Rita Bailey is best known as an international speaker and consultant who specializes in people success strategies as well as leadership, culture, branding, and innovation. Her impressive career includes 25 years at Southwest Airlines where she worked in various departments, including sales and marketing, human resources, customer care, and public relations. Bailey also spent time there directing the University for People and creating a career development services program for employees. In acknowledgement of her work, she has twice received Southwest’s President’s Award for outstanding achievement.
Bailey has also served on various advisory boards and committees, and she was chair of the ASTD Board of Directors in 2005. She is also the coauthor of Destination Profit: Creating People-Profit Opportunities in Your Organization.
Q| What was your first job and what lesson did you take away from it?
My first real paid job was at an upscale beauty salon in LA, and I actually cleaned up the hair and the basins after each appointment.
I learned a lot about diversity, ego, humility, and about people's attitudes because it's interesting how people view people in different positions. I also learned about hard work at the entry level, and about the difference between customer service and customer serving.
My take-away from the whole experience was that, regardless of my position, my contribution was equally important to that total customer experience. If the next customer had come in and the workspace was not clean, then it wouldn't have been as great of an experience.
Q| When and how did your interest in leadership, organzational culture, and people success strategies first develop?
Early on in my career, I worked in several administrative assistant positions, so I found myself sitting in lots of executive meetings and taking notes, but I always had a view of the organization from the ground level. I was out there with the workers even though I was sitting there in the boardroom.
From my own experience, as well as from listening to friends and people who were not fulfilled in their positions, I started to realize some of the disconnects between the perspective that management and leadership had versus what was actually happening in the workplace. Most people come to work to be successful. However, observing the effects of poor leadership on morale and productivity made me more of an advocate for creating a workplace and an environment where people really can be appreciated and their talents can be leveraged. So when I went to work for Southwest in 1977, that exposed me to what it's like when an organization really puts people first.
Q| Within an organization, what are some of the key aspects of a people-focused culture?
People are typically attracted to an organization for specific reasons - it's a winning organization, it's well-known, it treats its people well, and so on. But they need to know where it's going and how they can contribute. In a sense, it's like the "purpose-driven job," to play off the purpose-driven life. We go to work for purpose, and messages within people-focused cultures tend to be communicated in a way such that people know what is expected of them, they know they're going to be treated with respect and fairness, and you notice that the people are working from a base of commitment versus compliance. They're not doing things because they have to, they're doing them because they want the company to be successful, and they want to contribute to that.
Q| Do you have any memorable anecdotes from your time directing the University of People at Southwest?
The first word that comes to mind for me is "fun." When we developed the university, the first thing you saw when you walked in the door was this under-construction look. It looked unfinished, and the reason for that was because we had a statement that said "Minds under construction." That was to remind us that you never really get there. Learning is a continuous process, and if you're intentional about your learning, you will always be seeking to learn more.
The word "innovation" also comes to mind because, even though we facilitated personal, professional, and technical-type curricula, the facilitators really had the opportunity to be creative and innovative in their delivery. I think it's always important that you adapt to your audience because, as training professionals and people who facilitate the process of learning, our role is to do everything we can to create the opportunity for people to take the knowledge away and apply it. And it's not just, "I'm going to teach you something," but rather, "I'm going to create an experience for you so that you will remember it, anchor it, take it back with you, and actually apply it."
A story that comes to mind is when I walked in one day and one of the facilitators had a group of eight to 10 maintenance mechanics in the lobby and he was walking around because they all had their backs to each other and he was saran-wrapping the entire group, and they were just allowing it. I walked by and said, "Well, I hope that learning is occurring here." They said, "We're having a bonding experience."
Another anecdote is that one of the things that we did after each module was we'd have a review the next morning. It was an ongoing process, and this particular one, I think we had been talking about diversity, and how people respond to people based on the way they look. So two young men in the class actually left the class and they came back about five minutes later, and one had completely shaved his head, and the other one had shaved his head into a Mohawk style. At first, I thought it was one of those little head-pieces, but then I realized they really left the room with hair and they came back without hair, and I was in shock. So we watched this vignette that they did, and it was to demonstrate that this one person [with the Mohawk] was not someone you would ever hire because of the total transformation he had made, but he was actually quite intelligent and really the most qualified.
I have one more anecdote about taking risk. There was a constant reminder for us that we could never become complacent, and start to take ourselves too seriously. We actually had a mural painted on the wall and it had tombstones on it like a graveyard, and the names on the tombstones were of airlines that were no longer around. There was one that was left without a name, and it had "To be determined" written on it. It was just a constant reminder that, one day, we too could be on one of those tombstones - an airline that was no longer around because they didn't pay attention, they didn't adapt, they didn't change, and they didn't continue to focus on people.
Q| Do you find any Compelling differences between different work cultures around the world in your experiences consulting?
People from different cultures tend to label themselves. For instance, I remember being with a group in Great Britain recently. As I was going through some concepts with them, they would say, "But that's so American! You can do those [things] because people tend to be more animated and have more fun and be more outspoken, but we don't do that here. We're more conservative." I think they tend to label themselves rather than it truly being that way.
What I personally see is that fundamentally, people are people, and the issues are very similar across cultures, generations, and geographic locations. It's the approach to the issues that are different. Culturally, there might be different protocols and customs but people basically want the same things from coming to work. They want to know that they matter. They want to have interesting and challenging work. They want to know they have the opportunity for personal and professional growth, and they want a sense of security and safety.
I find that that's true across the board, but I think that there are certain nuances in certain cultures that are different. There are some cultures that are more polite and not as vocal, and there are some cultures that are more outspoken and demanding. However, I do find that in every one of those countries and those cultural circumstances, you will find organizations that challenge the status quo and the stereotypes. It's not to say that everybody in Great Britain is conservative and everybody in Asia is polite, because then you'll find that one organization where they're challenging every stereotype.
So I think it comes down to the leadership and whether or not the culture is one that is deliberate in terms of who they want to be, what they want to stand for, and how they want to treat people. So there may be some basic differences from the standpoint of customs and so forth, but I think generally and fundamentally, people are people - they're human beings, no matter where they live, how they think, or what their cultures are.
Q| Are you working on any new books or projects?
Over the years, I've just come across ordinary people that are doing extraordinary things. And these aren't people whose names you hear every day or see in every magazine. So I'm part of a group called Up to Something. I've been part of this group for about eight years, and we came together haphazardly. We're very diverse in every aspect, and as we've supported each other, this notion came up that it would be great if there were other Up to Something - type groups so that people could identify what they're up to.
To make a long story short, I'm actually co-authoring a book with one of the other members of this group. The theme will be people who are up to something. We've already started the interview process, and they're very interesting people.
Everybody's up to something, and it's just a matter of acknowledging, caring, supporting each other, and knowing that what you're up to might be a huge influence on somebody else. I'm really excited about it, and we hope it will be out this year.
Q| How do you enjoy spending your free time?
I enjoy sitting on the sofa with Henry and watching old Western movies on Saturday all day, just sitting there and doing nothing. I also enjoy spending time with my four grandchildren. They actually took me ice skating the other day. As you can imagine, I had never been on ice skates, so that was fun. I think being around them really keeps my spirit young and keeps me active. Lastly, I love going to spas and relaxing.