When I read this morning that the best airline in the U.S. (Southwest) had purchased one of the very worst (AirTran) I expected a raft of analysis considering how Southwest would maintain its corporate culture despite inheriting those rotten, dispirited AirTran employees. This was like a Brady Bunch number, but with the merging families being some Mormonic spot weld of the Huxtables, to the crew from Married with Children.
Granted, I'm a communication fruitcake who thinks culture first and business strategy second, but still, I thought it was odd that I couldn't find a mention of this obvious culture point in a half-dozen stories on the subject. It was all, market saturation this and compatible routes that.
A Google search for "Southwest Airtran corporate culture" yielded a post on a blog called CultureMap that asked the question of the hour, "Will AirTran completely ruin Southwest?"
But that's it!
How can the business press and the analysts they quote ignore the cultural angle when one of the most renowned cultures eats one of the most dysfunctional?
I do not understand it. And I'll bet you your A pass that Herb Kelleher doesn't, either.
As a friend of mine once said, "If I were dead, I'd be rolling in my grave right now."
Tom Keefe says
I worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago when it undertook a major “cultural transformation project” in the early 1990s, witnessed the schemes and machinations that became embedded in the merger of two consumer product companies during the late 19990s, and have heard many professional development sessions regarding change communications.
Questions I would ask include:
* How willing are AirTran employees (including management) to accept the SA culture?
* How capable are they to actually change their behavior? Not everyone has what it takes to work at SA.
* How willing is SA management to separate the wheat from the chaff?
The best result will be for a portion of AirTran employees to assimulate into the SA culture, with SA jettisoning the staff that isn’t a fit.
One bad possible result is that customers sufer from a hybrid exerience that dilutes the SA experience and introduces negative AirTran influences.
David Murray says
Exactly, Tom. Your questions are all right on, and could only be improved by adding the word “Exactly” to the beginning of each one.
And the more you know about Southwest, and how it goes about hiring and “on boarding” new employees, the more skeptical, I’m afraid, this makes you.
I hope (desperately, actually) that they prove me wrong. They have before.
What I’ve found with mergers is that when new people come onboard who are unwilling or unable to fit into the new culture, they usually find jobs elsewhere. I hope that’s what happens here…either get with the program, or find one that fits you better.
James Green says
I have faith in Herb. I don’t usually feel that way about CEOs, but this guy is special.
David Murray says
I do too, Jim, but he’s no longer CEO and has been chairman emeritus for a couple years now. Other good people are in charge … but HOW GOOD?
Well, I find this a curious article, takes me back to all the Ragan conferences trumpeting the SWA culture and all that.
There are 2 big issues regarding corporate culture that make it hard to be relevant.
1. You have to find some kind of a way to value it. And you know what I mean when I say “value”.
2. You have to get other people to buy into that valuation, or be able to juxtapose their own valuation of that culture.
#2 is the ballgame, because it boils down to putting a dollar amount on what makes SWA extra special compared to some other behemoth corporation.
I don’t see why such a valuation should even be pursued, given the actual nature of our “capitalistic” system; but I readily admit to cynicism.
David Murray says
Bohdan, you’re maybe edging toward an important point, though I’m not sure you quite make it.
Answer this question for me. Do you believe Southwest’s culture has–through customer loyalty, through employee productivity, through brand recognition that their culture provides–do you believe it has contributed significantly to its sustainable position as the top U.S. carrier?
I know Southwest management believes that. I know I believe it. And I think lots of the company’s investors believe it.
You pull a move like this, and you make investors nervous. There’s no putting a dollar value on investors who believe; and Southwest can’t afford investors who don’t.
Am I making too much of the importance of Southwest’s culture? Maybe, and maybe not.
We’re about to find out.
Laura Hunter says
I’d be far less concerned about the answers to Tom’s questions if Colleen Barrett were still CEO. She came up through the ranks via HR, whereas Gary Kelly is all finance – and as we know – those two organizations “value” employees differently. Gary has been with the company since ’86, so it’s not as though he didn’t know Herb and hasn’t had his share of the kool-aid, but Colleen was a people first kind of leader in a way that Gary is reportedly not.
I think the reason Southwest has become so dominant is because of price, price, and price. You can throw the corporate culture into the long list of intangibles that make or break a company, but that elusive valuation remains so.
Personally, I find it curious why certain elements of corporate life remain unmeasurable. So many highly complex areas of the daily operations of a company have become measurable, why can’t someone quantify at least some of the elements of a corporate culture?