A Southwest Captain Shows How to Effectively Pilot a Career

Last week, I traveled to Orlando, Florida for a client meeting. As I settled into my seat, the Southwest Airlines flight attendant announced that the journey was the final leg in our pilot’s 42-year aviation career. After 22 years with Southwest Airlines and 20 years in the U.S. military, he was hanging up his captain’s hat.

In many ways, the entire flight was a celebration of the Captain’s career.

  • Passengers applauded at takeoff and touchdown.
  • Commemorative cookies were handed out at 30,000+ feet.
  • A fire truck sprayed a booming arc of water over the plane as we taxied to the gate in Orlando.
  • The Captain stood at the door shaking hands as each passenger disembarked.

It was a celebration of a successful career, a job well done, and a level of commitment deserving of our collective appreciation.

A tale of two careers…

After a four-year stint in the military, my father returned home to Chicago, Illinois and turned his efforts toward building a successful career. He worked for the same company for 38 years. He never took a sick day. His nearly four decade-long-career with the same organization and a marriage of 50+ years to my mom are enduring signs to his commitment.

I too spent time in the military. My dad chose the Navy; I joined the Army. I’ve been married nearly 27 years; I’m confident that five decades plus with my wife is both a beautiful and attainable goal.

However, my father and I depart ways when it comes to our efforts beyond the military and marriage.

Since leaving the Army, I’ve lived in eight different states and worked for four organizations: KPMG Consulting, my own start-up firm, the FranklinCovey Company, and Vanderbilt University.  My career has been full of overlaps among these organizations. For example, for several years, FranklinCovey was a client of my firm and, prior to my company’s acquisition, I started teaching part-time at Vanderbilt. Today, I’m full-time at Vanderbilt and consult part-time with FranklinCovey.

Where my dad’s career was objectively stable, mine has been fairly fluid.

When I turn my attention from my father’s career to the work my two children are setting out to accomplish in their lives, I cannot help but wonder what my two twenty-something year-olds will experience over the coming decades.

Generational change…

The differences in career expectations and organizational commitment, are often explained away with a simple (yet, potentially insufficient) argument. My dad, the Southwest pilot, myself and my kids are each from different generations.

My dad’s a Traditionalist – the pilot a Baby Boomer.  Of course, they spent decades with their companies.  That is what was expected of them. I’m a Gen Xer. I’m likely to have a more fluid career. My daughter is a Millennial and researchers predict that she will change organizations every 3-5 years. My twenty-year-old son is in Gen Zer. Who knows what career patterns will emerge, but he will likely move jobs more than my dad, my daughter, and myself.

I understand times change.

Technology advancements, globalization, business and social norms, career development expectations, the proliferation of online recruiting tools, and a wide range of other forces have conspired to create the current workforce dynamic. For the most part, I like these changes. I embrace them.

That said, I can’t help but respect and admire the commitment of my dad, the Southwest Captain who safely piloted us to Orlando, and the countless other people who dedicate their careers to one or two organizations.

What about your organization?

Take a look around your organization and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are you creating a culture where the best performers will commit long-term to the team’s success?
  • When was the last time you paused to genuinely thank those who have demonstrated long-term commitment to the organization? Remember, you don’t have to wait until a milestone or anniversary to say thanks.
  • How can you better ‘tap’ into the commitment, knowledge, passion, and persistence of your long-term employees?

Final thought

My colleagues at FranklinCovey have taught me to encourage leaders to create cultures where employees can agree to the following statement. Team members who can say ‘yes’ after reading this are more prone to be more committed and engaged.

I’m a valued member, on a winning team, doing meaningful work, in an environment of trust.

I wish you all the best as your work to build long-term relationships with your team members. No doubt, those relationships will be some of the most rewarding of your career.