HR Magazine, January 2001: Ready to Soar

By Bill Leonard Jan 1, 2001

The 'sky is the limit' for SHRM, says incoming Board Chair Libby Sartain.

If you ask Libby Sartain, SPHR, CCP, why she wants to serve as chair of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Board of Directors, she’ll say with a great big grin that she enjoys a challenge. She quickly adds that this year presents a tremendous challenge to the Society’s volunteer leadership—possibly the biggest ever in the 53-year history of SHRM.

After a remarkable 10-year run as SHRM’s president and CEO, Michael R. Losey, SPHR, retired on Dec. 31. He is succeeded by Helen Drinan, SPHR, former executive vice president of HR for BankBoston.

Sartain says one reason she decided to seek the office of board chair was to help the Society during this transition period.

"I have a long history with SHRM and a very good familiarity with the staff and the volunteer leadership," says Sartain, whose full-time job is as vice president of people for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines. "I thought that I was in a very good position to help Helen Drinan as she starts her new job as SHRM’s new president and CEO."

Actually, Drinan already has gotten a helping hand from Sartain, who served on SHRM’s executive search committee and played an instrumental role in hiring the new CEO. Sartain’s backing doubtless had an effect on the rest of the committee: With more than 12 years experience on the senior leadership team at Southwest Airlines, she knows what it takes for an HR professional to perform and contribute at the highest levels of corporate management.

The selection of Drinan clearly has Sartain looking at the future with confidence. "Under Mike’s leadership we faced and overcame many struggles, and I am thrilled that we are now poised to reach yet another level of achievement with Helen Drinan at the helm. I feel so lucky to be part of the overall SHRM leadership team at such an exciting time for our profession and for our Society."

An HR Epiphany

Sartain decided to pursue a career in HR at the young age of 19, after receiving a bit of chance inspiration from a fellow classmate at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. The classmate started talking about an organizational behavior class offered through the business school. When Sartain showed an interest in the subject, he lent her his textbook.

"It was the first time in my life that I literally sat down and read a textbook in one afternoon from cover to cover. I just became absorbed in it," she recalls.

The book was an epiphany for Sartain, prompting her to change majors from sociology to business administration (with an emphasis on organizational behavior), and sparking a lifelong interest in human resource management. That, in turn, led her to join the SMU chapter of SHRM, then known as the American Society for Personnel Administration (ASPA). She later became a chapter officer.

After graduating from SMU, Sartain attended the University of North Texas. While earning a master’s of business administration in personnel and industrial relations she took time out to help revive the university’s student chapter.

Her efforts resulted in a very special and unusual member benefit. One day she recruited a young man named David to join the student ASPA chapter. Later on, the two were joined in matrimony. They have been married for 23 years.

Sartain’s participation in the student chapters makes her unique among SHRM’s top volunteer leaders. In the 53-year history of the Society, she is the first volunteer leader to join as a student member and eventually be elected chair of the Society’s board of directors.

"It seems that SHRM always has been a part of my life, and I’m really grateful for that," Sartain says. "My involvement with the Society has been one of the most positive influences in my life. Working with SHRM and its leadership has given me the confidence and educational opportunities that have made a tremendous difference in my professional career." (See "A Professional Advantage," on page 55.)

Southwest Hires a Winner

Sartain began working for Southwest Airlines in 1988 as director of compensation and benefits. At the time, the company was a medium-sized regional airline with approximately 6,500 employees. Today, it has more than 30,000 employees.

"That’s been a real challenge—to work in HR in a company that has doubled in size every three to five years. The growth really has been phenomenal," Sartain says.

As Southwest continued to expand, Sartain’s expertise in compensation and benefits served her well. In 1995, she was promoted to the top HR job at the airline—vice president of people.

She has excelled in the job and has helped make Southwest a national employer of choice. In 1998, Fortune magazine placed Southwest at the very top of its inaugural list of the 100 best places to work in the United States. In 1999 and 2000, Southwest slipped from the No. 1 spot, but it remains in the top five.

According to Sartain, the reason Southwest consistently ranks highly as a great place to work is the airline’s unique corporate culture. When reporters for Fortune interviewed Sartain and others at Southwest, they asked if the company provided certain benefits—ones that Sartain says were trendy and reflected a "flavor of the month" mentality.

"We said ‘no’ to a lot of the questions," says Sartain.

"After they left, we thought we would never make their list. We were so surprised when we ultimately made it." The key, she says, were the interviews conducted with employees. "The employees said things like: ‘I believe I can make a difference as an individual here,’ ‘My supervisor notices when I do a good job,’ and ‘I am valued as an individual and for my work.’"

