The Importance of Organizational Culture with Cynthia Young

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Around the Bonfyre: The Importance of Organizational Culture with Cynthia Young

6 min

Cynthia Young is a fixer–but not in the sense of politics or organized crime, she’s quick to point out.

Young loves testing solutions to problems, implementing them with efficiency, and moving on to the next hurdle to overcome. Currently, Young holds the role of Assistant Vice President at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where she applies these proclivities to creating strategies that inform, support, and inspire staff and leaders. But this knack for problem-solving has served her well across a career dedicated to her lifelong passions for people and service, and belief in the importance of organizational culture.

Early in her career, after teaching high school marketing for seven years and working for three years as a caseworker for Child Protective Services, Young applied to be a flight attendant at Southwest Airlines. Her application was denied, but co-founder and CEO Herb Kelleher brought her on as a writer. This turned out to be the right fit. Once she got to know the business better, she decided she was never cut out to be a flight attendant (“I would have lasted two legs before I would have gotten fired, probably.”)

Young spent more than 20 years with Southwest Airlines, progressing beyond her initial writing position into her first HR role as Director of People Services and Relations. That evolved into a Director’s position at the organization’s Internal Customer Care department (which she founded), and that in turn gave way to her final position there as Senior Director of Labor and Employee Relations Communications (another function she founded).

In 2010, she left Southwest Airlines to serve double duty as Ambit Energy’s Chief People Officer and Chief Service Officer. Young held those positions for three years before moving to UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Young recently sat Around the Bonfyre to discuss engagement, culture, and communications from the perspective of someone who was doing it before it was cool. Here are a few highlights from our conversation.

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A great culture involves more than just office perks

Young has an intimate knowledge of the workings of great company cultures. At Southwest Airlines, she personally had a hand in developing several foundational programs and functions, like its Internal Customer Care division, that earned the organization international renown for its culture.

Now that the importance of organizational culture has come to the fore in strategic business discussions, leaders are trying to crack the “secret” of great cultures. But many are focusing their efforts in the wrong areas.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with a foosball table or free lunches,” Young says. “There are lots of places that don’t offer these things at all.”

Great company cultures all have a common thread of behaviors guiding their leadership. When Young was at Southwest Airlines, they called it Golden Rule Behavior. She calls it common sense on steroids: “Be kind. Do a good job. Be honest.” Young adds what these cultures offer instead–where their real competitive edge comes from–is a supportive environment where employees feel recognized.

“People will interact with their customer–whether it’s an internal or external customer–the same way the organization interacts with them,” Young says. “Most people need some kind of interaction that defines and fuels their own interactions when they turn from leaders and face outward.”

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In the Southwest Airlines Internal Customer Care department, Young worked hard to make sure those interactions were positive for the organization’s 40,000+ employees. She, along with a team of six, kept in frequent communication with managers about the personal and professional lives of their direct reports. Regardless of whether an employee just had a baby, or suffered an injury on vacation, or recently received their Master’s, they all received acknowledgement from the company and an extension of support.

“All those things that make up your ‘real life,’ we’re a part of that, and to pretend that we’re not is just ignorant,” she says. “People always say, ‘Leave your personal life at home.’ No. I am my personal life. You want me to come to work, right?”

When she arrived at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Young spearheaded a communications campaign to drive these values home for an internal audience that was deeply valued by its leaders, yet still underserved by this type of messaging.

Young partnered with communications to take a print publication already in place at the medical center (its primary purpose was high-level messaging around topics like research projects), and used it to shine a light on employees. For each employee showcased, she told the story of “why they’re here and what their ‘why’ is.”

In all of her interactions with staff, she invited people to voice the one thing they’d change about work (other employees can use both physical and virtual suggestion boxes, too). Young makes sure someone follows up on every suggestion and comment so that employees know their voices are heard.

“Every single person I know wants to be seen. Some may not want to be engaged with, but they want to be seen. They want to know their existence matters and that what they contribute matters. No one wants to be ignored.”

The importance of organizational culture extends to physical work spaces

When Young left Southwest Airlines for Ambit Energy, one of her first responsibilities involved turning around the culture of a call center. She initially felt reservations because she had never run a call center before, but once she arrived she found the process was simple.

“The first thing I found was it was a very punitive environment,” she says. “There were measures and metrics to track failure, but not much to track wins. There was little encouragement, and the physical environment was not welcoming. Turnover was high and morale was low.”

Fortunately, the center soon moved to a new location to accommodate the company’s rapid growth, and Young and her team oversaw the creation of a light-filled, welcoming workspace. She rewrote a very restrictive dress code so employees were guided by a new golden rule: Don’t embarrass yourself, or me. (“And they didn’t.”)

Young brought in leaders who understood the difference between a performance culture and a punitive culture. They saw an immediate response and change in morale and performance from the staff. Employee retention increased and attrition dropped. When employees stuck around for longer, they were able to handle customer interactions with greater care.

“Customer service went through the roof because people knew how to answer the questions. They weren’t cycling in and out anymore,” Young says. “Sales went up. Our ranking went up in every market.”

But who should be responsible for driving culture?

Not HR, according to Young, although it tends to fall to that function anyway. The most important drivers of culture are executives and leaders. Not only must they believe in the importance of organizational culture, they need to live its values through their behaviors.

“If the top echelon doesn’t believe in whatever culture you’re trying to establish, it won’t be operationalized. It will be an add-on that is ditched if push comes to shove. And push always comes to shove.”

A big part of this process requires creating an open dialogue between employees and top leaders. When Young took her current role at UT Southwestern Medical Center, she made a point to increase the visibility of John Warner, who was then the CEO of University Hospitals.

Through her interactions with Warner, she came to know him as a warm, funny, and brilliant leader. But these qualities weren’t always top of mind with employees, like frontline nurses, who had little organic interaction with him.

Young worked hard to get the Warner she knew in front of the organization’s employees. In addition to town halls, she started an initiative for employees to have more personal interactions with Warner.

“I set up breakfasts, lunches, and dinners where we’d draw two or three dozen names of people and bring them in,” Young says. “We’d have table cloth and china meals where employees could ask him anything, and he would answer anything. Word got out about that.”

Young knows what she’s doing, having seen the loyalty Kelleher inspired at Southwest Airlines. “They understood he had the best interests of the company and the employees at heart,” she says. “Everything goes back to trusting relationships and you have to get leaders out there to do that.”

But every leader’s term is finite. The trusting relationships they build up will only last for as long as other leaders care about maintaining them. When CEOs and other leaders who care about culture step away from their roles, their successors must carry the torch to keep the essence of culture alive.

“When you’re doing succession planning, you should be looking for someone’s willingness to live out those values,” says Young. “I have seen people with superb technical skills who were ill-equipped to lead be promoted. It was disastrous from the perspective of someone interested in developing positive cultures.”

Emphasizing the importance of organizational culture in business strategy doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, Young says it’s simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. If you want positive returns out of company culture, leaders must put in an earnest effort that merits those benefits.

“You have to be transparent, consistent, and have the best interest of your people at heart. The rest will follow. It just does.” 

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