Nuts! – Book Interview

I recently interviewed Bernie Arseneau, Mn/DOT Division Director for Policy, Safety and Strategic Initiatives. Berine is my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss 🙂

We talked about the 7th book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series, Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg 


Tang: Why did you pick this book? 

Arseneau: I like the idea of having fun at work. Being professional does not mean being serious all the time. Professionalism does not exclude fun, humor and celebration in the workplace. “Nuts!” resonates with me for what I value and appreciate.    

Tang: How did you like the book? 

Arseneau: The first six or so chapters were hard to stay interested in. They are about the history and background of Southwest Airlines. But then starting with chapter seven it gets much more interesting. I really like the last few chapters. They are more of the climax of the book.   

Tang:  What are the last few chapters about that you really like? 

Arseneau:  In chapter 20, “Employees come first,” Southwest’s mission statement is presented. It is not the typical mission statement you find in many organizations. 

The first part is addressed to customers: “The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.” 

The second part addresses the employees: “We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer. 

The point is that great service begins at home. Putting employees first is really important. When we take good care of our employees, they take good care of our customers. 

Chapter 21 “Leaders leading leaders” talks about leadership. 

Leadership is not a one way communication where one leads and the others follow. Leadership is two way communication. Leaders collaborate. At Southwest, leadership is practiced through collaborative relationships. In a collaborative relationship, the roles of leader and collaborator are interchangeable. They are partners in solution. Leadership is something all employees do together. 

 Tang:  What are some other ideas or concepts from the book that stood out for you? 

Arseneau:  Chapter 18 “Unconventional advertising” mentions three things that Southwest Airlines strives to do in its advertising: aiming to intrigue the audience, to entertain and to persuade. Southwest communicates its mission in a fun, zany, yet highly effective way. It told its story to the public and captured the attention and hearts of many. The Southwest story shows that you can have humor and fun at work. It not only increases productivity but also builds a great spirit. 

The chapter also talks about making every employee a living advertisement. I really like that. I like to see every person at Mn/DOT as an ambassador and leader for Mn/DOT.

Tang: The author talks about the Southwest Spirit. It’s the spirit of liberty and freedom that encourage employees to use their imagination, express their individuality, and exercise leadership. It’s the spirit that engages the minds, hearts and souls of the Southwest employees to do the right thing. It’s the spirit that ignites the burning desire in every employee to excel. Do we have a Mn/DOT Spirit? 

Arseneau: Within Mn/DOT, we have groups of people in functional areas of work, such as maintenance or safety, who work together with incredible dedication and a great spirit. But sometimes it seems that we are not as strongly linked together as a complete organization. It would be great to grow our organizational spirit into a robust, overarching Mn/DOT spirit, across all Mn/DOT functional areas, like the spirit that is so evident at Southwest Airlines. 

Tang: How can we foster such a spirit? 

Arseneau: First we need to help employees understand that no matter what you do, where you work and what position you hold in the organization, we all work for a common purpose. Each brings value to the organization. Each can make a big difference. We are one family striving to be the global leader in delivering a safe and efficient transportation system for the public. We need to go beyond our functional areas and work together more closely throughout the organization. 

Then, we need to do a better job communicating internally. Like Commissioner Sorel always says, tell our stories, acknowledge our successes, and celebrate our achievements. We should publish stories of extraordinary service in the newsletter, focus on the positives as learning opportunities more than the negatives.      

Not only we should engage all employees to be leaders, we also need to engage their hearts and minds. You can’t foster a spirit without people’s heart and mind engaged and without their being passionate about what they do. 

When we put employees first, practice the collaborative approach of servant leadership, the spirit will grow. 

Tang: The current Mn/DOT leadership team has been doing a better job in terms of creating opportunities to make Mn/DOT a fun workplace to work. This has definitely raised moral and team spirit. I have heard very positive feedback from fellow employees. What can you do better as a leader?  

Arseneau: One way is to reach out and connect with employees more regularly and nontraditionally. Our calendars are filled with meeting appointments. By learning to delegate, time can be opened up so that employees can be engaged  and empowered to be more independent and to be decision makers. Our job is to help people understand their purposes and roles in the organization and then empower them and support them to do their job. By having trust and confidence in people, they will rise to the expectations. 

Tang:  Can you share some insight you gained from reading the book? 

Arseneau:  An old saying is that, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” I once learned that a good leader’s job is not to lead the horse to water or to make him drink, a good leader’s job is to make the horse thirsty so that he will go to water and drink by himself. Each person needs to take ownership of his own work and life. The desire has to come from within the individual, to drink, to thrive and excel. 

We need to allow, encourage and empower employees to think creatively and risk intelligently, so they can come up with innovative ideas and solutions, be the leaders and decision-makers in whatever they do. 

Tang: Please share some quotes from the book that are very meaningful for you. 

Arseneau: “Make rules, systems, and procedures your servants, not your masters.” (p. 95)

 “Humor and creativity go hand in hand – ‘HA HA leads to the AHA!” (p.212)

“Love chooses service over self-interest. Love uses power to serve and wealth to expand its capacity to serve.” (p. 234)

”The customer is not always right. Employees, not customers, come first.” (p. 268)

“True happiness is found in serving a cause that we believe has lasting significance.” (p. 281)

Tang: Tell us a little bit about your reading habits. 

Arseneau: Comparing to my wife who can go through a couple of books a week, I am a light reader. Outside of work, I like to read mysteries, books that are light and action packed for a mental getaway. One of my favorite authors is John Sanford who wrote the Prey Series.