple words and two pieces of punctuation.
We will miss you.
Employees first. Customers second. Shareholders third.
3: Herb talked about workplace culture continuously. Culture is a story that must be shared every day. One of Herb’s storytelling tools was to honor their associates’ lives inside and outside of work.
“One of the things that we do is continue to emphasize that we value our people as people, not just as workers. Any event that you have in your life that is celebratory in nature or brings grief, you hear from Southwest Airlines. If you lose a relative, you hear from us. If you’re out sick with a serious illness, you hear from us,” Herb shared. “What we’re trying to say to our people is, “Hey, wait a second, we value you as a total person, not just between eight and five.”
Successful leaders use storytelling to build great workplace cultures. Herb’s approach to telling stories to recognize and appreciate front line associates who were passionate about delivering exceptional service made a huge difference at Southwest.
Reflection: What about Herb’s approach connects with me? Are there tools here I can capitalize on?
Action: Journal about how I might put these ideas into action. Today.