Why We LOVE the Southwest Team After All These Years

Last week I flew back up to Nashville for Song Team, Team-Building gigs with Bank of America and SCA. The gigs could not have been more different. Tuesday night Scott Barrier, Sherrie Austin and I teamed up with 50 enthusiastic folks from Bank of America in an intimate setting. This was the first face to face meeting ever between these two departments, and we were honored to kick off a new era of collaboration at this forward-looking company. The next day, 11 other writer/facilitators and a full-band were my partners, in giving an interactive keynote for over 400 attendees at SCA where over the past year a merger has occurred, and where after a year of prep work this highly innovative, and creative company is moving forward with ONE vision. We were honored here as well, to be part of a new age of creativity, collaboration and innovation at a Fortune 500 company looking towards the future. What impressed me most about our clients on this trip was that the leadership in both instances, really seemed to “get it.” What did they get?

  • Setting the stage with a unified vision
  • Accentuating the strengths of the team
  • Clearly communicating the goals
  • Bringing everyone to the table

That’s what they got.   And it’s clear, that both companies are on the right path.  Keeping their eyes on the success of both their internal AND their external customers’ needs.  And guess what, because of this strong leadership, the employees for these companies are ALL IN!

On the trip back, Southwest Airlines impressed me, as they’ve done so many times before.  For some reason, I didn’t check in early enough.  Which, since I travel with a big ole’ Gibson guitar, is something I take seriously…usually.  I want to make sure there is always overhead space for the instrument.  When you travel in C group, occasionally, you may be out of luck. Southwest though, flying to and from Nashville, is typically VERY sensitive to the needs of musicians.    Here I was wandering onto the plane late, and the attendant at the front, without prompting from me, had already seen my guitar, and radioed back to her counterpart near the rear of the plane, to “reserve” a spot for my guitar to rest….she knows how many of us pickers feel about checking our babies.  I truly appreciated that.  Small detail, but makes a difference! Near the end of the flight, the crew dimmed the lights, and asked us to close our window blinds.  They they turned on some small emergency lights as “Candles” and sang happy birthday to a surprised passenger.  This is “business as usual” for the Southwest team.  But on a daily basis, their business as usual creates thousands of loyal customers….daily.

A spring blizzard in Denver, brings out the best…and worst in a team

On a recent business trip to nowhere (I’ll explain later) I saw both the best, and the worst in how a team of employees on any given day, for any given organization can rise to the occasion during a crisis…saving the day, or make a bad situation soooo much worse. Even in crisis, especially in crisis sometimes, how your key team members from the front-line… on up respond can either lose you precious customers by the planeload, OR those same people, can become lifelong fans. Warriors extolling the virtues of how your team, turned an awful situation into a pleasurable one.

So, I got on a flight with a back pack and a guitar headed for a seminar in Denver. It was to be a 4 day trip. Days 1 and 4 would be travel, with 2 days of classes in between. A freak blizzard hit Denver that day, one day after 70 degree temperatures filled the air with a touch of spring. Even Denver, used to snow was caught somewhat unprepared for tropical storm force winds and a foot of snow. The airport lost power, while flights were cancelled and diverted left and right. My route, which was supposed to be West Palm Beach, through Newark and then on to Denver changed.

What is tough to swallow was the lack of onsite “Call in” support personnel to handle the influx of delayed and cancelled flights which of course resulted in thousands of travelers being displaced and re-routed. The storm itself was expected, just not the intensity of it.

I won’t name the airline in question in my particular instance, and certainly all carriers flying into the region were affected on this day. However, I can only speak to what my experience was in observing how THIS carrier prepared…or didn’t prepare in advance for the “possibilities.” (this airline was made notorious a few years back by breaking… and even more so, it’s subsequent handling of the breaking, of a traveling songwriters expensive musical instrument. It became a book, and turned this no-name songwriter into an author and well-traveled speaker on the motivational speakers circuit…His topic was of course customer service and the way social media can turn one person into an army.)