When employees were asked if they planned to be working at Southwest in five years, nearly 100 percent said "yes." This response was off the charts when compared to the other employers interviewed by Fortune, says Sartain.

As Southwest’s top HR executive, many people believe Sartain should receive a good deal of the credit for making the airline a top-notch employer of choice. However, Sartain blushes at the suggestion. She says Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s CEO and president, and Colleen Barrett, executive vice president of customers, have had a much bigger influence on the company and her career.

"Herb is the most brilliant person that I’ve met. He truly is a visionary," Sartain says. "What is so unique about him is that his brilliance is coupled with an unbelievable amount of compassion. He really loves people and feels a huge personal responsibility to make sure that the people at Southwest have employment security."

Barrett is Sartain’s boss and, according to the airline’s media affairs office, is the No. 2 officer at Southwest and currently the highest-ranking woman working in the airline industry. Sartain says Barrett is the best mentor she has had in her 24-year HR career.

"I call Colleen the culture queen," says Sartain. "She is truly the person who is responsible for the internal workings of Southwest from a cultural standpoint and how our workforce treats our customers."

Barrett returns the favor and is quick to sing Sartain’s praises. "Libby is the consummate human resources professional. She is articulate on the issues that affect our employees," Barrett says. "And she has been instrumental in several policy changes that will help take our workforce into the next decade and keep Southwest on the forefront of preferred employers."

The results these two dynamic women have achieved—with the help of the dedicated staff members at Southwest Airlines—are nothing short of extraordinary. Their record speaks for itself. And the bottom line is that they have a lot of fun at work, and they work hard to keep Southwest’s employees and customers happy.

"I’m lucky to work where I do, because I like to have fun and laugh a lot, and you get that at Southwest Airlines. In fact, Herb and Colleen visit every new-hire pilot and new-hire flight attendant class, and they talk about how they want employees to use their unique sense of humor," Sartain says. "And we really encourage that throughout the company. About 10 years ago, Colleen created the Corporate Culture Committee, and I have served on that committee for the past five years. Our job is to do whatever we can to keep the corporate culture of Southwest vibrant and fun."

The Fun Starts Here

As a volunteer leader within SHRM, Sartain also has excelled. In fact, her professional career and her career as volunteer leader have closely mirrored each other. She says her involvement with SHRM has helped to develop and hone her leadership skills.

"Libby probably is the most supportive boss I have ever worked for as a volunteer for SHRM," says Larry Burk, SPHR, CCP, compensation manager for the Boy Scouts of America in Irving, Texas. "She is absolutely a delight to work for and with, particularly if you get her to laugh, and that’s not very hard to do."

Burk and Sartain moved up through the SHRM volunteer leadership ranks together. Burk succeeded Sartain as president of the Dallas HR Management Association, and both later served together on the SHRM Board of Directors. Burk says with a laugh that he has many fun memories and some good stories about working with Sartain.

"There are just too many good stories to tell, so I’ll just say that as long as I have known Libby, her love and dedication to the HR profession and SHRM are exceeded only by her commitment to her family and her sense of fun and good humor," Burk says.

Sartain will be the fourth SHRM board chair who also served as president of the Dallas chapter.

"Imagine following in the footsteps of Drew Young, John Quigley and Neal Bondy. These exceptional volunteer leaders paved the way for me in Dallas and now at SHRM," says Sartain.

Sartain credits Bondy, 1997 SHRM Board chair, as being a great mentor in her career as an SHRM volunteer. She says Bondy encouraged her to join the SHRM Compensation and Benefits Committee, which began her involvement with SHRM on a national level.

Sartain’s continuing success as an HR professional and as a volunteer leader in the Society have garnered her recognition as an outstanding HR professional. In 1998, she was inducted as a fellow to the National Academy of Human Resources, one of the top honors in the profession.

The Sky’s the Limit

Each SHRM board chair selects a theme for his or her tenure in office. Sartain’s theme is "The Sky’s the Limit," which plays off her role at Southwest Airlines. She believes the theme is particularly appropriate this year as the Society positions itself to reach new heights of excellence.

"SHRM has grown and grown, and the Society has become the recognized leader in the HR profession," Sartain says. "But we have to keep on getting better and moving ahead and avoid becoming complacent. There are too many other for-profit and not-for-profit organizations that would love to be the voice of our profession, so we have to stay on our toes."

Bill Leonard is senior writer for HR Magazine.


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