Director of People Shari Conaway helps Southwest Airlines outfly its competition as steward of its “servant leadership” mission.
By Jill Yarbarry-Laybourn
The man leans down and kisses his little girl softly on the forehead. Gently, he hands her off to her mother. Just before he walks into the corridor leading to the airplane, he turns and gives the girl a quick wave. She watches as the big plane takes her daddy to a magical place.
Like this girl, a young Shari Conaway went to the airport to drop her father off, and it ignited in her a desire to one day work for an airline. She turned that desire into reality, and for the past nearly 24 years, Conaway has been upward bound at Southwest Airlines, where she currently serves as Director of People.
From Speech to Soaring
Although those trips to the airport enticed Conaway to want to work at an airline, she had no idea what she would want to do there. So, she did what many do and went to college and earned a degree in something totally different: Speech Pathology.
“I taught school as a therapist for a couple of years,” Conaway recalled, “and I said, ‘OK, I have done that, now I am going to go do what I really want to do and try and get on with the airlines.’”
And that is exactly what she did.
Conaway started as a Recruiter, which allowed her to develop an understanding of each department of Southwest Airlines and the variety of positions available within the organization.
“I did have the opportunity to work with every single department within the company,” Conaway said. “I got to learn what they do, what makes them successful, and how they play a part in the big puzzle that makes this airline run.”
Because she knew that she “loved leading people and being able to make a difference in people’s lives,” Conaway moved into a team leader role, then into regional management. After that, she ventured into new territory and became Manager of the airline’s Drug and Alcohol Program.
“I knew absolutely nothing about [the program],” Conaway said, “but I felt that I had the leadership skills.”
She took those skills and successfully managed that side of the airline for 10 years before coming back to the “employment side of things.” In her current role as Director of People, Conaway does it all. She is responsible for staffing, compliance, the No Limits Internship Program and the Drug and Alcohol Program.
Conaway is a perfect fit for this employer and role because of Southwest Airline’s “servant leadership” mission.
“I love the values at Southwest Airlines,” she said. “They are roughly in line with my values and how I was brought up.”
Servant leadership is the mission at Southwest Airlines. It is essentially the Golden Rule of treating others the way you want to be treated.
“Being a servant leader really comes from the heart and the passion to want to help others and watch others grow,” Conaway said. “When I got hired at Southwest Airlines, being servant leaders was just something I had heard from day one.”
Not only was it something she heard; it was something she saw in action. “I was able to have some of the most incredible leaders that lead by example. I was able to take notes and learn from them.”
One takeaway Conaway shared: “When leading, you have to think about each person as an individual. Everybody is a little bit different. They learn differently. They take in information differently.”
Being able to watch how her co-workers treated one another as individuals, “with dignity and respect,” had a powerful impact on Conaway. She watched her mentors working with others to develop their strengths as well as weaknesses.
“When you are able to do that, treat each person individually, they want to do more,” Conaway said. “And so they want to grow within the organization.”
Mentee to Mentor
Now, Conaway models that leadership style with her seven direct reports and just less than 100 team members.
“To be a servant leader, you really need to know your people,” she acknowledged, noting that she makes sure to find out their likes and dislikes—including their hobbies and what they are passionate about—their strengths and weaknesses, and especially their goals.
“With baby steps,” Conaway helps her people turn their weaknesses into strengths. She also leads by stepping back.
“You cannot be that micromanager,” she said. “You have to be able to have the confidence to delegate responsibilities so that they can learn and grow. When you know they want to grow because you know that person, you look for those extra projects that they can work on, or a little bit of extra training or doing days in the field, to give them that opportunity.”
On the other hand, Conaway also believes good leaders hold their team members accountable.
“I honestly believe it is a huge disservice if you aren’t honest with someone who is doing something incorrectly or is not following the Southwest Airlines way in providing great customer service. If you don’t address those, you are not being a good leader.”
Advising Future Leaders
Conaway’s advice to future leaders is to take their time and keep their focus on the big picture. “You really need to be able to develop goals,” she advised. “You have got to be able to think strategically and beyond today’s activities.”
On a similar note, she emphasizes that strong leadership requires the ability to communicate well and be willing to take on more. Finally, Conaway stresses the importance of supporting the vision of the company and the company’s purpose.
With almost a quarter of a century of experience and success at Southwest Airlines, Conaway clearly knows what she is talking about. Her vision as a young girl to be a part of an airline was clearly prophetic.
“Honestly, I love what I do every day,” she said. “I love coming to work because of the people at Southwest Airlines. People are what are most important in our lives. …Low-cost travel, customer service and taking care of one another are so valued at Southwest Airlines. It is what we do everyday.”
Jill Yarberry-Laybourn is a freelance writer based in Colorado.