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Ideas to Read and Pass Along

Kevin & Jackie Freiberg

Live Your Values Out Loud

How You Respond to Critical Incidents Says A Lot About What You Value

Kevin here, I just finished a program for the National Tree Care Industry Association. At the conclusion of my presentation the president and CEO of the association, Cynthia Mills recounted one of those feel-good stories. On a Southwest Airlines flight between Orlando and Baltimore she had a medical emergency. As the pilot immediately started into a steep decent for the nearest airport, which happened to be Jacksonville, one of the flight attendants asked the passengers sitting next to Cynthia if they would change seats. At that point two of the flight attendants sat on each side of Cynthia holding her hand, rubbing her arm and doing whatever they could to keep her calm and comfortable.

swa planeMinutes later when the plane landed, paramedics with all the emergency gear boarded the airplane in full force. As they were taking Cynthia off the plane the pilot said to one of the flight attendants, “She’s traveling alone. We can’t let her go to the hospital by herself. Ask ground operations if we have someone who can accompany her.” Sure enough, someone from Southwest ground ops went with Cynthia and stayed with her refusing to leave until her husband arrived.

Meanwhile, Southwest notified Cynthia’s husband and booked him on the next available flight to Jacksonville. Cynthia told me, “They wouldn’t let him pay for it.” At each of several transfer points along the way, Southwest gave Cynthia’s husband updates as they had been monitoring her condition. When he arrived in Jacksonville they were there to whisk him off to the hospital. The people of Southwest Airlines stayed on top of Cynthia’s situation until she was released from the hospital. Even then she received cards and calls from Southwest employees who had been involved. When the ordeal was over Cynthia Mills realized that the people of Southwest Airlines had treated her like family at a time when she had none.

That’s what happens when you hire fun-loving, compassionate, altruistic people—and then give them the freedom to be themselves. It’s also what happens when you build a culture of caring. The executive office (Herb Kelleher, Colleen Barrett and Jim Parker) at Southwest has cultivated an unbelievably effective communication grapevine. If a Southwest employee gets sick or goes through a crisis, the grapevine launches into action and it isn’t long before Southwest executives hear about it and respond. And boy do they respond! More than 50,000 cards and gift packages go out to employees each year conveying sympathy and celebrating special events.

Southwest also has an Employee Catastrophic Fund where employees voluntarily contribute parts of their paychecks to help coworkers in need. Managed by employees who review requests from colleagues, the Catastrophic Fund has over a million dollars in it. The money goes to help victims rebuild homes that have burned, pay for costly things associated with medical treatments that insurance won’t cover or the like.

Amazing though it was, when the pilots, flight attendants and ground operations people of Southwest went above and beyond the call of duty to “be there” for Cynthia, they were simply doing what their culture dictates—they were acting like family. The phrase “TREAT YOUR EMPLOYEES THE WAY YOU WANT THEM TO TREAT YOUR CUSTOMERS” is much more than a worn-out cliché at Southwest. It’s a way of life and a way of doing business. Of course, the natural by-product of this treatment is that Cynthia Mills is not just a loyal customer, she is an evangelistic ambassador for the airline! How do you treat your people?