WestJet’s Culture Starts at the Top

Like some of you, I fly a lot.

People who don’t get to travel often see it as a rather glamorous benefit of speaking. It’s not. It’s not really horrible, either. It’s just another form of commuting, albeit one that involves removing one’s belt as you go through the process. Along the way, I’ve certainly had some memorable trips. A couple of weeks ago when I was flying to Calgary for the Art of Leadership, I had one of my most memorable.

For those who don’t know, WestJet has always had a reputation for better customer service when compared to most other Canadian airlines and they’ve certainly showed a little more personality as they’ve done it.

I assume that their Brand Belief is something like, “We believe air travel should be fun.” 
It’s an easy thing to say. But with over 8,000 employees it’s not that easy to execute.

With millions of cranky, twitter-enabled consumers on alert, ready to call out brands that don’t live up to their communicated promise, consistent execution by every individual involved in the process is critical to success. One snarky comment by a WestJet employee having a bad day can damage the reputation that everyone else in the organization has worked so hard to establish.

Sure, there are a million variables that can contribute to success. One of the most important, though, starts at the top. If the Senior Management can’t embody the brand, how can they expect the 8,000 people under them to?

Gregg Saretsky, CEO of WestJet, knows this.

On my flight to Calgary, he introduced himself.
He thanked everyone for flying Westjet.
He welcomed questions and complaints.
He helped the crew serve beverages.
He held a contest and gave away a free flight to a lucky passenger.
And he willingly let me interview him about why he did what he did.

He gets it. Here’s why:

He identified himself.
You want accountability? He welcomed complaints and while there didn’t seem to be any, he certainly gave me the impression that he would take of any that were shared.   Too many CEOs hide behind the title and demand customers go through traditional channels. He put himself out there and made himself accountable for things he had little control over.

He lived the brand in front of his staff.
When I asked him about why he does what he does, Gregg simply said,
“Leadership is about showing what you believe in not saying what you believe in.”
People learn how to behave from those above them. I think you know how WestJet expects people to be.

Real customer feedback.
No focus group in the world could give the same clarity of feedback as someone who’s experiencing your product as they tell you about it. Go ahead and survey all you want but every once in a while, get out of the corner office and talk to your customers. They’ll tell you what you want and need to hear.

He promoted the business to a captive audience.
Gregg prefaced the “win a free trip” contest by explaining there were a number of ways that one could fly for free on WestJet and described their loyalty program and credit card. But he worked his way up to it and had permission to do it because he worked so hard to establish our trust before doing so.

WestJet really does care. Unlike many of their competitors, they have the guy at the top to thank for it.





  1. LS

    A Westjet marketing exec told me that whenever any of the employees of Westjet fly, regardless of the reason (biz or personal), they have to stay behind and help clean up the plane after it lands. He didn’t seem to mind and seemed proud of this fact. Not only does this save the company millions of dollars a year – it also makes all employees feel that they’re part of helping the company run smoothly. Makes me think that they’re smart with their employees, as well as with their customers. Great article Ron.

    • Ron

      Thanks. Funny enough, I sat next to the COO of WestJet last Wednesday and he did the same thing (except the contest). Quite the leadership team.

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