Ginger Hardage: Unstoppable Cultures (Ep.#1)

Published on
August 30, 2019
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Building Better Managers Podcast Episode #1: Unstoppable Cultures

Manager training doesn't stick automatically! In this episode, BetterManager co-founder Wendy Hanson talks with Unstoppable Cultures founder Ginger Hardage about how to create best-in-class work cultures. A culture that supports and inspires your managers while reinforcing company values is a huge key to greater productivity, reduced turnover and an amazing customer experience.

In this episode, they discuss:

The Elements of Unstoppable Cultures

  • Putting people first
  • Hire tough to manage easy
  • Onboarding/Training/Coaching
  • The power of sharing stories relentlessly

Examples of powerful stories from Southwest Airlines

Infusing cultures with optimism

Management by Walking Around

The importance of the commitment to culture

  • The CEO
  • Managers
  • Scaling

How to have a ridiculously low retention late

How culture drives your bottom line

The right way to use surveys to improve customer experience

People deserve to love their work

Downloads & Resources

Download Ginger's eBook 5 Lies About Corporate Culture here!

Subscribe to our podcast on your favorite podcast platform.

Check out our blog articles on Culture here.

About Ginger Hardage

Ginger Hardage recently retired as Senior Vice President of Culture and Communications at Southwest Airlines after an illustrious 25 years, where she served as a member of the CEO's executive leadership team.  At Southwest (the nation’s largest airline), Ginger led a team of 150 people responsible for building and sustaining the organization's legendary culture and communications enterprise.

Recognized by many as a foremost global authority on building and sustaining organizational culture, Ginger was responsible for the activities that nourished the culture and the internal and external communications function. At Southwest, Ginger was a tireless ambassador of the world-famous Southwest Culture, leading to honors like 23 consecutive years on FORTUNE’s “Top 10 Most Admired Companies in the World” list.

View the episode transcript

WENDY HANSON: Greetings, I'm Wendy Hanson and I want to welcome you to Building Better Managers, a podcast of better manager. We talked to top leadership professionals about strategies you can use today to create a happier, highly engaged and more productive workplace. I am so excited today to have Ginger Hardage on the line with me, former senior VP of Southwest Airlines, Culture and Communications. I've always been a big fan of Southwest Airlines myself, and now I am a very big fan of ginger, let me tell you a little bit about her. Ginger Hardage recently retired, if you would call it that, you'll see why it's not really retired, after an illustrious 25 years, where she served as a member of the CEO's executive leadership team.

Wendy Hanson: At Southwest Ginger led a team of 150 people responsible for building and sustaining the organization's legendary culture and communications enterprise. In 2017, Ginger launched Unstoppable Cultures, a brand designed to help organizations create and sustain cultures of enduring greatness. She helped champion the values, purpose, best places to work, and so many other things at the nation's largest airline. So welcome Ginger, I'm delighted to have you on the show.

GINGER HARDAGE: Wendy, thank you. I'm delighted to be with you and your audience as well. Thank you.

Wendy Hanson: Well, I love that you may have retired from Southwest, but you took a lot of those learnings and you're bringing it and sharing it with the world so we can all try to create unstoppable cultures. So let's start there, give us a baseline about what are three traits of an unstoppable culture in a company, Ginger?

Ginger Hardage: Certainly, well in unstoppable cultures, there are many things that can make up a culture and I don't think that one size fits all. I certainly don't think that at all, but I think they have certain things in common. Unstoppable cultures put people first and by that they spend the time to bring the right people into their organization that fit the values of their organization. Conversely, if they make a bad hire and they realize that that person isn't a good fit for the organization, they don't waste their time or that person's time. Of course they do the necessary coaching, but if it becomes obvious that it's not going to work out, it's better to let them use their talents at another organization. But, definitely a top tier organizations put people first and I kind of call that hire tough, you can manage easy.

Ginger Hardage: There was actually a book written by a man named Mel Kleiman and that's the title of his book. I love it as a hiring philosophy because if you really do spend the necessary time to bring the people into your organization, your retention rates are going to soar. The second thing is constantly nourish your culture, so it's putting the system in place that will perpetuate that culture. So our cultures start in the very beginning before we even hire people, they start with whatever system we have out there showing in our recruiting areas, what we're looking for in employees. How are we recruiting them? How are we hiring them? Onboarding them? Training them? All the way through performance management. So what are all the steps that we have as organizations that we can put in place to constantly nourish our cultures? Then best in class organizations share stories relentlessly because they realize that stories show employees the limitless boundaries that they possess in delivering to their customers or to their peers inside the company.

