Jeff Lamb, senior vice president and chief people and administration officer at Southwest Airlines, is a real team player. Approaching his work with passion, dedication and enthusiasm, he has translated his unique brand of leadership into a development program for more than 32,000 employees nationwide.
Growing up in Amarillo, Texas, a town of about 165,000 located in the Longhorn State’s panhandle, Jeff Lamb thought he had his life planned out. He was going to be a football coach.
It all started when he joined his high school football team as the quarterback and got certified to teach driver’s education so he could practice his coaching abilities while saving up money over the summer. At 18, he attended West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M) while holding down a desk job at Mesa Petroleum, an oil and gas company based in Amarillo. For the next six years, Lamb studied and worked toward his goal of becoming a high school teacher and coach.
There was only one snag in his otherwise well-laid plan.
“I wasn’t a very good athlete,” he said, half joking in his soft Texas drawl.
That, and after six years of working his way through college, Lamb was obliged to get a degree, stopping only nine hours short of teacher certification. Lucky for him, his boss — and de facto mentor — was the legendary T. Boone Pickens Jr., a successful oil entrepreneur who, coincidentally, had once wanted to be a basketball coach himself.
“Boone Pickens at the time said, ‘You can do a lot of the things that you enjoy about coaching and teaching in the corporate world: building teams, recruiting, evaluating talent,’” Lamb said. “Through his encouragement, I moved into human resources at the ripe old age of 25.”
Now senior vice president and chief people and administration officer for Southwest Airlines in Dallas, Lamb manages the development of 3,500 leaders and more than 32,000 employees nationwide. True to his roots, he approaches his work with a bona fide team mentality, practicing a brand of management known as servant leadership that relinquishes the traditional top-down business structure for a more collective configuration.
“Sometimes people view the word ‘servant’ as ‘subservient,’ but it’s service-oriented, putting people first,” Lamb explained. “We work for the frontline employees, [asking ourselves], ‘How can we support them and make their jobs easier?’ and not, ‘How can they make our lives easier?’ It really permeates everything we do.”
Lamb traces his adoption of this business philosophy back to his days at the Staubach Co., a real estate consulting firm founded by former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. Lamb worked for Staubach after a seven-year stint at publishing company Belo Corp., which followed his 12 years at Mesa. As executive vice president at Staubach, Lamb worked closely with Staubach himself, who initially exposed him to the concept of servant leadership.
“He’s a real strong servant-leader, and I really became fascinated with the discipline,” Lamb said. “That’s kind of how I ended up here [at Southwest]. I decided to pursue a job where I could coach and teach servant leadership, and at a company that believed in that as a business methodology.”
Part of his interest in the concept might also stem from his humble beginnings at Mesa and the upper-level support that pushed him to succeed and grow. When he first started as a teen at the company, Lamb was on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder.
“I like to tell people that I was promoted to the mailroom,” Lamb said. “My first promotion was out of the basement of the parking garage, where I was filing, to the mailroom, which was a huge win because it was air-conditioned!”
When he subsequently moved into the HR function and realized he was replacing a 28-year veteran, Lamb said he felt even more overwhelmed, intimidated and green. But that changed with a pep talk from his “coach,” Boone Pickens, who helped him overcome his frustrations and make a smooth transition.
“He said, ‘The person you’re replacing really only has two years of experience and 26 years of repetition, and what’s important is for you to keep learning, stretching and growing,’” Lamb said. “So every other year, I would learn something new: I did risk management, facilities and securities, but all the time keeping human resources [first].”
This experience would stay with Lamb throughout his career, perhaps helping to explain why now, at Southwest, he supports a policy of hiring for attitude and training for skill. It also might explain why, at the age of 40 and mid-career, Lamb looked to continue his personal education and growth by enlisting a career coach.
“I decided to take a little of my own advice,” he said. “Getting that third-party perspective helped me to the happiest job I’ve ever had. [They say] lawyers shouldn’t represent themselves and doctors shouldn’t treat themselves — I think HR guys probably shouldn’t give their own career advice.”
Lamb credits his career coach with helping him craft a personal mission statement: to practice servant leadership in a company where it is fully embraced. Lamb said he knew Southwest was open to the idea after attending a talk by the newly appointed senior vice president of people and leadership development, Dave Ridley. After the speech, Lamb arranged to have lunch with Ridley, and the two hit it off.
“Thirty days later, I was accepting the job here,” Lamb said.
