Ginger Hardage on How to Change Culture


As a leader, you have the ability to define your culture. In fact, doing so can alter the success of your organization, said Ginger Hardage, former senior vice president of culture and communications at Southwest Airlines, at Leadercast Live 2019

Ginger Debunked 5 Lies People Say About Why You Can't Change Culture:

1. “Culture is someone else’s job.” False. Culture building is a requirement of your job as a leader. It begins with you.

2. “But, our values are on the wall.” That’s not enough. You have to continually beat the drum of culture from the moment potential employees walk in for a job interview.

3. “Culture is fluffy.” Sales numbers disprove this. Chick-fil-A, Trader Joe’s and Southwest Airlines, all known for strong company cultures, outperform their competitors.

4. “If I empower employees, I might lose control.” If you’ve established a framework and have brought the right people into your organization, you can trust them. Don’t be too formulaic in how you allow your employees to operate within the framework you’ve established.

5. “We can’t afford culture.” Culture shaping doesn’t always require budget. You can alter culture by having face time each day with your employees, making decisions that include your team and sharing stories from the field.

Start with your employees first if you want to drive success. Give them the right level of information and training so they can act like owners, and they will carry the culture alongside you.


Ginger Hardage: Hello. Well, if your company makes it on Saturday Night Live, you know something's gone either really right or really wrong. So you're going to tell me in just a minute. So I was with Southwest Airlines for 25 years. And let's watch Will Ferrell impersonate one of the flight attendants.

Spencer: Welcome aboard flight 1250C service from Lubbock, Texas to Charleston, South Carolina. My name is Spencer. 

Sabrina: I'm Sabrina and returning to the flight crew this week is Garreth. 

Will: Hi y'all. I'm Garreth. 

Male: Garreth just got back from a month long sabbatical so let's give him a hand. 

Will: Oh, stop. You're making me blush. 

Sabrina: Now typically this is when you'd sit through some boring safety demonstration.

Spencer: A snooze fest.

Sabrina: But we like to do things a little different around here. 

Spencer: We sure do. Someone give us a beat. Anyone?

Male: I mean, I used to beatbox in college but I don't know if I can still . . . 

Spencer: Mm . . . That's nice.1250C is a real fun flight. We'll be soaring through the sky like a big 'ole kite. 

Sabrina: Your crew is Spencer, Sabrina, and Garreth. Your comfort and safety is what we cherish. 

Spencer: Fasten your seat belts and pull them tight and don't unbuckle if you see that light. 

Sabrina: Be sure to stay seated or you'll bump your head. 

Will: And God's not real, when you die, you're dead.

Sabrina: Oh my God. 

Spencer: Garreth. 

Sabrina: Why would you say that?

Spencer: Garreth. 

Ginger: I mean really. So when something like that if it ever happened at Southwest Airlines this is what we always wanted to say, "Congratulations, Garreth. You have been promoted to customer." Haven't you wanted to do that? Just promote someone to customer. Well, in all seriousness when something like that happens do you think Southwest considers it a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it's a good thing because Southwest doesn't take itself too seriously. 

In fact, that's a trait that it's also looking for it in its employees. And in my 25 years at Southwest Airlines and the last few on my own, I've learned something important, culture is contagious. And culture can be contagious in a good way or it can be contagious in a bad way. Like did any of you ever watch "The Office" and Dunder Mifflin? Yeah, that's kind of a bad kind of contagious. 

But as a leader, you have the ability to define your culture and it can either happen by default or it could be one that you carefully define. And when a leader is able to make the connection between the purpose and the values of their organization and the contributions of a team member, magic happens. And when you are intentional as a leader about creating your culture you and your organization can become unstoppable. So let's work toward unstoppable, okay? 

But there is a problem. In the back of your head, you've got these voices. And those voices are saying to you, "You can't change culture." This is not true. And in this talk today we're going to talk about the five lies that people tell you of why you can't change culture. And in that, we're going to break it down and you're going to leave here knowing that you can change culture and that you can have an even healthier team because of your actions as a leader. Sound good? You ready? Let's jump right in. 

Here's lie number one. Culture is someone else's job. Do you ever feel that? Well, we know you have deadlines, you have that budget to meet, you have all kinds of pressures on you as a leader. You just have too many things happening. You're thinking, "I don't have time for this," right? But culture isn't someone else's job. And as a leader, culture building is a requirement for you. It's a requirement so put it down in your job description. 

And no one built culture building and lived it more fully than Herb Kelleher. Here he is, the founder of Southwest Airlines. And Herb is dressed there in an Elvis costume, right? He doesn't take himself too seriously. And following on that tradition of culture building, that guy on the far side is the CEO of Southwest Airlines. His name is Gary Kelly and he's been the CEO since 2004 and there he is dressed as Woody from "Toy Story" but he's carrying on that tradition. Oh and yeah, that's me as Barbie there in the middle that year at Halloween. 