Ginger Hardage: Yes. Well I definitely want to come back to stories because I know that that's something that you really speak so highly of and that we need to do more of in organizations. But, I have a question about onboarding because I've heard some fabulous things about what happens at Southwest when someone joins the organization for the first time in terms of a story and I think we all need to learn. I have heard, and I want to see if you would agree with this, that really some of the most important times that a person is in an organization is the first day they're there and I've also heard the last day that they're there. The middle is really important too, but how we come in and how we leave are important pieces.

Ginger Hardage: I couldn't agree more. I think when we first join an organization, we're very aware of how different it might have been from where we were before. So as [inaudible 00: 05: 11] just tell a quick story that you brought to mind when I first joined Southwest. I had been at my previous job for 10 years and I just joined Southwest and we had a sudden ice storm. Southwest is based in Dallas and every once in a while we get a sudden ice storm. It's not a lovely snow storm, it's an ice storm. I went out to my car and I didn't have an ice scraper. I saw someone over there, a ways away using one. I said, "Can I borrow it?" And she waved at me and she said, "I'll be right over". So this woman I had never met, came over and helped me scrape the ice off my car.

Ginger Hardage: I didn't ask her to do that, but she insisted. So that always sticks out in my mind as an example, when I knew I had landed on a different planet. I knew I was at a different place. So that was just serendipitous that I encountered that fabulous employee. But, we can also be very intentional about how we do that in our onboarding. One of the things Southwest does is bring every new hire employee to the headquarters. So they have the same experience as someone in Sacramento, as someone in Tampa, Florida, they're both getting that same wonderful experience. One of the things that happens when they get off the bus that morning, they've been at their hotel, they've been bused to the headquarters, they get off and it's a red carpet entry where all of the leaders in our university are standing there cheering them on at the Southwest university. So that's an example of just the celebration and the recognition that you have landed in a wonderful place. How great if all companies could be that excited for their new hires?

Wendy Hanson: Oh yes, wow. I often think about what's the dinner table conversation that night when people go home? Like, "I have just landed in the place where I was meant to be", and that kind of-

Ginger Hardage: Yes. We hope so.

Wendy Hanson: Is viewed that way. Yes. Well, on your website, Unstoppable Cultures, I love your manifesto that you put on there in terms of all your beliefs. I really loved, "Infusing environments with optimism", that was like, "We believe infusing environments with optimism". What are some ways that we can do that in companies? Because these stories already that you've told are all about how we make people feel.

Ginger Hardage: Well, absolutely. So I believe that culture is contagious and it can be contagious in a great way with some of the companies that all of us like to follow, whether it be that Disney or Zappos or whatever company we are studying their particular culture. But, culture can also be contagious in a bad way. If any of us have ever watched the office and Michael Scott and Dunder Mifflin, it can be contagious in a bad way. So organizations that want to make a difference in their culture, optimism starts at the top because as you know, and as your listeners know, the speed of the team is rarely faster or better than the leader. So as the leader, we set the tone for our team and we set the example of what the culture is going to be like for our organization.

Ginger Hardage: So I strongly believe in management by walking around. I certainly didn't invent that phrase, but I believe it, and how important visibility is within the organization. Just think about it, think back to your 20s when you were a relatively new employee and your leader took an interest in you, took an interest in what you were doing, took an interest in your career. As leaders, that is something that we can make a difference in people's lives every day by actively taking an interest in them and being visible in your organizations.

Wendy Hanson: Yes and oftentimes people say, "Well, I'm so busy". But, you give some great examples of the founder of Southwest Airlines and first CEO, Herb Kelleher, and the current CEO, Gary Kelly. Like, things that they do to make sure that people know at the top what's really important. Can you share some of those stories with us?

Ginger Hardage: Well, certainly. Southwest was lucky to be founded by a great man like Herb Kelleher. Herb passed away earlier this year and even though he wasn't involved in the day to day operations of the company anymore, he was such an inspirational leader for everyone. Also alongside him was a woman named Colleen Barrett. Colleen really helped Herb in those early years, for many years, they both were active in the organization for a long time and setting the tone for the culture of the company. It was also followed up by Gary Kelly, the CEO of Southwest Airlines, Gary became CEO in 2004. So here's a trick that I'd like to pass along, here's something that so smart that Gary does, he records a message every week to employees. He might talk about what happened the week prior, what is going to happen in the week ahead, but in every one of those messages was a shout out about something extraordinary that an employee has done. Something that an employee has done for a customer or something that an employee has done to help out a peer.

Ginger Hardage: But, think about the commitment to the culture from a CEO who has recorded a weekly message from 2004 and is still doing it today. So that really says day in and day out that I believe in my people and supporting my people. This is important, communicating to you, keeping your informed is important. So I think that sends such a strong message. So how we might do it as a leader of a department, you can start telling those stories and giving those shout outs, giving that recognition at meetings, through your emails. But, just remember the importance of being visible and continuing to find your own particular ways to perpetuate the culture in your organization.

