What Southwest and Home Depot Taught Me About Company Culture

How to Build Company Culture

My favorite domestic airline is Southwest. To someone who obsesses about efficiency it just all makes sense. I appreciate their boarding system. I like the unassigned seating. They even take drink orders in the most effective manner.

Plus, as an entrepreneur, I respect Southwest’s Cinderella start-up story and company culture. When you dive even deeper into the latter, it only gets better—and more instructive to all entrepreneurs, managers, and leaders about how to build a great team.

For 30 years, Tonda Ferguson has been shaping Southwest Airlines culture.

While many flyers don’t see her work firsthand, we’re the ones who benefit the most from her efforts to help Southwest stand out in a sea of competitors.

As almost every traveler knows, the airline industry’s customer service reputation is woeful. In the wake of some awful mistakes (*ahem* United), every airline has had to rethink their approach to customer satisfaction. In the past, perks like free cocktails and preferred seating mattered, but today passengers are primarily concerned with two things: low fares and being treated equitably.

Southwest’s prices are certainly competitive, but under Ferguson’s guidance, the company stands out in customer service—and that stems from great company culture. She realized that treating people properly applies to employees as well as customers, and bet that if employees were equitably treated (and highly valued), then customer service would naturally improve.

In an effort to improve company culture, then, Ferguson directed Southwest’s large-scale revamp of its employee recognition program. Instead of a huge discrepancy between departments—where some employees got free lunches and others got free cars—Ferguson brought it all together.

Now, all Southwest employees are rewarded the same way—with shopping points, free airline tickets, and cash kudos. They even imagined a new way to present these rewards, surprising employees with balloons and fanfare.

“Employees really love the program,” Tonda says. “It shows how you can take company goals and turn them into an employee recognition effort.”

This kind of recognition has inspired me.

I know how important it is to communicate goals clearly as a leader in my company. And yes, sometimes I need to have difficult conversations and dig deep into serious company pain points.

But company communication always comes back to two things: the MISSION we have created to improve the lives our customers, and the important role each one of my employees plays in that mission.

I have found that when a mission is clearly defined, then employees can rally around it. When that kind of solidarity exists, it becomes easier to encourage one another and lift up big team victories.

But we were missing next-level recognition —especially in our company-wide, weekly Monday meetings.

In the past, our meeting structure looked like this:

a) Personal Victories—Team members share something BIG they accomplished or something good that happened to them in last week.

b) Last Week’s Work Update—They share everything they finished from last week’s to-do list, and where they struggled and might need help.

c) This Week’s Plan—They share the big tasks on their to-do lists and mention where they will need help, while other teammates take the opportunity to volunteer assistance.

d) Group Discussion—The team talks about new projects, team get-togethers, tech issues, etc.

e) Rate the Meeting—Everyone gives the meeting a letter grade, based on the quality and content of the agenda items.

The average rating for these meetings was an “A.” Good, right? But still, it missed out on being an “A+” because it lacked team member recognition.

Recently, however, I read about a Tim Ferriss podcast where he interviewed Frank Blake, the former CEO of Home Depot. Frank shared lots of insight, but this is what gave me pause:

“You get what you celebrate.”

This encapsulates much of what Frank did at Home Depot during his tenure at the top. Every Sunday, he would take hours to write thank-you notes to store associates, personalized with the details of why their customer service was top-notch.

He learned the technique from his time working under former Vice-President George H.W. Bush, who would spend his early mornings in the office typing out thank-you letters to staff members.

“If you got one of those notes from the VP, you were walking on water,” Blake said.

No surprise that the same was true of his Home Depot employees. And he took it even further—creating videos celebrating associates that he would play in every break room in every store.

“You can write a memo and think it gets down through the organization, but it doesn’t,” Blake explained. “It’s when you pull people out and recognize them, telling their story, that they really feel celebrated. Other people see it and they want that, and it builds on itself.”

This inspired me. I realized if we celebrated what we love about our teammates every Monday meeting, we would get more of that behavior.

Now, each meeting starts with a new feature called “Celebrations.”

Everyone on the team highlights at least one team member—often more—for something they love about them or appreciated them doing the previous week.

My celebrations last week went like this: “I want to celebrate Bianca because she was super-organized on the updates to CraigBallantyne.com, and I want to celebrate Jeff for going above and beyond and coming up with the idea to write several kick-butt promo emails for the Perfect Day Formula kit and Perfect Life Retreat.”

This kind of celebration increases the energy and connectivity in the room. It kicks things off with incredibly positivity, and gets everyone smiling no matter how they felt coming into the meeting.

It also reminds us about how much we care about one another. It has brought us all closer together—even if there happen to be some tensions about a project or two.

Even better, this kind of celebration bring us back to the mission of ETR—to improve the lives of each of our readers and clients. It pushes all of us to work harder toward that goal, encouraging bigger swings and more innovative solutions. 

Guess what the average ranking of our new meetings is?

Yep, an “A+.”

Everyone continues to rave about the celebration aspect, and our team members can’t wait until next week’s meeting to celebrate something about their teammates.

This has been a game-changer for us, and will be a game-changer for your own team unity and leadership.

Craig Ballantyne

If you want to double your income, work less, and become the ambitious millionaire you've always wanted to be... Craig Ballantyne is the coach who will help you do it. With more than 20-years of experience as an entrepreneur and five 7-figure businesses under his belt, he specializes in helping "struckling" entrepreneurs get out of the mud and build the business of their dreams. To see if you qualify for Craig's "Millionaire Coaching Program" send an email to support@earlytorise.com with the subject line "Millionaire".