An interview with Megan Lee, Southwest Director of Culture & Employee Engagement
Whether you work in a newly emerging startup or a large international organization, we all know that work can feel stressful and serious at times. It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day hustle of metrics and deadlines, and lose sight of the fun, vibrancy and personality that makes up a company’s culture. One organization that goes to great lengths to preserve and nurture its Culture and celebrate the individuality of its People is Southwest Airlines, and I’m thrilled to give you a glimpse into the in’s and out’s of their Culture initiatives in this month’s newsletter.
As the former SVP of Culture & Communications at Southwest Airlines, the organization holds a very special place in my heart, and I have experienced first-hand the intentionality that leads the way every single day. I’m honored to have had the privilege of sitting down with Megan Lee, Southwest Director of Culture & Employee Engagement, to hear how she fosters Culture day in and day out through a People-first mindset. I hope you benefit from the conversation and learn from Megan’s insights as much as I did!
Can you give us an overview of what you do at Southwest Airlines? As the Director of Culture & Employee Engagement, my Team strives to create an environment where our Employees feel heard, recognized, celebrated, and supported through every step of their experience at Southwest. Focusing on the Employee Experience is how we drive engagement to help reinforce our Legendary Culture. Through Culture-centered programs, events and experiences, and robust storytelling, we keep the Culture alive and healthy by making consistent and intentional investments focused on engaging all Southwest Employees.
Southwest is known for prioritizing Culture in countless ways, from the Employee Experience to stand-out Customer Service and everything in between – Can you give us some practical examples of how Southwest maintains an Unstoppable Culture? In a nutshell, we embed our Values from day one of employment. Our Onboarding experience is grounded in the concept of Living and Working the Southwest Way, and we do our best to ensure that all New Hires feel welcome from the moment they join our Company. We even roll out the red carpet on their first day, quite literally (which is a little overwhelming but clearly fun from all the feedback we get)! Most importantly, we expect our Leaders to model the tenets of our Culture in everything they do. And if these things are done well, we achieve the “buy in” that our Chairman Emeritus, the late Herb Kelleher spoke about so often. He and President Emeritus Colleen Barrett wanted to create a work environment that intertwined so closely with the lives of our Employees that they identified the Company’s success as integral to their own. From operating on time to sharing workloads to showing up and supporting all the moments that matter in an Employee’s life, making sure Employees feel seen as People is a crucial cornerstone in Southwest Culture.
How has Southwest’s Culture impacted you personally? I’ve been so blessed to work with and learn from so many amazing Leaders, especially women like Colleen, who modeled the Southwest Way. I’ve grown professionally because my Leaders created an environment where I could try new things and learn from mistakes. There has been plenty of tough feedback along the way, but it was always delivered in a way that preserved my dignity and humanity. I believe being able to take risks and develop confidence in your own Leadership skills is one of the greatest career gifts one can be given.
Southwest provides Culture and Customer Service resources and educational opportunities to other organizations through the Colleen C. Barrett Institute, can you tell me more about that? The Colleen C. Barrett Institute is our way of preserving our President Emeritus Colleen’s remarkable legacy at Southwest and her personal impact on the corporate world. Colleen is the original architect of the Southwest Culture, though she would laugh at that description, since it wasn’t prescribed or planned–it just sort of happened as a result of how she and Herb approached the entire concept of employment. Simple edicts like The Golden Rule (“Treat others how you wish to be treated”) or “don’t make the easy hard” or “focus on People more than policy” really shaped the foundation of Leadership at Southwest. They believed that taking care of our People would naturally translate to our People taking excellent care of everyone else—and they were right. With the Institute, we’ve taken those principles and incorporated them into a beautiful display of Colleen’s life combined with offering tips, guidance, and learning events for any business or organization to practically apply the same concepts. Like Colleen herself, our approach has always been grounded in common sense with a People-first focus and, really, is something any organization could replicate.
In just a few months, we’ll be meeting together with Southwest executives and leaders from countless other companies for Southwest Culture Connection. Tell me a little bit about what people can expect from attending? Culture Connection is a wonderful meshing of the CCB Institute and all things current-day Southwest Airlines. We’ve tapped our Leaders from Employee Experience, Training, Talent Acquisition, and many other departments to have up close, practical conversations with the audience about what works for us and what hasn’t. You might say it’s a peek behind the curtain and a chance for businesses and organizations to challenge their own ways of working. We also include an Employee panel for frank, frontline views on what it’s like to work in an acute public-facing environment. And of course, it wouldn’t be Southwest if we didn’t make the day a lot of fun!
What are some seemingly small things you do each and every day to build an unstoppable culture at Southwest? I would say simply, “listen.” As a Leader, be intentional and disciplined to listen to your Employees more than you speak, especially in conversations they initiate. Do not talk over them. Make sure they know you “see” and “hear” them. An unexpected handwritten note is very special, but so is a well-timed email or Teams message. You never know what struggles someone may be having, so your presence may be more impactful than you even realize.
As a leader of people, what words of wisdom feel most essential to pass on to other leaders who are working to build culture? Make sure everyone knows it’s ok to have fun. At Southwest we definitely take our work—and our competition–-seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We have parties. We celebrate Halloween. Actually, we celebrate almost everything—birthdays, anniversaries, babies, and everything in between. Work gives us plenty of stress and reasons to be serious. As a Leader, I believe it’s even more important for your Team to see you having fun, so they know it’s ok to relax and “let loose” too. Our Customers love it when our Employees show their amazing, sparkly, funny personalities, and our Employees love it when they just get to be themselves.
You have attended The Fellowship in recent years. What is the number one thing you gained by attending? What did you walk away with that you were able to implement immediately? First, I really enjoyed the breadth of companies in the room and how companies of all sizes and industries are really focused on making Culture a priority. The business value of a strong Culture has been proven, and it’s refreshing to see so many young companies focused on building a strong foundation of Culture from the beginning. I enjoyed the networking and the new ideas sparked all around the room for me. Personally, I also really benefited from the opportunity to take a step back and revisit the roadmap we’ve created for our Culture evolution at Southwest. Even mature, robust Cultures like ours need intentional effort, resources, and focus to continue to grow and evolve.
I’m so grateful for my time with Megan and am so impressed with how Southwest Airlines has committed itself to an Unstoppable Culture for the past 50+ years, and continues to nurture it daily. I love what she said about Southwest’s founding ideas, “They believed that taking care of our People would naturally translate to our People taking excellent care of everyone else—and they were right.” What a beautiful reminder that is for all of us! If we want our culture and our customers to be healthy, we have to start by taking care of our own People through a People-First mindset.
I’m thrilled to see how Southwest cares for its Employees, and I can’t wait for them to share more real-world insights with you at Culture Connection this October. I hope you enjoyed our conversation, and I hope you’ll join us in Dallas this fall to learn more!
P.S. If you haven’t heard of Culture Connection, it is a one-day event that provides a rare opportunity to experience one of the world’s most admired, successful, and enduring organizational Cultures—up close! This limited-seating event will connect you with an array of other Culture-driven professionals for an interactive day of learning and engagement with current and former Southwest Airlines’ Leaders.
For complete information on this unique educational experience, please see Event Details.