Life

Few have led lives as remarkable as Colleen Barrett. As many strive to learn from her and follow in her footsteps, perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning—by examining the life of the remarkable woman herself.

About Colleen

It’s no secret that much of the success of Southwest Airlines® centers on its People-first Culture. Colleen Barrett built a Culture at Southwest® that treated every Employee like Family. A concept often admired around the world, but rarely replicated. For almost 50 years, it has inspired tremendous loyalty from Employees and Customers.

Prior to joining Southwest in 1978, Colleen worked for several years as an Executive Assistant to Southwest Founder, Herb Kelleher, at his law firm. Colleen oversaw management, Leadership, and budget responsibilities for a variety of areas/groups. She was a member of the Southwest Executive Planning Committee and chaired numerous special Teams, task forces, and committees relating to Internal and External Southwest Customers. Colleen also became the first woman president in the airline industry when she assumed the role in 2001. Her influence on the unique Culture of Southwest since the very beginning is indelible, and she is beloved by the Southwest Family.

Colleen has been a driving force and is credited for developing Southwest’s Legendary Customer Service, which became the gold standard not only for airlines but for many customer-facing companies. She was notorious for writing letters back to Customers, sending heartfelt notes to Employees when she saw something that impressed her, and so much more.

In 1990, Colleen had the vision to start the Companywide Culture Committee with the purpose of inspiring Employees to own, strengthen, and promote the Culture. The committee grew from its original 48 members to more than 350 active members and alumni today and continues to evolve to support more than 104 locations in the Southwest system.

Colleen is currently President Emeritus of Southwest. Prior to stepping down as the Company’s President on July 15, 2008, she oversaw management, Leadership, and budget responsibilities over the following areas/groups:  

  • the Senior Vice President Marketing (Marketing, Sales & Distribution; Online Marketing; Revenue Management & Pricing)
  • the Senior Vice President Corporate Communications (Pass Bureau; Emergency Response; Public Relations & Community Affairs; Community Relations & Charitable Giving; Employee Communications; Legislative Awareness)
  • the Senior Vice President Chief People & Administration Officer (People [Human Resources]; Leadership Development & Training; Manager in Training programs; University for People; Performance Reviews; Talent Development; Onboarding Program)
  • the Vice President Customer Relations & Rapid Rewards
  • the Vice President Labor & Employee Relations (Labor & Employment Law; Employee Relations; FMLA/ADA; Labor Relations & Negotiations)
  • the Vice President Reservations; the Director Corporate Security

Colleen also co-authored with Ken Blanchard the book Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Success (2010).

Colleen served as a member of the Board of Directors from 2001 to May 2008 and as Corporate Secretary from March 1978 to May 2008. She served as Vice President Administration from 1986 to 1990, Executive Vice President Customers from 1990 to 2001, President and COO from 2001 to 2004, and President from 2004 to July 2008.

Colleen is divorced; has one son and one grandson. Throughout her career she was active in numerous civic and charitable organizations, and has served on several business advisory boards and commissions.

Business Awards and Honors

Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, National Aeronautic Association (2016)

Special Recognition Honoree at Dallas High Tea with High Heels (2014)

Go-Giver Lifetime Achievement Award (2012)

Texas Business Hall of Fame (2011)

Honorary Doctor of Humanities, Saint Mary’s College (2011)

Honorary Doctor of Business Management, Grand Canyon University (2010)

Texas Lutheran University Excellence in Leadership Award (2009)

The Transport Workers Union National President Jim Little announced on behalf of local TWU 550, 555, and 556 that, in an unprecedented action, Colleen Barrett was now an honorary lifetime member of the TWU “In grateful appreciation of [her] career of fairness and support for the unionized workers at Southwest Airlines. We love our workplace due to [her] efforts.” (December 2008)

William Shea Award (2008)

Recognized as one of the Top 25 Most Influential Women by the Dallas Business Journal’s Women in Business (2008)

Texas Labor Management Hall of Fame (2008)

Tower Award, National Association of Women Business Owners, Cleveland (2008)

Dallas YWCA Centennial Award 100 Women, 100 Years (2008)

Purple Boot Award, Women’s Chamber of Commerce of Texas (2008)

Tony Jannus Award Winner (2007)

Junior Achievement’s Dallas Business Hall of Fame (2007)

Girls Inc. Honoree (2007)

Outstanding Woman in Aviation Award (2007)

World’s 100 Most Powerful Women: Forbes.com (2004-2007)

Texas CASA’s Lone Star Champions For Kids Award (2005)

Horatio Alger Award (2005)

Women in Aviation, International Pioneer Hall of Fame (2005)

Texas Trailblazer Award (2005)

IWF Woman Who Makes A Difference Award (2004)

Aiming High Honoree: National Organization of Women (2003)

Featured in Texas Women—Trailblazers, Shining Stars & Cowgirls (2003)

Distinguished Women’s Award: Northwood University (2003)

Women in the Economy-Woman of the Month: NCPA (2003)

50 Most Powerful Women in Business: Fortune (2003, 2002)

100 Most Influential Women in Aviation: Women in Aviation International (WAI) (2003)

Woman of Distinction Award: Birmingham-Southern College GALA XVI (2003)

Top 50 Leaders: Fast Company Magazine (2003)

Business People of the Year: Dallas Business Journal (2002)

Best Managers: BusinessWeek (2002)

Women’s Leadership Exchange Compass Award (2002)

Lifetime Achievement Award: Virginia Aviation Award (2002)

eComm Ten Awards: Business Wire, Inc. (2002)

Louise Raggio Pathfinder Award: National Association of Women Business Owners (2002)

Kupfer Distinguished Executive Award (2002)

People to Watch: Fortune Magazine (2002)

Staples Store Dedication in Claremont, NH (2002) 

America’s Most Powerful Business Women: Fortune Magazine (2001)

Texas Business Woman of the Year: Texas Women’s Chamber of Commerce (2001)

Mentor of the Month: Women’s Enterprise (2000)

The Most Powerful Women in Travel: Travel Agent Magazine (several years)

Business and Civic Affiliations

Board of Directors of the Foundation for Women’s Resources

Board of Directors of the Dallas Hearing Foundation

Charity Leadership Council, Catholic Charities of Dallas

The Ken Blanchard College of Business-Advisory Board

Board of Trustees Becker College

Board of Directors of JCPenney Company, Inc.

