Backstage with Ginger Hardage: Q&A with a 2018 Learning & Leadership Development Keynote Speaker

July 26, 2018 | Human Capital Institute (HCI) | HCI
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Learning and development are more than personal career choices—today, an organization’s ability to deliver effective learning and development programs directly impacts employee engagement and productivity. Over the last eight years, research from Quantum Workplace shows an increase in managers caring about employee development, but a decrease in employees’ knowledge about development opportunities. For learning and development to have a measurable impact on the business, organizations must close this gap.

Coming up in September, HCI’s 2018 Learning & Leadership Development Conference will take place in Chicago. From September 26-28, expert practitioners and thought leaders in the L&D space will provide perspectives on closing this gap. They’ll explore new ways to identify and develop high potentials and future managers that will drive the engagement, collaboration, and innovation necessary for business success. On the roster is Ginger Hardage, former SVP of Culture and Communication at Southwest Airlines. She will be presenting “Unstoppable Cultures: Creating and Sustaining Organizations of Enduring Greatness” at this year’s event.

We chatted with Ginger to learn about creating a company culture that supports your business goals by putting people first.

In your experience, how big of a role does organizational culture play in attracting and retaining great talent? Do prospects really place that much emphasis on culture?

GINGER: Let’s start with the second question first. In today’s employment environment, job seekers are looking for the right combination—job fit, proper compensation, upward mobility, and the right work environment. In decades past, you really had to know someone inside a company to get a feel for the organization. Today, with sites like Glassdoor and easy access to information, there is incredible transparency about what it’s like to work somewhere. The way a company behaves on the inside is going to find its way to the outside. Culture is king when employees are looking at their next job move, so employers who don’t think culture matters are going to be left behind.

To your first question, there is a strong correlation between culture and retention. In some industries, the turnover rate of hourly workers can be as much as 50% in the first 120 days. That’s not a situation anyone wants—it’s an incredible drain on an organization in terms of training dollars and management time. Finding that right cultural fit for both employers and new employees is critical. At Southwest Airlines, our voluntary turnover rate was only 2%. That speaks to the long-term benefit of finding the right cultural fit from the beginning. It really makes a difference.

What makes a company culture unstoppable?

GINGER: Unstoppable cultures are the ones that put their people first. It begins with building an employer brand that helps you hire for the right cultural fit. We live by this example at Southwest Airlines. During one annual period, the company received 370,000 applications. That’s how many people wanted to work at Southwest—a third of a million. Of that group, only 6,000 were hired—just 2%. We took the time up front to make sure we brought the right kind of people into the organization, setting our employees and us as an employer up for success.

After hiring, employers must continue to put their people first by offering the right training and development opportunities that empower them to provide excellent customer service. After all, great customer service starts with great employees. My hat is off to everyone in the HR and training fields—they know better than anyone the importance of putting employees first in an organization and giving them a level of training where they can act like owners and truly serve our customers.

When it comes to cultural transformation, what is a key action item you’d like to share?

GINGER: Our responsibility as leaders is to model the behaviors that we expect from our employees. When I first joined Southwest, one of my onboarding tasks was to hear our founder Herb Kelleher speak. By that time, he was already an icon in business. As the CEO, I expected to walk in and see him standing behind the podium ready to deliver his address.

When I walked in, he was serving the food.

I found out that not enough waitstaff showed up to help serve the audience, so Herb took it upon himself to help out. I was a brand new employee right in the midst of onboarding, so what did I do? I grabbed two plates of food and started serving our guests as well. That lesson forever stuck with me—as leaders, people are watching what we do, and they are modeling our behavior.

The action item I would leave with HR and training professionals is to instill leadership modeling and awareness into employees in the very early stages of their careers. Include specific leadership expectations in performance appraisals, including how well leaders are living the values of the organization, and hold them accountable. If we're not leading by example, how in the world do we expect our employees to exceed our expectations?


To hear more from Ginger on this topic, including a special gift for the HCI audience, listen to the full podcast here.

Don’t forget to join us at the 2018 Learning & Leadership Development Conference in Chicago on September 24-26.