Sonya Lacore, Vice President of Inflight Operations at Southwest Airlines, talks with Sarah about the “secret sauce” of Southwest providing the customer experience it is known for as well as the “secret sauce” of her leadership style.
Sarah Nicastro: Welcome to the Future of Field Service podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Nicastro. You might recognize today’s guest from the industry or from a recent podcast that we published, that was a replay of a panel discussion I moderated for the Service Council’s Virtual Symposium. Our guest today is Sonya Lacore, Vice President of Inflight Operations at Southwest Airlines. Sonya, welcome to the Future of Field Service podcast!
Sonya Lacore: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Sarah Nicastro: I loved the panel discussion we did so much, and I am so excited to have you here today and to share some more of your insights with our audience. We are going to talk through a lot of different things today, including how Sonya and others at Southwest have come up with their secret sauce. So we’re going to talk a bit about that. But before we do, I want to spend some time, Sonya, talking about you and your journey. Before we dig into the secret sauce part of today’s conversation, can you tell our listeners, first, about your role at Southwest?
Sonya Lacore: You bet. I am, as you mentioned, VP of Inflight Operations at Southwest. That really means I have oversight and support, and just there to help, and encourage, and support our 17,000 flight attendants. As you might imagine, that is a busy role but certainly one that I love, because they make it easy.
Sarah Nicastro: That’s awesome. That’s a lot of folks to be responsible for. No pressure, I’m sure.
Sonya Lacore: No, never.
Sarah Nicastro: So that’s the current task. But you’ve had quite a journey in getting where you are, and even within your journey at Southwest and before that. Whatever you’re willing to share, tell our listeners a bit about Sonya’s history and the progression through and to where you are with Southwest today.
Sonya Lacore: I love that you asked me that Sarah, because it is an interesting story to me, for sure. I hope others can benefit from it. I started with Southwest almost 19 years ago. I found myself, after being in business with my former husband in the construction industry, of all things… We ended up parting ways, and that business ended. I needed to find something else. And because I had poured everything into that, I honestly didn’t know where to turn.
Sonya Lacore: So, I found Southwest. The entry level position for me at the time was a flight attendant position. I was so excited that they were hiring. I loved, loved their values and their core tenants of the company. One of the things that I noticed right away is that their customer is secondary to their employee. The employee is the number one customer. They believe that if the flight attendants or the ground ops or whoever is well taken care of, they’ll take care of the customer. I support that 100%, and I loved that.
Sonya Lacore: So I stayed in that role for, gosh, a little over three and a half years. I found myself really craving leadership. I knew I had leadership ability and I wanted to move into a different role. I have served in a variety of six or seven roles along the way to where I am today, and I love that Southwest supports that from the ground up. If you had told me I would be in this role today, I would never have believed it, but I’m certainly thankful for it.
Sarah Nicastro: When you just said, “If you had told me, I would be in this role. That I would be a vice president at Southwest, that I would be leading an operations of 17,000 folks.” You had shared with me, that part of the reason you wouldn’t believe that is because you were lacking in self-confidence when you started.
Sonya Lacore: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sarah Nicastro: Talk as much as you’re willing, as you want, about why was that? And how did some of those early experiences at Southwest, and even before Southwest, start to kind of fuel that fire in you of becoming more confident and growing that desire for leadership?
Sonya Lacore: Sure. I was just a very, very shy child. So start with that. I grew up in a very small town in Louisiana. As much as I love where I came from, college was not really pushed. It was get married, have children, and so that’s the path that I took. So, because I didn’t have a college degree, I felt like something was lacking in me. I never just got the chance to accomplish that. As a result, I began to look at everybody else like they were more competent, especially if they had a degree. And if they were in other roles, I would think, “Wow.” I always wanted more, and I’d look at them and wish that I could be that.
Sonya Lacore: Then one day, I just realized, “Okay. I’ve got some strengths. I’ve got strengths as it relates to talking with and encouraging others, and just people strengths.” And I thought, “Okay. It’s time for me to turn my cup upside down, pour out all of the things that I don’t believe about myself. Fill it back up with things that I do believe I can accomplish.” And I slowly started on that path.
Sonya Lacore: I think that Southwest does such a great job of developing leaders, and the path is there for any employee, if they want it. I took advantage of those variety of classes and some of them were hard. Some of them are, how do you stand before a big group and speak? And they critique you and tell you things you shouldn’t say and do. It’s not an enjoyable process. But once I got through it, I think I really learned a lot about myself and leveraging my strengths.
