It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s the Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of Southwest Airlines, Linda Rutherford.
Being an effective communicator is a highly desirable superpower in a world of constant connectivity. In her senior leadership position at Southwest Airlines, Linda has mastered the art of expressing her opinions to achieve measurable results that advance the goals of her team. Linda is responsible for managing the communication channels between Southwest Airlines’ executive leadership and the various audiences they serve, which include travelers, government officials, members of the media, and Southwest employees. She takes pride in being the company’s informal “chief problem solver.” Just as air traffic controllers guide planes through complicated flight patterns, Linda controls the flow of information throughout the Southwest Airlines ecosystem.
Linda developed the skills needed to be a successful communicator through personal reflection and practice. “I used to think I had to be the smartest person in the room to be seen as a credible source,” she explains. “I realized that when you have a perspective, you have to share it. This made me fearless and has been the guiding principle of my career.” One of the most important things Linda has learned is how to adapt her communication style to an industry that has been redefined by technology. The rise of online media has made the five o’clock deadline obsolete; brands are in continuous conversation with their audience through digital social platforms. With the more personalized nature of this interaction, Linda believes that before a company can address the needs of its customers, it must have a clear understanding of its organizational values.
As an organization comprised of more than 55,000 people, Southwest Airlines has been recognized for its distinctive company culture and dedication to putting people first. Linda describes Southwest Airlines as “a place with an inclusive culture that encourages people to own their work. We try to be extremely transparent to foster a high level of trust and understanding. We want our people to live and work the ‘Southwest way,’ which means having a servant’s heart complemented by a warrior’s spirit and a ‘fun-luving’ attitude.” This philosophy inspires Southwest Airlines employees to go the extra mile, both literally and figuratively, for their customers, she says.
In the business community, Southwest Airlines is known as a leader in customer service. Linda attributes the company’s success to four factors: listening, utility, personalization, and the element of surprise. She evangelizes that “the purpose of an airline is to connect people to important events in their lives. We strive to create a two-way street of communication where we can listen to customers’ needs and provide them with the most useful information in a purposeful manner. The simple things, such as giving a free Wi-Fi code to a passenger, go a long way.”
Whether you work serving clients as a financial adviser or analyzing buyer trends as a fashion merchandiser, Southwest Airlines’ customer-centric approach can help any business take flight.
This column was originally published as part of “The Perfect Pitch” interview series in Wharton Magazine.