My (business) hero

Lukasz and I had a wandering conversation as we were both working way too late Saturday night. As we talked about business goals, it intertwined with personal goals and he asked who my hero was. I said Herb Kelleher… clarifying a bit “on the business side”. My parents and grandmothers are heroes to me on the whole person side. And, many more people who have inspired me, I would add to my hero list, but before I make this a list of truly awesome people (note to self… another post idea), let me get to Herb.

In case you don’t know him, Herb is the founder of Southwest Airlines, which is the largest US carrier in terms of total system passengers, particularly remarkable considering the other major carriers have international operations included. What I find amazing is how he built the top performing business in one of the most established, heavily unionized businesses around with the industry fighting him at every step… and kept a sense a humor through it all. Now, I love Ben & Jerry’s — having a tremendous respect for what they did and how they ran their business — but they were selling premium ice cream, a nascent industry at the time they started. Southwest has the same feeling and spirit that Ben & Jerry’s did, and Southwest is an AIRLINE… stodgy, old, grumpy, set in their ways, competitive, etc.

How did Herb do it? In my opinion it actually boils down to one thing… not one simple thing, but one thing. I’ll use Herb’s own words to explain it:

I keep telling them that the intangibles are far more important than the tangibles in the competitive world because, obviously, you can replicate the tangibles. You can get the same airplane. You can get the same ticket counters. You can get the same computers. But the hardest thing for a competitor to match is your culture and the spirit of your people and their focus on customer service because that isn’t something you can do overnight and it isn’t something you can do without a great deal of attention every day in a thousand different ways.

I’ve bolded what I think is the crux of this statement. This is what I aspire to do:

  • Separate the tangible from the intangible (harder than it sounds)
  • Focus on people and customer service
  • Inspire them in accomplishing their job every day

On my shirt today:

I work for you

Reminding me that as a leader, I work for my employees, customers and stakeholders… one of whom I’m likely standing with during every minute of my work day.

Related books I recommend:

10 thoughts on “My (business) hero

  1. JeffMcL says:

    Ahh – how to tackle the intangibles is a wonderful mind exercise. All too often we get caught up in how to improve, increase, reduce, expand, change, [pick your overused corporate action verb here] what we can see and touch without paying enough attention to what can actually bring that needed leap — perception. What we have is very little compared to what others perceive we have. When relatively all things are equal, it is that difference that helps to determine the winner or leader. Of course, that is also one of the toughest sustainable competitive advantages.

  2. Jana says:

    You know, I remind myself regularly that perception is reality, and try to imagine what the perception of others is. So hard. I hadn’t thought about this in relation to the in/tangibles, but you are right, the tangibles are much harder to have a whacked perception on. Thanks for linking those together for me. It will help explain why it is critical to focus on the intangibles.

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