Sarah Nicastro: That’s really cool. It’s interesting. The title of this podcast is, The Secret Sauce of Southwest. Right? One of the things that I think makes you so passionate about the secret sauce of Southwest is how Southwest helped you find your own secret sauce. Do you know what I mean? I came from a small town and a very humble background. I have struggled with some of the same things, the imposter syndrome. It takes some time, I think, to really find your footing and to start to realize that it’s not about being more or less valuable, or talented, or skilled than anyone else. It’s just about owning what you bring to the table-
Sonya Lacore: Yes. That is so true. And being okay with that. Recognizing that what you have is a gift and you can use that to help others in some way. That is what I have tried to do.
Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. We talked a little bit on our panel, with the other women, that everyone doesn’t need to be good at the same things. In fact, that would be a big problem. Right? So I think it just takes some time to shift your focus from what your weaknesses are, to what your strengths are, and really embrace that. So that’s really cool.
I’m curious to ask, Sonya… So in your early days at Southwest as a flight attendant, what were some of the ways you saw this employee focus in practice? How did you recognize firsthand, that at Southwest, the employee is the number one customer?
Sonya Lacore: Well, I think they really demonstrate their investment in you as soon as you walk into the training. The culture there really is real. It’s not a word. It is really real. They grieve with you. They rejoice with you. They celebrate with you. They bring the employee along every step of the journey. When they say they care about you, I believed it from the beginning, because they demonstrated that. Then now, as you become a leader, it is up to you, and it’s your obligation to show that to others.
Sonya Lacore: And I guess, said differently, they take the approach, and I 100% support this. It is really hard to give of yourself, if someone is not giving to you. So said differently, you got to fill up the employee, so they can fill up the customer. Kind of, as we would say in the flight attendant world, put your oxygen mask on first, so you can help others. It’s kind of, we put the oxygen mask on our people, so that they can be healthy, and whole, and well to serve the public. I believed it, and I see it every day today.
Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. This is a topic that we’ve discussed a few times. This idea of companies are very rightly, heavily focused on the customer experience, as well they should be. But sometimes that focus is at the detriment of focusing on the employee experience and not really focusing enough on that correlation of how you treat your employees and what that means in terms of their willingness, and ability, and inclination to deliver that customer experience. Right?
Sarah Nicastro: It makes a lot of sense to me, this focus. That the secret sauce is really prioritizing the employees, so that they aren’t checking a box of, “Here’s the customer experience I’m supposed to deliver.” But rather, they’re genuinely happy and satisfied, and therefore, naturally provide that. Right? On the Southwest flights that I’ve been on, and I can’t wait to be on another one, you have that feeling that they actually want to be there.
Sarah Nicastro: They’re not showing up to get their shift over with, and they’re not annoyed with everyone that walks into the airplane. They’re personable. They’re smiling. They’re making jokes, and it is a different experience. I think that that is a really important lesson for folks to think about. Yes. How you treat your customers is critical, but how are you treating the employees that you want to deliver that experience? So tell me a bit about the Southwest culture and some of the things that you think are critical in creating that secret sauce.
Sonya Lacore: First of all, I think it does begin with… We call our employees our number one customer. We have two terms, the internal customer, and the external customer. And so meeting their needs wherever they are. Everybody’s so different. I think the other piece of that secret sauce is we let our people be genuinely authentic. When you mentioned being on one of our flights. You may have a flight attendant that is a really good vocalist and they can sing, or you may have someone who, their secret sauce is leaning into the customer and getting with a small child, getting on their knees in the aisle to talk to them, instead of standing above them.
Sonya Lacore: It doesn’t matter what your special gift is. We ask our employees to bring that with them, and then we celebrate that with them. Just little things. Like if a customer videotapes something wonderful and they send it in, we broadcast that. And then before you know it, we’re on national television with it. And when our employees see that, we celebrate that, then they want to do more of that. It’s truly an investment in who they are.
Sarah Nicastro: Absolutely. I want to take a minute here to draw a couple of parallels for our audience. Right? So if you think about the audience of this podcast, there are brands like Southwest. And we recently interviewed Peloton, which is another more consumer-facing brand. Right? Kind of a different world of experience and customer demands, if you will. And actually had a pretty similar conversation with the gentleman from Peloton, talking about they have invested in field operations as a competitive differentiator.
Sarah Nicastro: So they’ve realized that rather than partnering with a third party to go in and deliver and set up their bikes, they could provide a more unique and white glove experience by having those people be a part of their business, and to do that with internal team members. But as they’re hiring these folks, they’re prioritizing their ability to be creative and authentic, just like you said. I think that’s a really important point.
