An Interview with VIBE Keynote Speaker Howard Putnam

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Attendees of the 2016 VIBE Conference will have the opportunity to hear an inspiring story of vision, innovation and leadership. Howard Putnam, the former CEO of Southwest, will deliver his keynote speech, entitled “Innovation: Some Play the Game, Others Change the Way the Game is Played,” on Tuesday, January 19. We spoke with Mr. Putnam and asked him a few questions about developing a successful corporate culture. To hear his amazing success story and gain invaluable leadership insight, make certain to register for the VIBE Conference now!

How did you come to the decision to develop the culture for which Southwest is known?

When I arrived, I was amazed at how happy employees and customers were. We had the People department interview a group of the original employees and learned that the uniform attracted flight attendants (all female at that time) with great attitudes who loved people and were team players.  I will explain in my presentation - it is a great story.

Without revealing too much, what bits of advice do you have for VIBE Conference attendees in regards to developing a corporate culture?

There are three key elements: 

  1. We wrote a succinct, brief vision shortly after I arrived (a flight plan) that spelled out in simple terms what Southwest was and what it wasn’t. They are still using 80% of that vision in 2015 (over 30 years later), according to Jim Collins in his book, Great By Choice.
  2. Understand what business you are really in. We figured out we were not an airline. We were in mass transportation, a totally different business.
  3. Now, develop a corporate culture that supports your vision and business. The mantra over the door was, “Hire attitudes and teach them skills.” That is still the mantra today for all employees they hire and they have over 48,000 today.

Southwest Airlines has been profitable every year for 30 years. Do you attribute this overwhelming success story to the corporate culture you helped to create?

Actually, Southwest has now been profitable over 40 years. Yes, the culture is a defining factor and extremely important. The vision calls for low costs, low fares, high productivity and “excellent customer service” with few frills. Keep it simple and fun. We put our employees first, then the customer. The shareholders will benefit and profit if we take care of the employees and customers first.

You’re the first airline CEO to guide a major carrier into, through and out of a bankruptcy. How important was corporate culture to the successful navigation of a challenging financial crisis?

Braniff International recruited me to leave Southwest and come restructure the financially failing carrier, with over 10,000 employees and a billion in revenue. They had over expanded after airline deregulation and the CEO’s big ego would not allow course corrections before it was too late. The culture had been destroyed through a lack of trust in management and poor strategic decisions. We had to rebuild that trust to start the restructuring process. Again, the culture was a defining ingredient in the that process.

What advice do you have for VIBE Conference attendees for handling crises, financial or otherwise?

Be totally honest with all your stakeholders, regardless of what it means to you personally. Integrity is key. We ended up taking Braniff through Chapter 11 successfully and got it flying again without a single lawsuit ever being filed against the board of directors or a member of management. That had never been done before or since.


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