When Lisa Helfrick, Senior Manager of Talent, joined Calgary-based WestJet Airlines in 2017, she knew the company’s culture would be a competitive driver in attracting top talent to support its transformation from a successful low-cost carrier to a global full-service network carrier.

“Whether we are speaking with leaders in the Middle East, New Zealand, Canada or the UK, the common response to ‘What do you know about WestJet?’ is ‘Its strong culture of caring and challenger mindset’,” she enthuses.

Indeed, this was the vision for WestJet from its very inception in 1996, when the company’s four founders, including Clive Beddoe, current Chair of WestJet’s board, laid the foundations for a uniquely humanised airline. Here, passengers are referred to as ‘guests’, employees are known as ‘WestJetters’, executives fly economy, and fun is positively encouraged.

With a mission ‘to enrich the lives of everyone in WestJet’s world’, the organisation operates a people-focused business model.

Its original core principles are today represented by four values, which cut to the heart of the WestJet ethos: act like an owner; care from the heart; rise to the challenge and work together to win.

Acting like an owner

“When it comes to acting like an owner, 86% of our 14,000 employees participate in our employee share purchase programme. They also receive a profit share each year, assuming we’ve done well. And. in the last 13 years. we’ve only had one quarter where we haven’t been profitable. It really has led to a ‘we’re all in this together and each of us has a role to play’ approach,” says Mark Porter, WestJet’s Executive Vice-President People and Culture.

It’s an approach that applies throughout the company’s notably flat organisational structure. The distinct lack of hierarchy sees the CEO and all senior executives making in-flight announcements, serving drinks to guests and pitching in with cabin-cleaning duties alongside the frontline crew.

“If you’re serving guests a coffee and having a chat with them, they’re much more open to talk to you. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to have real conversations with our crew and get their feedback on how we’re doing as a leadership team,” Porter explains. “At the end of the day, we wouldn’t be where we are without our guests or phenomenal crew, and the little bit we can do to help goes a long way.”

Mini-miracles

The helping hand of the WestJetters extends to the wider community through the organisation’s Christmas Miracle, an annual giving campaign, for which a tear-jerking video is released each year that quickly goes viral.

Adds Porter: “A few years ago we set ourselves a target of ‘mini miracles’ and asked each WestJetter to do something for somebody in their community, whether it be buying them a cup of coffee, or shovelling snow off their driveway. In the end, more than 30,000 miracles happened!”

Finding the right fit

Talent acquisition and empathetic management have from the outset been key in shaping WestJet’s unique corporate culture.

“Initially, the directors deliberately chose people for commercial roles who did not have airline backgrounds but came from other guest-facing sectors, such as the hotel industry. They also spent quite a bit of time, as we do today, on hiring, to find the right fit for WestJet. Those people who showcase empathy, are giving, are challengers, who are open to working across different boundaries, and are willing to roll up their sleeves,” says Porter.

“During the assessment process we seek to identify evidence of our four core values,” says Helfrick. “We ask a series of questions that allow us to listen for things like putting others first; going above and beyond; natural leadership and ownership; problem-solving and learning agility; and professionalism during conflict or crisis.”

Potential candidates are also required to take part in a group ‘talent audition’ so that their team-working skills and reactions to certain scenarios can be observed.

A collaborative approach sees  WestJetters of all levels frequently involved in the talent selection process.

“I had board members, as well as frontline employees, interview me for my senior leadership role,” Porter points out. “Having that group approach to the selection means that everyone can come at it from a different angle.”

Access to the leadership team

Easy-going the company’s approach may be, but easy to maintain it is not. Particularly for leaders. “I can’t think of another Canadian organisation that’s our size or larger where employees have direct access to the executive team. This is a difficult expectation to maintain with the ongoing growth of our employee base,” says Helfrick.

“Just this morning, a 10-minute journey from the airport parking lot to this room took me 30-40 minutes, because I was being stopped by WestJetters wanting to catch up, share great stories or ask questions.”

“It’s that visibility that makes the demands much higher, and it requires us to invest in more training and development for our leaders,” Porter adds.

WestJet also keeps its culture alive by involving its people in the Culture Champion Network. This group of 120 WestJetters from across the company, with a 50% annual rotation, meets quarterly to discuss what’s working and what isn’t. “Our belief is that a successful culture isn’t just about two or three executives at the top. Every WestJetter creates that success,” Porter enthuses.

Over the horizon

So, with a string of impressive business awards to its name, including ‘Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Culture’ (Waterstone Human Capital), ‘Canada’s Most Attractive Employer’ (Randstad) and ‘Best Airline in Canada’ (TripAdvisor), what does the future hold for WestJet?

“The next chapter is going global,” Porter states. The business has already expanded outside of North America and is putting more emphasis on targeting business travellers.

With new faces taking over WestJet’s executive leadership team in the past five years, including the CEO, new aspirations have brought about much internal change. From a hiring perspective, it has enabled the company to bring in senior leaders with experience in cultural change management and brand transformation.

“We’re in the heart of that transition right now,” says Helfrick. “But when we think about the vision we’re embarking upon, it’s pretty incredible how much of our strategy actually stems from the strength of our leadership visibility and direct feedback from our WestJetters. Especially around culture.”

This article is from the latest ‘Culture’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson global magazine, OBSERVE.

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