Ok, back to regularly scheduled programming. There were not enough customer services representatives at the service desks to handle the travelers who were all in need of routing solutions. Those that were on site, DID manage to for the most part smile and do all they could for the hoards of frustrated travelers. I became one of those travelers upon landing in Newark from Florida when I found out my initial connecting flight to Denver was first delayed and then subsequently cancelled in short order. With some help from my amazing boss, who was pulling the strings behind the scenes, I got re-routed to Houston for a later connecting flight to Denver. The fun started on that flight, as the crew was less than loving and kind. It wasn’t horrible, but it wouldn’t have given an already weary traveler the warm and fuzzies either.

Upon landing in Houston, and all of us turning our mobile devices back on a half-second after touchdown, the word started to spread that Denver airport was closed, and all of our flights were of course, canceled. Welcome to Houston folks, please enjoy your stay.

At the help desk in Houston, the weary, and yes under-manned staff for the airline in question were doing their best, but they were tired, a bit grumpy, under-manned and apparently not “empowered” by their higher ups to do very much to make our unexpected stay in Texas more comfortable. They did give us discount vouchers to local hotels, who on a Wednesday night, were about to get a HUGE boost to their mid-week occupancy rates.

Now, at the hotel the story was entirely different. The staff, though not quite prepared for the surge in business in terms of personnel levels, were entirely ready to smile, accommodate, and inquire as to how they could help to make our unexpected stay wonderful. They succeeded.

That night I found out, I’d never make it to Denver and the entire days’ worth of travel was simply going to take me straight back to Florida the following day. Wow. Who knew what fun that would bring?

As we left the ground the next day, the pilot thankfully warned us of rough weather we’d be flying through, and it sure did get bumpy several times. But the turbulence in the air, bumpy as it was…did not compare to the gruffness of one of the airline attendants who may well have been an Ogre from a Disney movie. People were pissing her off left and right because they needed to “gasp” go to the bathroom. I’ve never in all my years of travel heard an attendant treat guests from all walks of life with such vitriol. “Sir, there is someone in there, you’re going to have to sit down.” “Mam, I will tell you when you can come back to the restroom, it’s currently occupied. There is one up front you can try….if you want.” There is no real way for me to convey here how nasty this woman’s tone and attitude were. Now granted, maybe she was having a horribly off day herself. She is only human. But this is the travel/hospitality industry, and her performance was a solid F.

Through setbacks, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots machine rolls on

This article recently ran in my hometown paper, The Washington Post.

By Adam Kilgore, Published: December 25 E-mail the writer

BALTIMORE — The New England Patriots operated for years like an unholy, inexorable assembly line. They cruised along and cranked out victories, records and the occasional Super Bowl appearance. They made dominance in a capricious league seem easy and smooth; the coach dressed for comfort and the quarterback married a supermodel. Then this fall happened.

The Patriots are currently held together by ACE bandages, miracle comebacks, baling wire and whatever magic dust Tim Tebow — remember that? — forgot in his locker back in training camp. The defense lost almost a half-ton of defensive tackles to the injured reserve list. Tom Brady’s three best targets from the end of last season are injured (Rob Gronkowski), incarcerated (Aaron Hernandez) and in Denver (Wes Welker). His best remaining receivers would probably be underestimated if they split out wide during a particularly competitive intramural flag football league.

The gears grinded, screws came loose and parts went flying off, and still the machine lurched forward. The upheaval has tested, and ultimately reaffirmed, the wicked football genius of Bill Belichick. The Patriots have clinched their fifth straight AFC East championship, their 11th in 13 years. With a win at home Sunday over the 6-9 Buffalo Bills, they will seize a first-round bye for the fourth straight season.

“Every year is special,” Brady said. “But we really earned it this year.”

Even if he hoisted three Lombardi Trophies, even if he went 16-0 in 2007, this season may stand as Belichick’s finest work. Consider what the Patriots have handled on the way to another 11- or 12-win season. Sunday, humans named Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan played tight end for an offense originally built around Hernandez and Gronkowski. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer and Tommy Kelly are out for the year. Make a list of New England’s 10 most indispensable players, and probably half are on injured reserve.