Board of Directors of the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Dallas, Inc.

Member, The Dallas Forum

Member, International Women’s Forum

Southwest Airlines Co. — President Emeritus, July 2008-present

Southwest Airlines Co. — President, 2004-July 2008

Southwest Airlines Co. — President & COO, 2001-2004

Southwest Airlines Co. — Board of Directors, 2001-2008 

Southwest Airlines Co. — Executive Vice President-Customers, 1990-2001

Southwest Airlines Co. — Vice President-Administration, 1986-1990

Southwest Airlines Co. — Corporate Secretary, 1978-2008

Slide 1944 Colleen is born in Bellows Falls, VT. "If anybody would have told me, you know, 60 years ago, that I would have had anything to do with an airline or that I would have been part of an incredibly renowned company–for its success and its contributions to society–I would have said, that couldn't be. It couldn't happen. It really is like the American dream come true." Slide 1964 Colleen graduates with highest honors from Becker Junior College, Worcester, MA. "I don't have a four year college education. I have a two year associate degree, but I probably have learned my most valuable lessons from watching others ... and you can learn both the good and the bad." Slide 1967 Colleen becomes the Executive Assistant to Herb Kelleher at his law firm. "They didn't know how we [Herb and Colleen] could have worked together that long because we are absolute opposites. But I think perhaps that's what makes the world go around, and I say that to say I think one of the things Southwest has done the best is to celebrate diversity in every sense of the word." Slide 1978 Colleen takes a leave of absence from the law firm in order to start a new role at Southwest Airlines as Corporate Secretary. "If I could give one piece of advice to young people in terms of work, I would suggest that they never take a job for a title or for pay." Slide 1986 Colleen’s level of authority at the airline quickly grew and in 1986, she was named the Vice President of Administration. "I think one of the most appealing freedoms that we give to our People is the freedom to be themselves and to almost create their own destiny." Slide 1990 Colleen was promoted to Executive Vice President Customers. "Our approach to Customer Service was going to be the same internally as it was externally, and I think that's why we've been so successful in terms of getting people to really understand the mission of Southwest Airlines." Slide 1990 Colleen launched the first Companywide Culture Committee which grew from its original 48 members to more than 350 active members and alumni today and continues to evolve to support more than 104 locations in the Southwest system. "I think it is very rare that anyone in a management position at Southwest isn't constantly thinking about, working at, or leading by example part of the Culture that we've tried to build. And I know everyone uses that now, but we had a Culture before anybody even knew what it was. It wasn't a planned thing, it evolved." Slide 2001 Colleen became the first woman to hold the office of President at a major airline when she was named President and Chief Operating Officer. Herb Kelleher on why he chose Colleen to succeed him as President: "Because she knows how to love People to success."
Slide 2001 Colleen’s leadership during the wake of the September 11 attacks was notable. She decided to immediately pull Southwest's light-hearted television advertisements and replace them with patriotic-themed ads in which she personally delivered a heartfelt message from Southwest to reassure the traveling public. Southwest was the only major airline to be profitable in the fourth quarter of that year and did not lay off any Employees in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. "I think the one thing we should let go of is the sentence that it's not the same old Southwest. It's the Southwest we make it." Slide 2006 Southwest, under Colleen’s leadership, played a crucial role in repealing the Wright Amendment, which limited interstate air travel from Dallas Love Field, paving the way for the airline to raise the number of destinations it offered by 400% by 2008. Interviewer: "When historians look back at Southwest, what do you think the legacy of Southwest will be?"
Colleen: "That we've been a maverick, and a successful one. I guess both are important points."
Slide 2008 Colleen stepped down as President of the airline, passing the title to then-CEO Gary Kelly. When her retirement was celebrated with Southwest Employees, everyone was given cow bells to ring - a nod to a tradition held by Colleen’s family that whenever a family member accomplished something, they rang a cow bell. "If we can capitalize on everyone's strengths and offer them the opportunity to truly throw those strengths into one big casserole, we're going to have one yummy casserole when it's all said and done, right?" Slide 2010 Colleen releases her book, Lead with LUV, which she co-authored with business expert, Ken Blanchard. "The only secret we seem to have learned that no one else seems to get because they just can't believe life could be this simple is to be respectful of one another." Slide 2013 Colleen stepped away from day-to-day involvement in 2013, but remains involved with Southwest to this day through her role as President Emeritus. "Work is either fun or drudgery. It depends on your attitude. I like fun."
Colleen through the Years

Sign up to receive the free Colleen C. Barrett Institute Roundtable event: Lessons in Customer Service from some of the World’s Most Loved Brands. This event event was filmed in September 2021 with leaders from Southwest Airlines, Drury Hotels, and Chick-fil-A, discussing what makes legendary Customer Service and how to leverage a Culture of Hospitality to win and keep loyal Customers. You will also receive regular updates from The CCB Institute, including information about future events and offerings.

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