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Serving Up More Than Chicken Sandwiches

How servant leadership empowers organizations to embrace their purpose and move brands forward.

By Rachel Fox

It billed itself as “the discount airline.” Air Southwest Co.—now known as Southwest Airlines—launched in 1967 with only three Boeing 737 planes that flew between three Texas cities. At the time, intrastate air travel was exempt from certain federal regulations, which allowed the upstart airline to offer rock-bottom prices. That low price point, along with never-before-seen perks such as free bottles of whiskey and choose your own seating, quickly captured the attention air commuters in the Lonestar State. On its first commercial flight, from Dallas to San Antonio, Southwest had only ten paying customers. In the following eight years, it upended the way Texans traveled, replacing long car rides with quick, inexpensive air travel: the time to travel between any two major cities in Texas was minimized to only 55 minutes. In 1979, Southwest branched out beyond Texas and began flying to neighboring states, thus beginning its ascent to being one of America’s largest—and most loved—airlines.

While low fares give Southwest an edge in winning business, low-cost air travel isn’t why customer satisfaction has consistently soared over four decades. Economy pricing isn’t even mentioned in the airline’s mission statement. Although it may have been Southwest’s mission to democratize the skies, the airline’s purpose, the moral of its story, drives its bottom line.

Like many brands, Southwest’s top priority is delivering proactive customer service. What makes Southwest different is who it sees as its primary customer: employees. When its employees are happy, they pay that happiness forward in the form of enthusiastic, proactive customer service. In Southwest’s case, this can take the form of singing flight attendants or irreverent wisecracking during pre-flight announcements. Putting the needs of employees first, and trusting them to advance the mission of the organization is why Southwest has been profitable for 45 consecutive years—and counting.

Southwest founder Herb Kelleher’s mantra in leading employees is to “manage in good times to prepare for bad times.” Kelleher taught his leadership team to inspire employee loyalty by fostering continuous learning, communicating honestly with staff, and respecting the work-life balance. Southwest employees are empowered to make “heart-based” decisions, implement new programs, and help customers through issues, often without the roadblock of escalation. Each has personal responsibility for Southwest’s success.

Southwest’s “lead from anywhere” approach to its employees affords them the autonomy to make decisions on behalf of the customer, a mentality that has not only made happy fliers, but in some cases, a life-changing difference. When Southwest customer Mark Dickinson’s  grandson, Caden, was laying comatose in a hospital several states away, it was one Southwest employee’s act of kindness and compassion that allowed Mark to see the toddler once more before he was taken off of life support. Dickinson was stuck in a long security line, and on the verge of tears as he knew he would likely miss his flight. Mark finally made it to the gate, breathless and sweating from running shoeless through the terminal, 12 minutes after his flight was scheduled to depart. Instead of finding an empty gate, the pilot himself was waiting to greet Mark and let him know they were holding the plane for him; his wife had called Southwest when she heard he would miss the flight. The pilot’s words summed up the essence of employee-empowered decision making: “They can’t go anywhere without me and I wasn’t going anywhere without you. Now relax. We’ll get you there.”

Like Southwest, great organizations put their customers first—often by treating their employees well. Great leaders see themselves first as servants; if they execute their leadership that way it provides a model for employees that ultimately drives businesses forward. If executives serve their employees through mentorship, trust, and prioritizing their needs, it empowers those employees to mirror that behavior as servants of their customers.

A phrase first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader,” servant leadership rebukes the traditional leadership model of accumulating and exercising power, instead distributing power among employees and tasking the leader with creating an environment that allows for growth and development. Servant leadership is particularly effective in purpose-driven organizations, where it actively aligns an employee’s sense of self with the moral of the company’s story.

When this model is adopted by an entire organization, customers take notice.

In 2007, Popeye’s Louisiana Chicken was in trouble. The fried chicken chain, then known as Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits, had churned through four CEOs in seven years. Profits were stagnant, the company’s stock had tanked, franchisees were stressed, and restaurant employees were disengaged and performing poorly. When restaurant industry veteran Cheryl Bachelder became CEO later that year, she recognized the company clearly needed a cultural shift.

Though Bachelder was brought on to right the ship, she came to Popeye’s on the back of a major professional failure. During two-and-a-half years as president and chief concept officer at KFC, the brand posted a profit and showed negative sales numbers in nearly the same number of months, and she was fired. But, what Bachelder learned from her tumultuous experience at KFC helped shape ten very successful years at the helm of Popeye’s.

At Popeye’s, as with any consumer brand, putting the needs of the guests first seems like the logical choice. But Bachelder observed how that approach can create an impossible, constantly changing standard employees keep chasing. Often businesses attempt to address this by enforcing stringent rules, such as cleaning the bathrooms every 30 minutes or making sure a break lasts no longer than five minutes—process-driven fixes that fail to engage employees in actually putting the customer first. A turning point came when Bachelder was touring a restaurant to discuss customer service with the staff. One employee appeared disengaged, and when Bachelder asked about “why,” he told her that until there was a place in the restaurant for him to hang up his coat, he couldn’t get excited about serving guests.The lesson for Bachelder? For the company be in service to its customer, leadership first had to be in service to their own people.

To transform from a floundering fried food chain to a thriving chicken empire, Popeye’s determined to position its franchisees, not its customers, as the hero of its story. Franchise owners were the ones who put in the equity—both sweat and financial—to open restaurants and were the ones who could ultimately make or break a customer’s experience. Bachelder recognized the importance of aligning the whole organization—corporate, franchisees, and employees alike— behind a common purpose.  Though the newly regrouped restaurant had a fresh strategic roadmap that included putting people first, there was still something missing: a defined culture.

Popeye’s established core values centered around kindness and respect—with the intention of inspiring a sense of purpose in employees’ their work. A purpose-driven brand is one where people see opportunity; after implementing this people- and purpose-first approach, franchise sales increased 45 percent, restaurant profits doubled, and the share prices more than tripled. Clearly identifying Popeye’s hero, and aligning the organization around principles designed to empower that franchisee brought customers back and attracted new franchisees. Bachelder attributes placing employees before profit as they key to success: “The leader must have … the courage to take the people to a daring destination and the humility to selflessly serve others on the journey. This dynamic tension between daring and serving creates the conditions for superior performance.” 

“The business of business is people.” Herb Kelleher operated Southwest Airlines according to that maxim. It’s why even during the Gulf War, when fuel prices rose so high that every flight actually cost the airline money, Southwest never had a layoff or reduced its flight schedule. And, it’s why Southwest was profitable even in 2001, the only major airline to make a profit in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. And, it’s the same reason that at the end of economic recession in 2013—the worst since the Great Depression—Popeyes posted its fifth consecutive year of domestic same-store sales growth, and its seventh consecutive year of international same-store sales growth. No matter the turbulence of the time, understanding who your customer is and trusting them, carries a brand forward.

Leaders who serve employees inspire employees who serve customers. Living in service of customers makes it easier for an organization to embrace its purpose, and easier for employees to live the brand’s story.  It’s an experience that creates a unique emotional currency all stakeholders are eager to spend—all in service of moving the brand forward.

Rachel Fox is a manager at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.