Sarah Nicastro: It’s hard for folks to feel satisfied, if they feel that they are forced to be something they’re not or forced to act in a certain way that isn’t natural to them. Thinking about the modern field service experience, if you will, there is more of a need to think about how to be creative and how to make room for authenticity and things like that. Just more personality, giving people that opportunity to be themselves.
Sarah Nicastro: I think that a lot of our audience is more mechanical in nature. If you think about HVAC, or you think about a medical device, or you think about construction, or different manufacturing industries. It is a different type of feel. But a lot of the evolution that’s happening in those different spaces is around customers wanting more of an experience. Right? And so I think there’s a lot for those folks to learn from someone like you, and in a company like Southwest, about how to deliver a more personable, authentic, creative experience to the customer.
Sarah Nicastro: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about, what are some of the ways that you encourage your team members to kind of give that extra, and make it an experience, and what can that look like?
Sonya Lacore: First of all, I think we hire well. I’ll just say that. When we onboard them, we have a true onboarding process. When they come onboard, they know, without a doubt, that hospitality is a non-negotiable. We tell them upfront, we deliver a service that customers are expecting. And our service is to get them from point A to B safely, on time, as best we can with on-time performance. But in between that is that little something extra, or we like to call it the essence. You’ve got the service that you deliver, and then there’s the essence in how you deliver it.
Sonya Lacore: So I’ll give you an example. I’ll use the flight attendants, since I lead that group. You may have a mother that comes to the back of the aircraft and say, “Hey, do you have a microwave onboard? I need to warm up a water bottle for my baby.” We don’t have a microwave. It would be very easy for the flight attendants to say, “Sorry. We don’t have one.” But they’ve been taught to say, yes and/or no, “but here’s what we can help you with.” And so the, “No. We don’t have a microwave, but what we do have is”… “I have hot water. So I can put it in a cup for you, and you can put your baby’s bottle in there and warm it up.” So they just are encouraged to always look for those extra things that they can do.
Sonya Lacore: Because our motto, too, is we want every customer that steps onboard to feel welcomed, cared for, and appreciated, like they are a guest in our home. So you take that same scenario, and it was a guest in your home, you’re not going to say, “Nope, can’t do that for you.” You’re going to try to find a way. That resonates with our employees. They also know at the end of the day, the customer is ultimately the one that signs their paycheck. So all of it comes together.
Sarah Nicastro: That makes sense. I think that’s a really good example. I want to talk a little bit about… From a company perspective or a leadership perspective, before we talk about you individually as a leader. If you just look at Southwest as a whole, what are any of the best practices or processes that are in place to kind of facilitate this type of employee focus, and to really stay engaged with employees, and to make sure that they are happy and engaged and therefore delivering that customer experience?
Sonya Lacore: Well, it is taught to us early on, that the voice of the customer is our internal customer, and so their voice matters. You have to be willing to give avenues for that and listen to them, so that you can make improvements along the way. So we found a variety of ways to do that. I’ll just use myself as an example. When I was a brand new leader, my leader came to me and said, “Let me be clear. You will never be in trouble for going out and traveling and talking too much to the front line.” I took that as a, “Wow, that is a real green light.”
Sonya Lacore: What a beautiful way to spend your career, just going out and talking to your people all the time. It energizes you. Just as in any company, there are hard things that you have to get over. I’ll use this environment we’re in right now. When I can get out and talk to the frontline, that is my most motivated moment. That energizes me unlike anything else. I think we promote that from the very beginning and the feedback that we get.
Sonya Lacore: And we also do an employee survey. So you want to hear what they’re having to say through the survey? And if the survey says, “Hey, we haven’t seen or heard from our leaders enough,” then you can just bet we’re going to get out there and do more of it, because that’s what the business is about. You know, Colleen Barrett, one of our beloved founders, said, “We’re in the customer service industry. We just happen to fly airplanes.” Well, we’re in the internal customer service industry for our people.
Sarah Nicastro: Absolutely. I know you had said to me, in a previous conversation, that Southwest really fosters this feeling of family. So closer than just coworkers or colleagues, but that it’s really a Southwest family. Some of the advice for what that takes can be really hard to articulate, because it is about the culture, and it is about those interactions and it is just about how you treat people and how you listen. I always find it interesting, whether it’s when I’m traveling and I meet with different people in my travels, or whether it’s having a service experience here at home or something.
Sarah Nicastro: Obviously, with what I do, I’m always interested. But I’ll ask like, “So how do you like your job?” And you can always tell by the way someone responds, how they’re treated. I have had people that are like, “I love it.” You know, “I love it. This company is great.” Or, “I love what I do.” You also have people that will just rant or… You know? It is so important. I think it’s just something that can’t be overemphasized.
