Southwest Airlines SVP Linda Rutherford: “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake or say “I don’t know; Vulnerability makes you a real person”

Our elected officials must find a way to compromise and work together for the good of society. We need civil discourse to advance the ball. Our communities and society as a whole needs to focus on the needs of those around them and harness resources to make things happen. I had the pleasure to interview […]

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Our elected officials must find a way to compromise and work together for the good of society. We need civil discourse to advance the ball. Our communities and society as a whole needs to focus on the needs of those around them and harness resources to make things happen.

I had the pleasure to interview Linda Rutherford, Linda is Senior Vice President, Chief Communications Officer, for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, the nation’s largest airline in terms of domestic Customer boardings. Responsibilities include overseeing media relations, special event planning, crisis communications, emergency response and business continuity planning, community outreach, public relations, social business, multimedia and visual communication, culture and engagement, and employee communications. Prior to joining Southwest Airlines in 1992, she was a journalist in the Dallas area, including working for the Dallas Times Herald, and she began her career with Newsweek magazine in New York. She is a current member of the National Board of Directors at Make-A-Wish® America, the Texas Tech College of Media & Communications National Advisory Board, and an Immediate Past Chair, Institute for Public Relations Board of Trustees. Linda is married to Michael and has two children, Allison, a sophomore at The University of Texas at Austin; and Matthew, a senior sport management major at Rice University in Houston.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Linda! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Texas Tech University, I started my career with Newsweek magazine in New York. Following that, I returned to Texas to work for several newspapers, including the Dallas Times Herald where I had the opportunity to cover Southwest Airlines. In addition to communication, I’ve always had a love for aviation. It was soon clear that Southwest represented the best of both and I knew that was the Company for me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There are so many stories! One that comes to mind is when we decided to be on a reality TV show. A&E Network was looking to air a series with a partner airline and came to ask us to take part. It was scary to think of reality TV, no opportunity to edit, etc. I remember thinking when I was pitching our President at the time that she’d probably say no because she’d be worried what one of our Employees might say spontaneously while on camera. But, I was wrong. She was worried our Employees might do too much for someone in the interest of helping or bend a rule that would then be the expectation of the millions who were viewing the TV show. We went ahead and did the show and it ran for three seasons with two holiday-themed programs. We boosted bookings on the nights the show aired and nearly tripled the number of resumes flowing in from people who wanted to work at Southwest Airlines!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In August 1995, we were unveiling a specialty plane for the state of California. We had our founder, Herb Kelleher, for a special event at the Sacramento airport with hundreds of people gathered. I pitched the idea of using an actual California Golden Bear since that is what’s depicted on the state flag and it was part of the planes specialty paint design. The trained bear (in California, you can find anything!) went up the air stairs for the perfect photo moment with Herb but refused to come down the stairs. Poor Herb was trapped at the top of the airstairs with a live bear and I saw my short career flash before my eyes. Thankfully, he laughed about it when it was all over (and his limbs were all accounted for!).

Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?

Doing the right thing is a core part of our DNA and we take a lot of pride in being a leading global citizen. When it comes to corporate social responsibility, we take a comprehensive approach to the challenges and issues we face. Part of being a good global citizen is considering the People, places, and communities where we live and work as our neighbor — and most importantly, treating them as such. Southwest is known for our caring and innovative spirit, which extends to how we approach the world in which we live. Through a variety of programming, we want to ensure we leave the world a better place for communities of the future.

We work hard to maximize our social impact and tackle issues in a variety of ways — including working with different Community Outreach partners.

Make-A-Wish for example has been a partner of ours for a number of years and is a natural extension of our Purpose. Since 2011, we have helped provide thousands of Make-A-Wish families with friendly, reliable air travel by donating more than 15,000 tickets (valued at more than $6 million). To date, these donations have helped grant more than 4,000 wishes to children with critical illnesses. Make-A-Wish is also one of our Points for a purpose partner. Through this program, Customers can donate their Rapid Reward Points and support causes that matter. Since 2015, more than 150 million points have been donated to support wishes.

For a child with a critical illness, a wish creates an opportunity for hope and the ability to experience life beyond illness — and we’re thrilled to help provide that experience. Thousands of Employees across our system have been involved in airport sendoffs for Make-A-Wish families and tell us it’s one of the most special moments they get to experience when working with our Customers.

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?

Our love of People is our most powerful fuel, which is why we have a rich history of helping Customers and Communities across the globe. The variety of partnerships and causes we support allows our impact to be widespread and addresses an array of topics.

