Southwest Airlines leader encourages employees to bring themselves to work

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Sonya Lacore

Sonya Lacore spoke to Williamson, Inc.'s First Friday guests about the ways Southwest Airlines ensures descriptions of its culture are positive, including encouraging employees to infuse their role with their own personality.

Culture is a difficult concept to define but so very easy to describe. Sonya Lacore visited Williamson County Friday to share some of the ways Southwest Airlines ensures descriptions of its culture are positive, including encouraging employees to infuse their role with their own personality. 

Lacore is the vice president of inflight operations at Southwest and was the guest speaker for Williamson, Inc.’s First Friday this month. She told a crowd of Williamson County businesspersons that company culture starts with each employee setting a positive tone. 

“First of all, you are the culture,” she said. “What do you do to promote the culture? … It’s not a t-shirt and a pizza party.” 

She said Southwest takes the hiring process very seriously, onboarding less than 2% of all applicants. Potential hires need to prove the merit of their resumes. 

Lacore explained it is significantly easier to manage the culture of a company as small as 1971’s Southwest — just three planes in three cities — but now, with over 17,000 flight attendants alone across the country, defining the culture has to start with an extra diligent hiring process. Not only do applicants meet with the company higher-ups, but even existing employees get to sit in on interviews with their prospective coworkers to gauge whether or not they’d make a good fit. 

Lacore also said Southwest distinguishes between customer service and hospitality, defining the former as meeting expectations and the latter as going above and beyond. Employees, particularly flight attendants, are encouraged to bring their individual talents to the role. 

“If you can sing, then do it,” she said, adding after a beat: “And if you can’t, don’t.” 

The audience chuckled. 

“If your gift is to just have a kind demeanor, or maybe your gift is that you get on your knees for a small child, … I just love that empowers our people to be authentically them,” she said. 

She told the story of one flight attendant in Denver named James, who saw a woman on his flight who showed signs of dementia. After the plane landed, she expressed confusion and distress, and instead of calling for security to usher her off the plane, he used his gift. 

“James said, ‘Ma’am, do you like to dance?’ And she said, ‘Well, of course I do.’ And he said, ‘Would you like to dance with me?’ And she stood up out of her seat, and she started dancing with him, and he danced her off the threshold of the plane,” she said. “Is that not such an amazing example of letting people lean into who they are?” 

These stories, she said, are what take a customer’s experience to the next level. 

Lacore said sometimes people can go too far, and the airline has to address the issue and apologize to the public, but company leaders consistently reinforce a job well done through recognition. 

Not only does the airline keep track of positive customer reviews, but employees are also encouraged to recognize the amazing things they observe from their peers. These positive comments are then shared with the employee and funnel into nominations for Southwest monthly, quarterly and annual awards. 

“Our goal is to promote the positive, and then it will promote more positive,” Lacore said. 

Along the same lines, Lacore stressed the importance of leaders pouring into their employees and setting the standard of encouragement. She said, while their customers are very important, their employees are No. 1. 

“It is so hard to give what you don’t get,” she said, emphasizing when an employee feels encouraged, they will pass that onto customers. 

To learn more about Williamson, Inc. and its First Friday events, visit williamsonchamber.com.

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