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IThe Leading Edge-I Let Spirit Guide Leadership

February 1, 2000
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Featured Article
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When Libby Sartain chose a profession in humanresources, she was following her heart -- taking her natural interest inorganizational behavior and turning it into a career. It only seems fair thatshe landed at Southwest Airlines, an organization that also relies on its heart-- which it recognizes as its employees. For 12 years, Sartain has beenSouthwest’s "vice president of people," the airline’s term for theHR function.

Southwest’s people department has receivedsuch honors as a place on Fortune’sand Working Woman’s "BestPlaces to Work" lists. The Dallas-based airline’s reputation foraccountable HR has a lot to do with innovative management, led by CEO HerbKelleher. When Sartain joined Kelleher’s team, she added years of experiencein compensation and benefits, as well as a caring approach to HR. Executiveslike her prove a company’s spirit has just as much to do with its leadershipas it does with its workforce.

Of more than 1,200 respondents in a Workforce.comNews Poll of September, 1999, 19%said they’d work for Southwest if they were given a choice. What is it aboutSWA that makes it such a great place to work? And how does HR contribute tothat?

Employees have their own reasons why they loveworking for Southwest. For me, it’s the fact that we value individuality. Wedon’t have a corporate image that all employees have to live up to. I didn’thave to modify my style or curtail certain aspects of my unique personality tobe successful. To be able to be yourself at work gives you freedom to becreative and productive.

And I love that we take chances on people. Manycompanies pass over great candidates for promotion just because the person doesn’thave the credentials desired. We promote people whose best qualifications aregood work performance and a great attitude, and it’s amazing what theyaccomplish as compared to their credentialed counterparts.

With an entire SWA population of 30,000, whatare the challenges of leading such a large group?

One of the biggest challenges for us is that ourHR department is centralized. We service the needs of 30,000 people in 56different cities, and about one-third of our people are flying around in bigmetal tubes all day. It’s challenging to be available and accessible to ourpeople.

Unlike other large companies, where they havelocal HR representatives at each location, we have unique communicationschallenges. Some of our employees do not have a stationary workplace. They showup at an airport and check in for their flight, then they’re gone for three orfour days and may not come back for another week. So our continual challenge isensuring that our folks are aware of the great programs available through thecompany.

What has your department done to help thecommunication problem?

We’ve initiated many communications efforts tointroduce benefits and other initiatives. We’re working on internal brandingand positioning right now, and are ready to roll a campaign that incorporatesthe real-life options available to our people. Our employee communicationsdepartment works constantly to ensure our people are informed of what’s goingon. We use every method of communication from mail, to videos, to intranet, andInternet. But, unfortunately, we don’t manage to get though to everyone.

SWA is renowned for respecting the actions ofits HR. How did the department reach this level of accountability?

We have a lot of support from the top. Our CEO,Herb Kelleher, really set the tone for making HR an important function. However,our biggest supporter and biggest influencer is our executive vice president ofcustomers, Colleen Barrett.

Even with all of this support, we have todeliver what we promise to be respected by our internal customers. And we havedone that for many years. While there’s always room for improvement and welearn new ways of doing things every day, every person at Southwest has workedwith our department at some point or another. If that encounter was good, andhopefully it was, then we have the credibility and reputation for service thatwe expect to deliver. We feel very appreciated by our internal customers and wefeel that we add value to their operations and make their lives easier.

What kinds of programs reflect the value youoffer employees?

Because most of our people are hired at theentry level and salaries are determined by union rates, we don’t have muchopportunity to be creative with our compensation program. However, we’re ableto recognize our star performers through fast and steady career progression. Wepromote from within, and provide learning opportunities for our people to learnwhat they need to do their jobs and to move up in the company.

We have an internal "University forPeople," where we offer leadership development classes. We spend most ofefforts on giving our supervisors and managers the tools they need to do theirjobs so we can ensure that they’re confident with what they can do and theyknow what is expected of them. And it’s a place where they can feel they canask for help if they need it. If our leaders or employees ask us for help, thenwe help them. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But if we help, then ourcredibility will develop, and it provides better service to our internalcustomers.

What is the mark of a great HR leader?

Those who are most effective HR leaders leadbecause of their strong desire and need to serve others. To be a strong leaderone must have a lot of guts -- and when I say that, I mean two kinds: first, youhave to stand up for what is right when others might not think the same.Sometimes you will make others uncomfortable and be unpopular, but when it isthe right thing to do, you have to be able to stick your neck out.

The other kind of guts is that "gutfeeling." A great HR leader has to have a superior ability to evaluatepeople and situations. This instinctive ability is partially innate andpartially develops and grows over time, but the best of the best have it. HRleaders must also be good businesspeople and understand the [industry] they arein. Without this, you have no chance to have a seat at the table on the seniorleadership team. And, of course, great HR leaders have to be able to kick backand have fun. There are many difficult and serious issues we deal with on adaily basis. A positive outlook and the ability to lighten up on a regular basisare essential.

If you were to tell HR managers to excel inleading one area, which would it be?

By far, it is dealing with difficult employeesituations. Whether it is confrontation, or violence, or sexual harassment, ordiscrimination in the workplace. These situations are never easy. Workingthrough them requires knowledge, skill, judgment and experience, and it alsorequires compassion and a strong desire to find a solution that works foreveryone involved. I also would encourage every HR person to do a tour of dutyin the more technical sides of HR, such as compensation, benefits, and HRIS.These areas are challenging and important to know and understand once you moveup the ladder.

One thing that has really helped me in the HRfield is involvement in professional HR organizations, such as the Society forHuman Resource Management. That is one of the things that has influenced mycareer for many years. Through these organizations, I have been able to staycurrent in my field, and make contacts that have been so very helpful to me.There are so many great people who are out there that are willing to share theirexperiences, and it also feels great when you can return the favor.

What issues is HR dealing with at Southwestright now?

The tight labor market has really changed how wego about recruiting. Because we have a great reputation as an "employer ofchoice," we rarely had to advertise for candidates until two or three yearsago. Our entry-level salaries aren’t as high as some companies pay, eventhough they’re very competitive in the airline industry. It is hard to sellour opportunity to people by encouraging them to join us with lower hourly ratesthan they could get elsewhere. People who stay with us their entire careers dovery well.

But right now, there’s a lot of competition.So we have to get more and more creative to find our candidates. For example,for the last seven years, we’ve hired about 4,000 to 5,000 people each year.We’ve always received more than 140,000 applications and résumés, and weused to interview about 30,000 people to find our 4,000. In 1998, we interviewed89,000 people to get 4,200 hires. As of the end of October this year, we hadalready interviewed 70,000 people to hire 3,100. So that’s a huge challengebecause we have to interview so many to find those who meet our high standards.

Workforce,February 2000, Vol. 79, No. 2, p. 33-36 -- Subscribenow!

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