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The Male CEO in the Pink Dress

Yes, that's Southwest's CEO Gary Kelly on Halloween. That he would do that tells us a lot about Southwest's corporate culture—and why it's successful

Posted on Game Changer: February 13, 2008 10:33 AM

Today's New York Times has a great article on the fun-loving culture and bizarre workplace rituals at Southwest Airlines. I know, I know—we've read this same sort of piece countless times before. Chairman Herb Kelleher loves to smoke cigarettes and drink Wild Turkey! Everyone (from front-line employees to CEO Gary Kelly) dresses up in crazy costumes for Halloween! And don't forget the corporate-wide chili cook-off every April…

Still, although the content of the article is familiar to anyone who knows even a little bit about Southwest, the context of its appearance is worth noting. The airline business, which just about everyone would agree is the worst business in the history of business, is in another depressing period of rising costs, a slowing economy, and general strategic turbulence. Yet Southwest, which has its fair share of business challenges, still manages to avoid the worst bumps of the "legacy" carriers. And a big reason for that, Times writer Jeff Bailey notes, is the company's committed, energized, and (gasp!) happy workforce.

Talk about a maverick formula for success: Southwest is in the amazing position that it pays some of the highest wages in the industry (since, unlike every other big airline, it has never been in bankruptcy and thus has not won union concessions), charges the lowest fares in the industry—and generates the best financial results in the industry!

High wages. Low prices. Big profits. Those three elements of business don't usually go together. But they do at Southwest, because its high-productivity workers can achieve levels of performance and customer loyalty that the demoralized, us-versus-them cultures at Delta and United can't begin to imagine.

Why, The New York Times wonders, is CEO Gary Kelly willing to report to work on Halloween dressed as Edna Turnblad from the Broadway musical Hairspray, complete with size-14 high heels and a pink dress? Because, writer Jeff Bailey answers, "It suggests to workers that Mr. Kelly is a little crazy, not just another suit, and perhaps the kind of person others might want to follow into battle."

That's the real power of corporate culture: When you're distinctive in the workplace, it allows you to be disruptive in the marketplace. There is an iron-clad connection between how your organization competes and why and how your people collaborate. So the next time someone dismisses corporate culture as fuzzy, or soft, or not "real" business, point them to Southwest Airlines, which continues to thrive in the worst business in the history of business.

And suggest that they report to work the next day in high heels and a pink dress.

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