For a brief two years in the 1990s, I worked as a financial news reporter in the airline industry, and that put me in the presence of Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher on a handful of memorable occasions. Kelleher passed away recently, and that has me remembering shareholder meetings, group interviews in his office and even a small luncheon at The Palm in Dallas’s West End. The man was the same in every setting: focused but friendly, serious but jovial.
Most interesting to me was Kelleher’s philosophy of working with people. While there’s a longstanding debate in corporate board rooms on how best to juggle the sometimes-conflicting interests of customers, employees and shareholders, Kelleher voiced a simple philosophy: If you take good care of your employees, they will take good care of your customers, and that will generate revenue that ultimately satisfies your shareholders. That has translated into annual profits for every one of Southwest’s 45 years, a remarkable feat when you consider the mergers, reorganizations, failures and closures that have marked almost every other airline in the business.
Taking good care of employees means taking good care of the people you live and work with every day – like taking good care of your family. Southwest opened a new training center at Love Field in the 1990s, and when I took a tour I asked about the vast expanses of vacant white walls. The tour guide said: “That’s so our people can put their family photos on the walls. Their families are our families.”
“Churches, more than any other enterprise, should be in the business of putting people first and treating people like family.”
Setting aside my love-hate relationship with air transportation and all airlines (they get me where I need to go, but Lordy, the process can be so painful), I have to say that Southwest has it right about people. I’m sure there are failures and breakdowns even in their own family-friendly hallways because everyone has a bad day from time to time, but they give themselves a better-than-average chance to do good when they treat people like family.
I know there are businesses that do it differently because I’ve worked with some. The product comes first, or the balance sheet, or the customers, or the investors. That can work for a while, but failure is always lurking in the wings if the people who are doing the day-to-day work are treated the same as reams of copy paper: a commodity to be used up and replaced.
I suppose it’s odd for me to be writing about business models for an online audience filled with clergy and church-going laypersons, because a church is not a business. A church is a community and a center and source of ministry. But churches, more than any other enterprise, should be in the business of putting people first and treating people like family – whether staff, members, guests or neighbors.
Yes, sometimes churches fail because church people are fallible. But churches should not be afraid to explore the best practices of businesses that get the people equation right. Especially not businesses that manage to meet their corporate goals, too. There’s definitely something there to admire if not to learn from.
And churches would do well to remember that the people-first motto exemplified by Herb Kelleher is actually the way Jesus lived too, paying attention to individuals more than institutions. Even at church, when we get the relationships right, everything else tends to fall into place.