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Using language to scale workplace culture

3 min read

Using language to scale workplace culture

In this interview with WestJet cofounder Don Bell, I explore the role that language played in helping WestJet scale and sustain key aspects of its culture.

As a cofounder of WestJet Airlines, Don Bell was the champion of the powerful people-centric workplace culture that was a key factor in the rapid growth of the company into a major airline. In this short interview, I explore the role that language played in helping WestJet scale and sustain key aspects of its culture.

Brad: Let's talk a bit about challenges of scaling a business. WestJet Airlines, which you cofounded, grew from what to what?

Don: Well, from nothing to over 10,000 people. One of the biggest challenges in growing businesses is becoming less intimate as you get larger. In smaller organizations it's very easy to know everybody and know their spouse and their dog and their kids names and so on. As you get larger that intimacy, for obvious reasons, can't be there.

But it doesn't mean that culture has to fundamentally change when an organization scales. It just means you have to use different tools and different tactics to keep people connected. I think that one of the neatest things about smaller companies becoming larger companies is staying true to your core, and your roots, and your core values. Even though intimacy is going to get diminished through size.

Brad: One of the techniques I know you used to help make that happen was around nomenclature.

Don: Yes. You mean around words like “guest” versus “passenger”?

Brad: Right. And “promises” versus “policies”.

Don: In changing what you call things, or even what you refer to your customer as, will covertly change the way you think of them. We changed what we referred to our customers as, from industry terms like passenger or “pax” (the short form) to “guest”. There are also industry acronyms like “wow” for walk on wheelchair and “cow” for carry on wheelchair. You can imagine what you would subconsciously think about what you called cows or pax. They became inanimate objects, not respected and revered customers. By referring to them as our guest it fundamentally changed how they were thought of and, in turn, treated.

Changing the way you refer to something automatically changes the way you think about it.

I think a change in the way you refer to something automatically changes the way you think about it. Using the example of Starbucks. How do they take what is essentially coffee with some steamed milk and sell it for 5 bucks? Part of what they do is they call it a ‘grande steamed latte’. It's prepared by a barista and that somehow takes on a completely different feeling. They would not get that five dollars if they just called it a ‘steamed milk and coffee prepared by some guy that's in a part-time job looking to build a career in the future’.

Brad: It’s amazing how just finding the right language can make such a difference.

About Leadership Conversations:

Our day job at Jostle is creating a platform that helps leaders engage employees, drive culture, and catalyze collaboration. Through this Leadership Conversations series we seek out top people-oriented leaders to explore these topics with us. If you know someone we should include in this series, please contact us at leaders@jostle.me.


Don Bell

Don Bell cofounded WestJet Airlines in 1996 and played a key role in quickly growing it to become Canada’s second largest airline. Don’s vision, ideas and leadership were instrumental in creating a powerful company culture based on employee engagement and empowerment. By focusing on its people, Westjet was named Canada’s Most Respected Corporation, won an International Entrepreneurship Award for Outstanding Teamwork in 2001, received the Waterstone Human Capital Award for Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Culture in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, and led the industry in terms of both growth and profitability. Don served many roles in WestJet including Co-Chief Operating Officer, EVP of Customer Service and as a Boeing 737 Captain. Prior to WestJet, Don spent 18 years as President and owner of a Calgary-based company that developed, installed and supported specialized software systems for enterprises. Don is a much sought after speaker on how employee engagement, commitment and teamwork delivers tremendous market advantages and business results. He is also the Chairman of Jostle Corporation.

Brad Palmer

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