Wendy Hanson: Yes. Oh, that is such a brilliant idea because so many companies now have remote workforces is all over the world. When people are working at home alone or they're in a remote location, it's so important to keep them connected to the mission and the culture and what we believe in. Yeah, because how we treat our people is [inaudible 00: 12: 28] their customers.

Ginger Hardage: Yes. Southwest now has 65 thousand people and often people say, "How do we do it when my company gets to five thousand? How do we do it when we get to 10 thousand?" We can take that page from a company like Southwest and know that you can continue to nurture your culture regardless of the size of your organization. Just culture is everyone's job and it's going to take everyone pulling together to make that happen.

Wendy Hanson: Yes. One, one of the things, Ginger, that I was reading about was your unusually high retention rate at Southwest. You talked a little bit about the hiring piece. But, you only hire 2% of the people that apply to come and your retention rate, if I read it correctly, is 2% for voluntary turnover, is that correct?

Ginger Hardage: That's correct. It's kind of unbelievable, isn't it? But, that is correct. That is, again, it goes back to spending the time to bring the necessary people into the organization that truly do fit your values and going a step further. So Southwest actually uses people who are experts in their job. They're already doing their job to help in the hiring process. So for example, pilots apply to be part of the recruiting team because they want the best of the best to be part and sit in that seat next to them flying that aircraft. So pilots actually apply to be part of the recruiting team. Same thing with flight attendants, they apply. They're part of that recruiting team as a badge of honor and a badge of pride that you can help pick the next generation of employees.

Ginger Hardage: So if the managers who are listening to the show today aren't currently actively involving people at all of their levels of their organization to help bring the best of the best into the organization, they can start today. It's a great way to continue to perpetuate and bring the right kinds of people into the organization. So Southwest, that's right, 2% voluntary turnover. Another example of a company that does that incredible retention is Chick-fil-A. They have 97 ... said another way, 97% return factor. So only 3% of their employees, have a voluntary turnover. When you think about the industry, the casual dining category that Chick-fil-A feels, that is a phenomenon to have that high of a retention rate. So they're obviously doing a lot right.

Wendy Hanson: Yes. A few years ago I had not been in Chick-fil-A, only once or twice. I went in and I was so curious about what you're saying, that people love to work there. So there weren't many people there at Chick-fil-A at that moment. So the man who came to the counter to serve me, I asked him, "So how do you like your work here?" Well, I could not stop him. He went on and on, "I love it here". And, "Why do you love it here?" "I love the people here. I love what we get to do. I love how we get to connect". It so reminded me of the kind of culture that I always feel at Southwest when I get on a plane. Somebody might sing about how to put your seat belt on and how to put your mask on when it drops and bringing their own personality into work. I think that's what's so important and keeps us wanting to stay at our workplace. That we can bring ourselves and we can provide that happy workplace and an optimistic view of things. I think Southwest is just such a leader in that area that it teaches us all.

Ginger Hardage: Well, I agree. That's why I encourage leaders not to be too formulaic in how they allow employees to express their jobs, express their personality and carry out their duties. Because when we hired them, we saw something special in them. It might've been a sense of humor, it might've been that extra spark, it could been their empathy, their level of empathy. So our goal as leaders is to help them really grow that strength and not have to hide it, bring their whole selves to work. How they're able to serve our customers and use their full personality because that's what brings that full engagement and the enjoyment in our jobs.

Wendy Hanson: Yeah. Ginger there may be some people listening saying, "Well this is nice, this culture piece, you know, people being happy at work. But, tell us a little bit about what you know on how looking at a very positive culture impacts productivity in the workplace". Some bottom line people might be, "Yeah, tell me more".

Ginger Hardage: Yeah. So if somebody's listening and they, "Eh, culture's fluffy. I'm not going to have anything to do with this stuff". I'm talking about culture that can drive your bottom line. So for any of those, "Show me the numbers people", we've already talked a little bit about retention, that's a great example. Chick-fil-A, you might think about Trader Joe's. If you've ever gone into a Trader Joe's, and you can feel the culture of that organization there. But, it's no coincidence that they're also number one in their category in consumer preference. Then where I spent most of my career, Southwest Airlines, 46 consecutive years of profitability. So how as leaders, are we able to tie the culture and productivity into what we're doing every day?

Ginger Hardage: So here's an example at Southwest, every day, because of the volume of customers that Southwest carries, they can send out a survey to 10 thousand people a day. They're looking to understand how that customer's experience on the flight went. One of the things that they were able to determine early on when they started this survey, was even though the flight started out badly, and the ratings in the beginning might have been bad for something like a weather delay, for example. Weather happens, you don't want to take off in the middle of a thunderstorm. What might've started off with a weather delay, but that customer's experience could be dramatically changed by the way that that flight attendant.