We work hard to champion causes and make connections that empower communities to thrive. One extra special example of someone who has been positively impacted by Southwest is Randy. Last year, Make-A-Wish reached out and shared that Randy, a 5-year-old boy who has endured three open-heart surgeries due to a rare heart condition, had a wish to become a Southwest Airlines Mechanic.

Immediately, we were in to help make it happen! It’s an honor to be able to provide travel for wishes — but it was such a great opportunity to be a part of the actual wish. Our Employees jumped at the chance to help make Randy’s wish come true.

With help from our Ground Ops and Tech Ops Employees at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Randy spent the day learning about maintenance activities like engine and tire checks. He even toured the maintenance shop and hung out with his fellow mechanics.

Alan, a Southwest Mechanic at LAX, served as Randy’s personal escort for the day and made sure Randy experienced everything our Mechanics do on the job. To prepare Randy for his day as a Mechanic, Alan put together a personalized toolbox — complete with real tools — and a cart Randy could use to pull it. The cart was a huge hit, and it never left Randy’s side as he “checked” out aircraft on the tarmac. We even outfitted Randy with a custom Southwest Mechanic Uniform since he is a true part of the Team!

We love supporting causes like this and helping connect People to what’s important in their lives.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Our elected officials must find a way to compromise and work together for the good of society. We need civil discourse to advance the ball. Our communities and society as a whole needs to focus on the needs of those around them and harness resources to make things happen.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

My favorite leadership quote is “A leader’s job is to motivate, inspire, and challenge people to do more and be more than they think possible.”

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. It’s just work. There may be no such thing as work-life balance, but you have to find work-life harmony.
  2. Be a joy to work with. If you aspire to leadership, you have to be a person others want to follow.
  3. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake or say “I don’t know.” Vulnerability makes you a real person.
  4. You’re going to be learning all your life. And, you’re going to love it.
  5. Have a perspective and the courage to share it. No one will ever hear what you don’t say, and we probably need you to say it.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would be to ensure that every child gets an education and every teacher gets a decent salary. If not for teachers, we would be nowhere as a society. And, a society is only as healthy and prosperous as its least educated populations.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My mother told me I could be anything I wanted to be if I believed in myself, never gave up, and gave 110 percent to everything.

How is that relevant? As the oldest daughter of a single mom, for me a college education was not a sure thing. We lived in a northern Dallas suburb in Section 8 housing. There was no 529 plan, no savings and no extra cash. My absentee father had offered to cover any gap in tuition should I be accepted to college, but reneged on that offer with just a few weeks’ notice before the bill would be due. My Mom and I were sitting around the kitchen table looking at utility bills and checking account balances, and it was looking like a different road for me.

The next day, a call came. The Rotary Club of Dallas wanted to interview me for a potential scholarship. The amount of the scholarship happened to be the exact amount I was short for the tuition payment. I put on my best suit and drove to downtown Dallas to sit before a panel of five older businessmen to answer questions about my academic record, community involvement, etc. About a week later, I got the news. I was going to receive the scholarship. I went back downtown to a scheduled luncheon at the Fairmont to receive the check.

At the luncheon, a businessman walked up to me, handed me his business card and said I should let him know if I needed anything while at Texas Tech and that he’d keep an “eye” on me. I thought that a bit odd, but then I tucked away the business card and went about prepping for college.

That man? Dallas businessman Maurice Acers. He phoned me regularly in Lubbock to check up on me. He told me that as a former FBI agent, he fancied himself able to find just about anyone, anywhere. That had an impact on a 17-year-old college freshman. Over the next four years, we would talk at least monthly, with him checking to make sure I was eating properly, getting enough rest, not staying out too late and keeping my grades up. I did not want to disappoint.

I later learned that real estate mogul Ebby Halliday and her husband, Maurice, had provided funding that made those Rotary scholarships possible. I once asked Maurice during one of our calls about why he took so much time from his busy schedule to phone a kid like me. He said a few reasons. “I’m checking up on my investment,” he told me. “You need an education, and you needed help to get it.

The scholarship I received that first year was for $1,000. It went to $2,000 a year for my remaining three years at Tech. I have never forgotten the power of $1,000 and what it could mean to someone else. I have never forgotten the kindness and generosity of Ebby and Maurice (and the Dallas Rotary Club) — their commitment to philanthropy provided a number of kids like me a chance at a college education. I would not be where I am today without it. Never give up. Do your very best. Others are watching!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Actor and Director Matt Damon. I find his ability to dig into difficult characters fascinating (Good Will Hunting), and I have followed his activist passions to help ensure the world’s population has access to safe water and that we preserve what we have to sure it’s there for us forever. Plus, I’m originally from Boston and I know he is, too. We could have a great chat over some clam chowdah!

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