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Southwest’s Kelly puts employees first

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Employee Benefits Program,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers

Most people never heard of Gary Kelly until one of his planes slid off the runway at Chicago’s Midway Airport in December. But Kelly has been cleaning up after crashes for a while.

Taking over from Southwest Airlines CEO Jim Parker last July, Kelly already had earned a good reputation … as the guy whose aggressive price-hedging snagged the air carrier cheap fuel. In 2005, Southwest pre-purchased about 80 percent of its fuel at the equivalent of $24 a barrel, less than half what the price rose to that year. This year, the airline has 80 percent of its fuel reserved at $25 a barrel.

So, Kelly wasn’t worried about money when he landed the top job. His main concern, says Kelly’s father: whether Southwest’s 32,000 employees would like him.

For Kelly, leadership means getting the team behind you. A few examples:
  • As captain of his high school football team, Kelly played quarterback but could have played any position. “He was a leader who sort of carried us along,” says one former teammate, and he was “good at helping people step up.”

  • Also in high school, Kelly came to school wearing white shoes and a white belt (hey, it was the ’60s) and suddenly, all the guys wanted white accessories.

  • Upon becoming Southwest’s CEO, he reached out to workers, congratulating flight attendants on their freshly ratified contract and creating a department of labor and employee relationships. His predecessor, Jim Parker, had dug in for a two-year siege with workers.

  • He also cleaned up the mess of ATA Airlines’ bankruptcy, negotiating for ATA’s gates and assets at Midway.
Only time will tell if Kelly can keep his carrier strong. But already, he’s made Southwest one of the few airlines operating in the black.

—Adapted from “Meet the new boss,” Analisa Nazareno, San Antonio Express-News.

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