But again, we're not taking ourselves too seriously. But let me be clear, I am not saying that dressing up is a golden ticket that's going to suddenly create a culture for you. You know it might, it works at Southwest. It might not fit every organization. In fact, I work with a pharmaceuticals client and I think they would freak out if they thought that they had to dress up. So one size does not fit all in culture. But what I am telling you is if you're a leader of five or 500 people in your organization, culture building is a requirement and it is part of your job description. While building culture in our organizations we should enlist everyone to help us with that because culture building is everyone's job but as a leader, it's a requirement. 

So let's go on to lie number two which is well, our values are on the wall. Think how many companies spend time defining their values, articulating their values. They'll talk about it for a while. They'll post them on the wall and then they'll go on about the business of work. Right? But culture isn't a faucet that you can turn on and off. You've got to continually beat the drum on culture and keep it consistent. 

So basic organization some of you may know them. They post their values on the wall. Next level organizations look like this. They really focus. They do a great job when you come in inboard on onboarding and a few other key elements like recognition but you want to be best in class and this is what best in class looks like. 

Best in class and culture building starts way before you ever would join the organization. They focus it way back at recruiting. They want to make sure that the people coming in know in advance what their culture is going to be like and they carry it every step through the way all the way through performance management. And someday when you decide to retire and say farewell, they carry it every step of the way. 

So what do really great cultures know? They know that all cultures start with hiring. And they know that you've got to start before you get people in the door. 

So here's an example, every year Southwest gets 300,000 applications for people to come to work. And of that, only 2% are actually hired to work for the organization. So they follow a rule that you may have heard in HR circles which is hire tough so you can manage easy. So you're really taking all that time to hire the right kind of people to join your organization. You're bringing them in, they already have the right skill set. They fit their values. You're bringing them into the organization. You know they're going to be a good fit. 

So when Southwest had an applicant come in, he was a top gun pilot. Not that top gun pilot but a different top gun pilot came in and he was arrogant to the receptionist. He was arrogant to the recruiter. It was obvious that he thought very highly of himself and he wouldn't fit in with the values of Southwest because you already know this. You know we don't take ourselves too seriously. And so he wasn't hired. That's hiring tough, looking out for your values, and making sure you're bringing the right people into your organization spending the necessary time. 

Lie number three, culture is fluffy. Yeah, you probably thought that. Culture's fluffy. Well, if you think it's all balloons and streamers, I can see why it might scare you. Or you may know some people that think they have culture because they have a ping pong table, right? Yeah. Well, ping pong does not equal culture. 

But culture can drive the bottom line. And I know that's what a lot of you are interested in. So for all you show me the numbers people, I'm going to talk about your return on investment for culture or what I like to refer to as return on culture. And here are three organizations that are really known for doing a great job of culture building. You've got Chick-fil-A in the casual dining category, number one in revenue per restaurant. Trader Joe's in the grocery space. They're number one on financial performance and number one on consumer preference. And then Southwest Airlines. Who can argue with 46 consecutive years of profitability? So three great example for us to look to. 

So how does Southwest keep that going? Well, every day the company sends out 10,000 surveys every day to find out about the customer experience. They want to know everything from how what it was like when you checked in to when you got your luggage. They want to make sure they're on target. And one of the things they have found out is that even though your experience might have started out poorly in the beginning, let's say that we had bad weather and you weren't able to take off on time. Your experience can totally change during your flight all by the actions the flight attendants. Their interactions with you and their hospitality with you. 

So if some of you may have seen this flight attendant on your social media feed recently. I saw it on several different areas. This is actually a really crude video filmed by a customer, but it shows you the difference that one of our employees can make in literally changing it around. So in this situation, a very nervous mom had a fussy baby and this flight attendant took on that with kindness and humanity and really did turn that around. So let's take a quick look. 

Female: No portable electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets and e-readers may be used for all phases of flight in airplane mode. Cellular functions must be turned off once the forward-entry door is closed. You'll find more information about the use of electronic devices on onboard the aircraft and [of Southwest 00:12:26].

Ginger: So that is what we're looking for in our employees, to really make that personal difference. So if I were to ask you going back to driving those business results, what we really need to look for, most of you would say let's start with our customers. Let's really focus on our customers. That's what most organizations say. I'm going to challenge you on that and I want you to think about starting with your employees first if you want to drive business results. 

You know, Herb Kelleher the founder of Southwest was teaching us this back in the '90s. And it was if you start with your employees and you give your employees a level of information with level of training to act like owners, they're going to be representing your organization and they're going to take care of your customers. Your customers are going to be well served and your shareholders are going to be taken care of. You're going to get that flywheel going but it's going to go so much faster and so much longer if you start first with your employees and making sure they can truly represent you and act like owners in every aspect of your business. 

So lie number four, if I empower my employees, I might lose control. Yeah, you might. But boy let's talk about the upside in empowering employees and I'd like to call it freedom in a framework. Because if you have a basic framework, you've spent the time bringing the right people into the organization, they understand your values and they have that framework to work within but you give them freedom to actually use the personalities that you hired them for in the first place. 