Sarah Nicastro: So let’s talk about you, as a leader, for a few moments. I know that you said you believe strongly in leading from the heart. Tell our listeners what that means, and how it fits in with your career at Southwest.
Sonya Lacore: Every company has… Certainly, you have policies. And in an airline industry, you’re highly regulated. So knowing that there’s always an opportunity to meet someone where they are in their moment in life. I’ve often said, if I had one super power, it would be to be able to know the backstory of each individual I talk to and meet with, before I even see them. Because when you know what their path has been, whether it’s been wonderful or hurtful. If you know that, then you know what they need in that moment.
Sonya Lacore: And so I really believe leading from the heart means putting yourself in that person’s shoes, listening, and really hearing what they’re trying to tell you. I think, too, that takes a lot of humility for you to just stop and listen and take other people’s thoughts into account. For me, it just means believing in people and helping lift them up. I don’t know. I think before they can start their day, if you can do any little thing from the heart and color outside the box a little bit, and extenuate circumstances individually, on an individual basis, and not treat everybody like they’re a number, but they really are a person. I think that, that’s leading from the heart.
Sonya Lacore: If you can even call their family member by name or, “Hey, how’s your dog? The last time I talked to you”… Then people know you care about them. So that when you do really need to have a challenging conversation with them, they know you care and that you’re not just following a policy. I just can’t say enough about the heart will lead you to do the right thing. The [inaudible 00:25:16] will lead you to the right policy, but the heart will lead you to do the right thing.
Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. And with 17,000 people, that’s… It’s not like a team of five. Right? I mean, a team of five, it would be really easy to remember everyone’s family names and who has what pets. It is a really good point that in some ways, the bigger the team, the more important it is to look for those opportunities to let folks know that you are invested in them personally, and not just as 1 of 17,000. Right?
Sonya Lacore: Yeah. We have a process. With over 60,000 employees, we have something called our Internal Customer Care Team. And when anyone has any life event, they know that they should and could report that to their leader, or they can submit a form themself. But it might be that they had a baby. It might be that they had a wedding. It might be that they graduated with their Master’s. Unfortunately, it might be a death. Whatever it may be, our leaders get to see that information about that person. That gives us a chance to celebrate, or grieve with them. I think that [inaudible 00:26:30] important moments that matter. But we can’t know about it unless they tell us, and we do have a process that I love.
Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. That’s really nice because it’s hard in a big, big company. You’re going to have your certain folks you interact with on a daily basis, that you get really close with. But you don’t want to be disconnected from the “bigger” family. Right? I’m curious. If you don’t mind me asking, Sonya, what has changed, or how does leading from the heart look different in a year like this year?
Sonya Lacore: Well, that’s a great question. I think you really have to have some empathy and understand that everybody responds to this differently. We have people who are not afraid, and then we have people who generally are. We have people who have health conditions. And so just really, really understanding those differences and giving options without punitive action. Because we’re an airline and we have to keep going. There are some people who say, “I can’t do it.” “Well, then let’s discuss what that looks like for you, and what your options are.” I think that’s what we’ve done and it seems to have worked well for us.
Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. One of the things you said earlier, too, is the different methods that you have in place. So the customer care, but also as a leadership team, and just as a company to listen. When it comes to employee engagement and employee satisfaction, I think sometimes just listening is overlooked for how really big it is. You know? I think people appreciate the fact to weigh in and to feel heard, even if it doesn’t always impact the outcome. Do you know what I mean?
Sarah Nicastro: That’s just part of making them feel valued and important, rather than, just like you said, a number, or that their opinions don’t matter as much as others. So, I like that. I like that idea of giving folks an opportunity to voice concerns and being empathetic and understanding while you’re working through those challenges.
Sarah Nicastro: You had shared with me, Sonya, that one of the things you’ve loved about leading, and particularly leading other women, is paying it forward, in terms of helping women build some of the confidence that early on in your career, you were lacking in yourself. What has that looked like for you? And tell us about that being a passion of yours.
Sonya Lacore: Oh, my gosh. It’s a passion, because I never want anyone to feel some of the way that I felt. I know that it can be avoided with some mentoring, and some coaching, and some encouragement. It really is a passion for me. My assistant, Devin, will tell you often, “You cannot mentor someone else. You don’t have time on your calendar.” But I want to, because I love it so much. I believe that it’s just really important to see the strength in someone and pull that out and give them an opportunity and tell them. I really do believe in positive reinforcement, much more than I do critiquing. Someone did that for me.