At Southwest, his implementation of servant leadership and the mindset that goes along with it — candor, humility, willingness to learn — has helped cultivate a culture of openness and communication, fundamental components of successful learning initiatives. In fact, Lamb said Southwest employees are so receptive to self-evaluation and change, he felt comfortable introducing a teamwork workshop based on Patrick M. Lencioni’s best-selling book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, that shows employees what can go wrong and how to fix it.
“In my three years at Southwest, we’ve tried to be a lot more relevant to the business,” Lamb said. “It’s not, ‘Here, we’ve developed this nice training program,’ and try to go sell it. It’s, ‘What are your needs?’”
For example, to drive home the point of team effectiveness within the technology sector, Lamb said the company, with the help of an outside training institute, turned to one of the most interactive, division-relevant tools available: video games.
“We hooked them up with a pretty competitive but really great lessons-learned Xbox 360 game,” Lamb said, adding that innovative, customized techniques such as these help workers experience the issues for themselves and thereby increase engagement. “[The purpose was] to do some really in-depth trust building and get some feedback and accountability around team effectiveness. People had different roles in it. There was a challenge given, and they had to figure out how to work together with different skill levels and compete with other teams, with a debriefing at the end. It was just an example of trying to use what relates to an individual department and their need, as opposed to just doing a standard instructor-led class on team effectiveness.”
Lamb also has managed to make the learning process at Southwest an ongoing endeavor. While the company had been conducting a course called Managers in Training (MIT), a yearlong series of classes for leaders who desire and have the potential to move up in the organization, there was little follow-up after that, Lamb said.
“When that was over, it was like, ‘What’s next? How do you stay connected?’” he said. “We’re trying to create that blended approach where it’s not an event, but rather a lifetime of learning.”
So Lamb and his team implemented two new programs: MIT reunions and First Flight. Both revolve around leadership development and maintenance.
“MIT reunions are these once-a-year opportunities for our MIT alums to come together to get current in what we’re trying to teach our new leaders,” he said. “In First Flight, we tap our former students from leadership programs to come back and facilitate our new-hire classes with us. It gives them a chance to share some of their practical work experiences and develop their facilitation skills, and it’s really been a huge win.”
Lamb said he also has worked on having executives return to the classroom not only as students but as guest educators.
“A half-dozen of them are senior VPs, actually facilitating modules in our leadership classes,” he said. “We want the experience to be fun and engaging, and we want people to feel like they got good value for their time.”
Speaking of value, like any good coach, Lamb also is aware he must be able to point to a reliable scorecard to prove the worth of his contributions. The company measures cost per learning hour and recently unveiled its second-ever company-wide employee engagement survey that asks employees to assess learning and development programs.
“You have to be able to speak the language of business and be able to show that what you’re doing matters,” he said. “At Southwest Airlines, there’s the underlying assumption and gut feeling that treating people well succeeds financially. I don’t have to sell that concept, but it does help to be able to show it.”
It does indeed: Lamb said his initiatives, backed by a 4.7 average turnover rate, have garnered full executive-level buy-in. He added that he also has been working on using metrics to drive individual, team and company performance.
“A people-focused attitude produces great results, but it’s the fact that we knew we were winning,” he said.
As he looks ahead to next season, Lamb said he has several initiatives in the works to increase revenues, reduce overhead and maintain Southwest’s employer-of-choice culture. The company plans to roll out 30 percent more leadership development training, as well as redesign its high-potential program from top to bottom, he said.
“We’re looking at some of the ways to make that a lot more real world, not just using case-study methodology but really looking at how we can impact the business,” he said. “[Our goal is for employees to] walk away prepared to do more but also feel like they contributed something to the company.”
It might not have been exactly what he envisioned when he was a high school quarterback, but Lamb finally got his opportunity to teach and coach in a real team environment, and he’s never been happier.
“Best job I’ve ever had: dream job,” he said. “I’m just happy to be here and just ready to grow with the company.”
NAME: Jeff Lamb
TITLE: Senior Vice President and Chief People and Administration Officer
ORGANIZATION: Southwest Airlines
• Working to increase the amount of leadership training by 30 percent.
• Designed and implemented training on The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
• Redesigned the Managers in Training (MIT) high-potential program to create more real-world business impact.
• Rolled out GALILEO initiative to increase retention and staffing at two of Southwest’s largest airport operations.
“I’ve developed a very specific mission: to coach [and] develop servant-leaders in a company that puts their people first. If you care about people, then you care about them growing personally and professionally.”