So how do we work within freedom in a framework? You may have heard of Soul Cycle, the indoor cycling phenomena and they let's talk about . . . yeah. And here they are freedom in a framework with Soul Cycle and they actually have only been in business for 10 years and they're in 60 locations already. And their female CEO practices freedom in a framework. They give their instructors a basic outline but they can curate their playlist, they can do your workouts on their own and they've become quite an incredible organization. 

But many of us have encountered this before and it's what I call framework and no freedom. You've definitely encountered that. A friend recently shared a story that fits this perfectly checking into a hotel. "Hello, I'd like to check into my hotel for tonight if I might." "Well, it's $20 if you want to check in before 1 o'clock." "Well, I mean that's only eleven minutes away so I'd like to go and check in now." "I'm sorry, That's going to be $20 before one o'clock. It's not quite one o'clock yet." "Well, is there anything we can do? I mean I've already stood in line and I won't go up to the room if you just check me in." "No, you don't understand. It's $20 before 1 p.m." 

My friend says, "Okay. Can you say anything to me right now besides it's $20 before 1 p.m.?" The employees stop talking. How many of you have had that kind of maddening experience and when that happens I always wonder was that bad hire? But more than likely what happened was that employ was given a framework and no freedom. No freedom to deliver customer service or take care of the employees. So how many times have we done that? So don't be too formulaic in how you allow your employees to live your values every day. 

There was a story that really blew up on Facebook about Southwest Airlines and it was a mom named Jessica [Barrows 00:16:40]. And Jessica was traveling with her young toddler and the toddler was actually in the stroller and she went down the jetway you know as you do your parents know this. And at the bottom of the jetway, she took the child, gave the stroller which they were going to put underneath the aircraft, got settled in her seat and realized she'd forgotten her cell phone. She'd left it in the loose pocket of the stroller. 

So she panics, calls her flight attendant and says you know, "Is there anything we can do?" And the flight attendant said, "Let me see. Let me check with the folks who are loading the aircraft and see if we can get that, look for that for you." Her first surprise occurs when she gets her phone back. She gets her phone back before they even take off. And the second surprise occurs when she turns it on and sees this. So these employees were definitely empowered with freedom within a framework. 

Lie number five, we can't afford culture. You know, we get it. The spirit is willing but the budget is weak sometimes, right? I get it. Well, I'm going to give you four things that you can do as a leader that will cost you zero dollars, zero cents. I don't even require coupon for this. Here we go. Let's talk about those things. How did we go about living our values every day? Nothing can turn your culture toxic faster than you not living your values as a leader. Walk the talk because how you act as a leader always trumps what you say. 

And boost your leadership visibility. Think about the boost you get when your boss walks into your office and just wants to see how you're doing. Boost leadership visibility. Purposely calendar your actions every day to make sure you're spending time out in front with your employees. 

And be inclusive. Be inclusive with decision making because nothing . . . When you have a decision that you weren't part of, that doesn't feel good. So when Southwest was coming up with their new uniforms, employees actually applied to be part of that process to help with those uniforms. 

And then another quick, it doesn't cost you anything, put storytelling front and center. And I've already talked to you about several stories and I hope you remember them and know that the stories you tell other people are going to remember as well. 

So that's it for our five lies that people try to tell us that we can't change culture. But let's stand up to those lies as leaders and make sure our teams are even healthier. I'm going to give you three last things that I'd like for you to consider doing. 

If you could get a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle, on one side put your values and your values might be integrity, grit, servant's heart, whatever your values might be and on the other side put stories. And start aligning the stories that you have seen throughout your career where people are true with living and matching backup to the values. And from this day forward, please be a collector of stories because it's what helps our employees understand the boundaries of their behavior by actions of others. So be a collector of stories. 

If you have an employee survey and most of you do, add this question to your employee survey. That's another thing I'd like you to consider doing. How would your employees describe their job at your company? Is it a job? Is it a stepping stone in their career? Or is it a calling? Have you as a leader truly helped to make your employees understand how their job can be a calling? And 71% of the employees at Southwest describe their job as a calling. 

And then the last thing if you really want to step it up on the culture building aspect, I'd love to send you something. So if you just snap a picture of that or text me at 345-345 unstoppable, I'll make sure you get a one page PDF of my top tips about culture building. And you'll get it before the end of the month then that'll be another boost for you with your leadership. 

So I have one final story and it's one that you may have heard before but I think it bears repeating. It was in the early days of NASA and President Kennedy was visiting Cape Canaveral. And he was on his tour of Cape Canaveral and encounters a man mopping the floor in one of the areas. And he asked the janitor, "Sir, what do you do here?" And the man held up his mop and he said, "Why Mr. President, I'm helping put a man on the moon." That is the answer you get and the belief you get when your teams are empowered by culture. 

So right now you have team members who want to help you with your version of putting a man on the moon. And maybe until today you thought it was somebody else's job to build culture, it's not. It's your job. So go create the kind of culture to where your healthy team is going to stand up beside you, hold up their mop and say, "Let's go put man on the moon." Thank you.
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Ginger Hardage

Ginger Hardage recently retired after 25 illustrious years as senior vice president of culture and communications at Southwest Airlines, where she led a team of 150 people responsible for building and sustaining the orga...

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