Sonya Lacore: But the other thing, Sarah, that I can’t emphasize enough is in today’s society, there are a few types of approaches that you can take. You can say, “Hey, I’m great at this. Look at me, I’m going to stand up. I’m going to go for that job.” I was not that person. I think when you have a low self-esteem, you’re not going to be that person. So to have someone else tap you on the shoulder, and say, “Hey, I see something in you. Let’s develop that. Let’s really fine-tune that.” And then, “I think this would be a great position for you.”
Sonya Lacore: If someone had not done that for me, I would not be sitting here talking to you today. And so while many subscribe to, and I don’t judge that and I don’t disagree. Everybody’s different, many subscribed to, “I got this, I’m going for it.” You know, blows right through it and they get it, and that’s great. But everyone doesn’t work that way. And I think it’s important to point out that difference.
Sonya Lacore: So, yeah. So that’s what I try to do. I almost try to find women that I can see a little bit of my younger self in, and I’m going to focus some energy on that. That’s my way of giving back. That’s my way of being energized, to be honest. And that keeps you really, really humble because there’s so much of that out there.
Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. I love that. And I think the point you made about positive reinforcement kind of ties nicely back to the secret sauce of Southwest. In the sense of it’s another really quite simple thing that leaders can do to make people feel so much more appreciated, and seen, and acknowledged. I think that oftentimes in business, with the pace you’re moving, or with the challenges you’re facing, it’s easy to miss those opportunities.
Sarah Nicastro: It’s easy to just forget to take two minutes to type a message after you talk with someone, or to not point out something. Unfortunately, especially for folks that maybe lack a little bit of confidence. Like I know for myself, I’m very hard on myself. So I can get paid 20 compliments, but the one critique will outweigh those for me. Do you know what I mean?
Sonya Lacore: Oh, yes.
Sarah Nicastro: So they’re important, because if I only get the critique, I start to get really down on myself. You even sent me a note after the panel, and said, “I really enjoyed that. You did a great job.” That means a lot to me. Just to have someone take a moment to acknowledge something like that. And so I can see how those types of interactions with your team… That stuff makes a huge difference in making people feel valued and feel important for who they are and what they do. You know?
Sarah Nicastro: That’s why I say this topic’s hard. You’re not going to come in with a blueprint of, “Here’s things you’ve never considered for how to make your employees engaged and happy.” But the problem is people don’t do the things that are simple, but not simple. Right? And so it’s just another thing I think to point out. Of those moments of that positive reinforcement and building people up are so, so important. So.
Sonya Lacore: You hit on the key word. I think is feeling valued. Because it takes someone like myself with low self-esteem. Once I found what my strengths were and I really accepted those, then I began to use them, and then I could see the value. And then if someone does reinforce that for you, it makes you want to do it again, and do it again. Then your self-esteem starts to rebuild and you say, “Wow, I really do kind of have a calling,” or whatever it may be. So it’s like that hamster wheel. I love it.
Sarah Nicastro: Yes. And then you can put your energy into full steam ahead on that, instead of energy on all the things you’re not good at. Right?
Sonya Lacore: Right. Right.
Sarah Nicastro: It gives you that motivation of, “Oh, my gosh. Someone values this, so I’m going to work harder. I’m going to do more of this. I’m going to be confident in who I am,” and all of that. So I love it. Sonya, any, I guess, closing thoughts or final words of wisdom for our listeners?
Sonya Lacore: I think we’ve covered it really well. I would just say, know what your strengths are, identify those, be really comfortable with them. And then when you continue to use them, you’ll be able to say,” You know what? That stuff I’m not good at, I’ll still work on it. But it doesn’t matter so much, because I’ve got this whole little arsenal of tools over here I’ll use, and these are working just fine.”
Sonya Lacore: So I don’t mean to imply you don’t ever need to develop, continue developing. But I would say never beat yourself up over the things you can’t do, and focus on the things you can.
Sarah Nicastro: Absolutely. Well, Sonya, thank you so much for being here and for sharing some of your personal journey with us, as well as some of what Southwest is up to. I appreciate it, and it’s been a pleasure.
Sonya Lacore: It’s been a joy with you, too. So nice. Thank you, Sarah.
Sarah Nicastro: Thank you. You can find more content by visiting@futureof fieldservice.com. You can also find us on LinkedIn, as well as Twitter at The Future of FS. The Future of Field Service podcast is published in partnership with IFS. You can learn more about IFS Service Management by visiting www.ifs.com. As always, thank you for listening.