“I think everybody on the team has the same attitude,” Belichick said. “They’ve got to be prepared. They’ve got to be ready to go. You never know when those situations are going to come. You’ve got to be ready for those things. Every team has guys on injured reserve. Every team has players get hurt. That’s the league we’re in. It’s a war of attrition.”

But the Patriots have both faced more attrition and overcome it better than most. Belichick finds players other teams don’t want and makes them useful. Sunday, with left tackle Nate Solder out with a concussion, the Patriots moved all-pro guard Logan Mankins to tackle and inserted undrafted rookie Jeff Kline at guard. In a 41-7 victory, the Patriots ran over the defending Super Bowl champions.

“It always starts with the head guy,” Mankins said. “He doesn’t care who’s out on the field. He expects you to do your job to the best of your ability. If you don’t, he’ll find someone else. He did a good job of finding guys that are willing to do whatever they’re asked of in their role.”

In late October, the Patriots added a defensive tackle named Sealver Siliga to their practice squad. He went undrafted in 2011 — as a junior at Utah, he made the all-Mountain West team only as honorable mention. He bounced between the practice squads of the 49ers, Broncos and Seahawks, appearing in only one game.

Sunday, he started at defensive tackle as one of Wilfork’s replacements. Along with a sack, he was part of stopping Ray Rice on a fourth and one that all but sealed the victory.

“Bill is a great leader of men,” linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. “He gets us all in the right place, all in the right schemes, everything that benefits us as individual players.”

The Patriots changed their offense on the fly, relying on two sawed-off wide receivers. Julian Edelman, 5 feet 10, played quarterback at Kent State in college and was picked 232nd overall in 2009. As a free agent this summer, he agreed to return to New England on a one-year contract with a base salary of less than $1 million. He has caught 96 passes for 991 yards. Brady calls him “Minitron.”

Danny Amendola, the Patriots’ 5-11 replacement for Welker, has bounced in and out of the lineup with injuries but is still second on the team in catches and receiving yards.

“What can you say? We have great leadership in Coach Belichick,” special teams ace Matthew Slater said. “He’s been able to prepare us and keep us focused. Tom, obviously, has shown great leadership and poise throughout the adversity we’ve faced this season.”

Running back Shane Vereen suffered a broken wrist and missed Weeks 2 through 9. The Patriots could have subsisted with Stevan Ridley, a bruiser who scored 12 touchdowns last year, but he fumbled his way onto the bench and, for one week, the inactive list. Their top running back Sunday was LeGarrette Blount, whom they acquired last year for little-used wideout Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick.

 

“Whatever happens,” Blount said, “we’re going to adapt to it.”

In the Patriots’ locker room Sunday, a reporter wanted to know if Blount considered himself the team’s No. 1 back. As Blount demurred, Vereen crouched behind him and grumbled.

“Asking about our [expletive] role,” Vereen said. “That’s not how this group operates.”

The Patriots’ gaudy record could be viewed with skepticism. They have won just four games by more than a touchdown and have outgained opponents by just 13 yards per game. Without three unlikely comebacks, they would be scrounging for a playoff spot. The close calls may portend another early playoff exit — the Patriots have three postseason wins in the past five years. Then again, during their 41-7 throttling of Baltimore’s champions, they again played like a powerhouse.

“You know what, coming in, on the bus ride in here, I felt great,” Ninkovich said afterward. “I knew that we were going to beat these guys. Some hand gestures coming from the fans, it’s always a good motivating thing. Again, I was confident. I knew that we worked hard. We had put in the work, and that’s what it’s all about.”

On the Friday before the Patriots pasted the Ravens, Belichick took his team to the movies. They watched “Lone Survivor,” the Mark Wahlberg movie about a Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan.

“I didn’t feel like they needed anything — just changed up the routine a little bit,” Belichick said. “I think the movie certainly had the messages of leadership, perseverance, preparation, and then execution. It’s one thing to prepare; it’s another to actually go out there and play the game and go through the battle that they did. So, that was a great message, no question. And a great movie.”

Sometimes, even through his dull monotone, Belichick can make the blandest NFL clichés seem vividly real. He still has Brady behind center, and he doesn’t care about who is on injured reserve. He cares only that the machine rolls on.