Michelle Benham is the Director of the Customer Relations Department at Southwest Airlines. Her department is responsible for handling escalated post-travel concerns with the goal of ensuring Customer loyalty.As the Director of more than 450 employees, Michelle’s main priorities are to support and create a vision for her team. We interviewed this inspiring leader to learn what she carries in her Suitcase for Success.
Michelle began her journey at Wake Forest University where she completed her degree in business administration. Before Southwest, Michelle worked in the banking industry, was a director of an afterschool program, and was an instructor for air training—all of which helped her find her love for teaching and learning. This passion drives her every day to coach her Employees to provide them with the resources they need to succeed.
“The speed of a leader is the speed of the team” is Michelle’s life motto. Michelle mentioned that leading by example is an inevitable truth and that the passion and work ethic of a leader are demonstrated by the success of the team. Her leadership style has been shaped by the leaders she has encountered throughout her career. “They were all drivers,” she shared, “and that’s really where I think I get my passions for searching for ways to improve, creating a vision, and moving the business forward.”
Michelle attributes a lot of her leadership style to her first mentor she worked with after college who reinforced the importance of following through with promises. Her mentor taught Michelle the notion “If you say you’re going to do something, do it, and even if you don’t say you’re going to do it, still do it anyways.” This is a standard Michelle holds herself and her team to everyday.
Curiosity is another item Michelle keeps in her Suitcase for Success. She challenges her team to question everything. “In order to have a focus on continuous improvement, we need to always be asking why things are done a certain way or ‘Could there be a better way or a more efficient way to accomplish the same task?’” said Michelle. It’s through curiosity that new ideas bloom and it’s those new ideas that help Michelle to continue propelling her team and Southwest toward success.
A third item that Michelle suggests everyone carry in their own Suitcase for Success is meaningful relationships. She appropriately stated, “It’s not just a saying. Our people really are the most important asset here at Southwest Airlines. It is so important to build relationships throughout your career and you can start doing so on the first day of the job. You never know when you might need a favor or simply need someone else in your corner.” Success rarely happens in isolation; it is obtained by allowing others to help you and learning from them along your journey.
Once we learned what was in Michelle’s Suitcase for Success, she shared with us what is always in her travel suitcase. First, she always travels with Southwest’s version of thank you notes for Employees, otherwise known as “Kick Tails” by the Southwest team. Going back to her point on building meaningful relationships, she explained, “you never know when or where you’re going to want to thank someone.” Her second item is a pair of comfortable black shoes—super practical and fashion-forward. The last item that Michelle always travels with is her headphones. “I’m an introvert and there are just sometimes when I need to unplug and be in my own head for a while,” she shared. This time of self-reflection can be very beneficial for Michelle, and it is often the time when she comes up with new ideas.
As we ponder all the items in Michelle’s Suitcase to Success, it’s the perfect moment to think about what to add next into your very own Suitcase for Success.
Contributor: Ally Massimi