Ted’s Song

Southwest Airlines has been in business since 1967 and has recorded 43 consecutive years of profitability. The company flies 707 Boeing 737 aircraft with 278 more on order. Southwest pioneered low-cost air travel and has grown to be one of the largest airlines in the world. United Airlines launched Ted, its low-cost brand in 2004 with 56 Airbus 320 aircraft. It folded operations in 2008. Delta Airlines launched Song, its low-cost brand in 2003 with 47 Boeing 757 aircraft. It folded operations in 2006.

How is it that two enormous legacy air carriers failed to challenge Southwest with similar low-cost service? Just like Southwest, they flew point-to-point routes. They used a single type of aircraft, just like Southwest. And they charged low fares, just like Southwest. What’s more, they had massive financial backing from well-established parent companies. All three companies were playing a commodity game. So why did Southwest win the game?

There was one aspect that neither Ted nor Song could replicate. Southwest had developed a unique culture that was friendly, whimsical and borderline radical at times. Customers were attracted to this culture. Southwest passengers enjoyed corny songs sung by flight attendants and the overall attitude of the Southwest team. Ted and Song were simply offshoots of United and Delta and reflected their respective cultures. It’s true that there are other low-cost airlines that are profitable today, but they haven’t made serious inroads into Southwest’s market share or customer base.

What’s fascinating about all of this is how a Winning Culture can be so elusive. I’ve said many times that I’m not particularly concerned about sharing my playbook with my competitors. It’s not the design of the plays that necessarily wins the game. It’s how well those plays are executed that makes the difference. There are a multitude of sports metaphors in this respect. Think of all the professional football teams that are stocked with amazing athletes possessing world-class talent. And every single team has a playbook full of intricately designed plays for the offense and the defense. Yet, a dropped pass here and a missed block there can be the difference in whether a team wins the Super Bowl or watches it at home on TV.

What exactly is a Winning Culture? As entrepreneurs, it is something we may not think much about, but it can be the difference between success and failure. Far too often, entrepreneurs may not pay enough attention to creating and nurturing a Winning Culture, opting instead to focus more exclusively on operations and metrics. Southwest infuses the following into every employee it hires:

  • A warrior spirit
  • A servant’s heart
  • A fun-luving attitude (Southwest’s stock ticker symbol is LUV)

At Southwest, the warrior spirit is “being fearless in terms of delivering the product,” according to Ginger Hardage, the now-retired chief communications officer. The servant’s heart is based upon the Golden Rule and the need to treat everyone with respect. It’s pretty obvious what the “fun-luving attitude” is all about. Southwest looks to hire people who don’t take themselves too seriously and always have a smile on their face. There’s no question that Southwest pays a great deal of attention to operations and metrics, but its cultural foundation is rooted in these three values.

When a company stops winning and starts losing, the first place to look is to see if it has strayed from its Winning Culture. If the culture’s not right, the operations may be off kilter and the metrics will look bad. I believe that we must fix the culture first and then make the technical adjustments from there. And one more cogent point needs to be made. A Winning Culture is different than just plain culture. An organization may have a culture that has been intentionally cultivated, but doesn’t necessarily lead to winning. To win, we must be extraordinarily positive about it. Our entire team must be convinced that we are going to win and they must completely embrace the notion.

A Winning Culture is not replicable. It is unique to each company or organization and must be developed organically. It enables us to execute our playbook effectively in ways that our competition can’t.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 31 – Balls in the Air.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.



Question: Sometimes I get so angry with people that I want to tell them exactly how I feel about them. Don’t you think that such honesty is always the best policy?

Answer: Well, yes and no. We have to evaluate how the other person will react to our “honesty” and we also need to understand whether we are really being constructive with our comments or simply seeking the satisfaction of telling someone off.

There have been many times over my career that I’ve felt wronged by someone and wanted to lambaste them for what they did. I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve written to such people; put them in the drawer; “slept on it,” and then never mailed the letters (or hit the Send button for an e-mail). I guess writing the letters and e-mails was therapeutic but a little voice kept telling me not to follow-through and send them.

Recently a former investor of ours was in my office visiting from another city. Toward the end of our relationship with his firm things became a bit strained. We had gone above and beyond our contractual obligations with his company and yet there was no “give” on his part. However, we went out of our way to keep things businesslike and cordial. He commented during his recent meeting with me that he respected the way we handled the situation. He pointed out that he was in our office talking to us about doing another deal with his firm because we did not burn bridges with him.

Reacting emotionally and burning bridges may feel good at the time. But in the long run it costs us relationships, friendships and money. I still get irritated with people that don’t adhere to my business principles and values. However, I’ve come to realize that making the choice to protect the relationship is much more important and I quickly moderate my emotions. Sure it’s hard to smile and keep an even tone – but we never know when that person who has caused the irritation may become our best client or even our best friend.

I’ve said for years that one of my objectives as an entrepreneur is to collect and serve as many relationships as I possibly can over the course of my career. A lot of time and effort is invested in doing this – so why would I want to throw this all away by burning a bridge with one of these relationships? Perhaps when a bridge becomes shaky or weak, the best course of action is to work to strengthen it rather than burning it.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.