Ginger Hardage: Once the flight took off, the way the flight attendants delivered hospitality, connected with the customers, didn't take themselves too seriously and really poured on the hospitality and that customer care. So that is a great example of how culture can definitely bring customers back and impact our bottom line at organizations every day. So I can see you think culture is all about streamers, and balloons, and parties that it might not interest certain leaders. But, it's so much more than that, culture can drive the bottom line in our organizations.

Wendy Hanson: Yeah. It's not about the ping pong table, it's really about how we treat each other.

Ginger Hardage: That's right. Wendy, you know I feel that way. I go into organizations and go, "Hey, we got culture, we got a ping pong table". That's great. I have nothing against the ping pong table, but there is so much more to our organizations and how we develop people, how we treat people. I'm all in favor of ping pong tables, but it's not the only symbol.

Wendy Hanson: It doesn't make it, right. One thing that I really appreciate about you, Ginger, is that you do not shy from using the word love at work. Tell me a little bit about that because I think there's a lot of backstory to that.

Ginger Hardage: Well, I believe people deserve to love their work. It's where we spend the majority of our time. So people deserve to love what they do and love their work. At Southwest that was encouraged and I have to credit Herb and Colleen Barrett for starting it so many years ago. At Southwest, the stock symbol is actually L-U-V, love. So we never shied away from it from the very beginning. To this very day, one of the advertising slogans is, without a heart it's just a machine. So we definitely talk about putting your heart into everything you do.

Ginger Hardage: The heart is actually on the bottom of the aircraft. When we went into a redesign of the aircrafts that Southwest is flying now, the paint scheme, the bottom of the aircraft was solid red and our employees referred to that as being red bellied warriors. But, we also wanted to really impress upon them every time they saw a flight take off, the heart emblazoned on the bottom of the aircraft. So we are not shying away from that. I think all of us in our operations, I think we could all apply that to our organizations, without a heart all of our organizations are just a machine.

Wendy Hanson: Yes, yes. Oh that's such a good slogan, I love that. Yes. Ginger, what's a question that I didn't ask you that I should have asked you? Something that you really want people to be aware of?

Ginger Hardage: Well, I would like to ... whatever I can do, we would love to provide a PDF of some major points about culture and we can definitely do that. Wendy, do we have a particular link that you would like to provide and we can follow up with these individuals?

Wendy Hanson: Yes. Well, we will put it on our Better Manager website. We have a podcast site on there and we will take that PDF and put it on, so people can go on and get it. They could go to bettermanager.us/ginger and then they will be able to get that-

Ginger Hardage: Okay.

Wendy Hanson: Make that available to people and put that on there and we'll get it out in social media because you have a lot of things going on in Unstoppable Cultures that people need to be aware of.

Ginger Hardage: Well thank you Wendy. Yeah, one of the things that we have had great success with is we've started a fellowship and it's being held in November in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We bring outstanding speakers in from the culture companies that are known, the best of reputations in the business. I've mentioned Chick-fil-A, we have Great Work Denver from former Navy Seal Commander. We're adding speaker of the house from Zappos joining us this year and of course from my experience at Southwest airlines. But, the other great thing is peer interaction that you would have, so I'd love for people to sign up for my newsletters. They can go to my website, Unstoppable Cultures and sign up for that newsletter and they can hear from other people who are dedicated to really focusing on their cultures, I'd love to share that. I'd hope some of your listeners would be interested in coming to the fellowship that's going to be in November, 2019.

Wendy Hanson: Oh well I'm sure and you have a wealth of information at your website, Unstoppable Cultures. I, I love what you have on there, there's some great videos that you've done. I certainly subscribe to your newsletter because culture is really important. We need to bring ... humans come to work different every day. We need to be making sure that we're meeting people where they are and loving them where they are. Helping people be productive and grow in their work. So thank you for all that you do and continue to do. I just love that you took the lessons that you've learned over the years and now you're sharing them so many other companies ... and every time we read a book about culture, Southwest is in it, and Zappos is in it and I think Chick-fil-A is getting in a lot of them now. But, we want a lot of companies to be in those books about culture, that's one of my goals in life. So thank you for sharing your wisdom so that we can all look at these stories and make sure that our companies have stories worth sharing.

Ginger Hardage: Well, Wendy, thank you for having me on. Thank you for all that you do to help all of us be better managers every day. So I thank you for that and it's just been a delight to talk to you.

Wendy Hanson: Yes, thank you Ginger. We will stay in touch and we will be telling managers about this because managers are really pivotal to peoples' success. So at Better Manager, we love working with managers around the world and sharing these messages. So they'll be stirred up hearing about you and Unstoppable Cultures. So thank you Ginger, thanks for joining me.

Ginger Hardage: Thank you. Bye. Bye.

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