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Happy Place

Jul 01, 2015 10:20AM ● Published by Dia

By Audrey Sellers

Tom Klein met us (Southlake Style’s publisher, editor, art director and photographer) in the lobby 

of Sabre Corporation with a handshake and a smile. You wouldn’t expect the president and CEO of one of the world’s largest travel technology companies to greet you in person, but Klein was happy to welcome us himself.

He strolled with us through Sabre’s sprawling campus that sits right off Highway 114 in Southlake, giving us a personal tour of the building that’s home to 2,800 employees.

Sabre is the leading provider of technology to the global travel and tourism industry. At peak times, Sabre processes more than 100,000 messages per second. Headquartered in Southlake, the company operates offices in approximately 60 countries around the world.

Inside Sabre’s bustling global headquarters, people navigated from one place to the next, pausing momentarily to chat with a colleague. The place was abuzz with activity – but a good kind of activity. People weren’t frantic or harried. They were purposeful.

In the cafeteria, a band entertained the lunch crowd with live music that wasn’t too loud. Employees sat grouped together at circular tables, eating, laughing, and seemingly enjoying their workday. Everybody looked so happy.

It’s probably because they are. Last year, Sabre landed a spot on CareerBliss’ fifth annual “Happiest Companies in America” list. CareerBliss, a fulfillment-focused job search site, determines the 50 happiest companies each year.

It looks at the major factors that impact professional happiness: work-life balance, an employee’s relationship with his or her boss and co-workers, office environment, job resources, compensation, opportunities for professional development, and company culture.

When all of these factors were evaluated, Sabre surfaced as No. 31. We wanted to find out why – and perhaps pick up a few pointers from Klein. Looking to make us happy, he obliged.

He led us into his office (which is actually a larger-than-average cubicle with a wall of windows overlooking lush, green trees below). We all gathered around a long, rectangular, cocktail-height table. Klein preferred to stand while we took our seats. Everyone cracked open a cold bottle of water, and then we got down to the purpose of our visit: How did Sabre become one of the country’s happiest companies, and what can others learn from its success?

CREATING A CULTURE OF HAPPY

The answer could have taken any number of paths, but Klein summed it up simply: Create an environment that fosters friendship and collaboration.

“Having friends at work matters. Having camaraderie with people and collaborating with people you like matters,” Klein says. “We try to create an environment that gives people the chance to explore friendships.”

Considering that adults who are employed full-time work an average of 47 hours per week – almost a full workday longer than the standard 9-to-5 schedule – according to Gallup, creating a friendship-focused culture is a smart strategy.

People are logging more hours at work than ever before. If you’re going to be at the office, why not be working with people you like? It’s what works for Klein and the people at Sabre – whether they’re in Southlake or at one of the company’s offices around the globe.

Sabre offers several avenues for employees to build friendships at work. There are the lunchtime concerts (which happen weekly). There’s a cricket league that plays on campus. There’s even a 5K that employees can run or walk right on Sabre’s grounds.

If it’s not the friendship-friendly atmosphere that has employees riding high on happiness, it’s some of Sabre’s unique perks.

The company has an onsite medical clinic that’s staffed with a nurse practitioner. If a headache or runny nose has employees feeling down, they can swing by for treatment. If they’re traveling and want to get up to date on their vaccines, they can do it right on campus. No need to book an appointment, either. They can just walk right in.

“We’re interested in the health and welfare of our employees,” says Klein. “Healthy employees are good for everybody. It’s good for the company, and it’s good for the people who work here.”

Sabre also invites employees to keep track of things they do to stay healthy. As a result, they receive wellness credits, which allow them to get a discount on their health insurance contribution.

Sabre’s community involvement is another reason employees are smiling. The company has two campaigns that run concurrently each year: Give Together and Give Time Together.

Give Together raises funds for local charities, and it’s done at each of Sabre’s offices around the world. Give Time Together is about going out as a group and doing work in the community. The Sabre team has gotten together to do activities such as building a Habitat for Humanity house and volunteering with GRACE.

“We try to keep people involved and give them a chance to interact with each other in a way that’s different than just the day-to-day workplace,” says Klein. “Employees are happy that we give them the time to do these things. It’s not really the company doing good; it’s the company allowing our teams to do good and people to do good in the community.”

Community involvement isn’t just something that’s talked about – it’s encouraged and celebrated at Sabre. “When we find people who are doing extraordinary things, we highlight it,” says Klein. “Culturally, it’s become important.”

DECIPHERING HAPPINESS

Of course, when it comes to happiness, everybody is different. People aren’t motivated by the same things. This is a challenge that Klein faces consistently.“As a leader, you have to be able to tap into the individuals and try to understand what motivates them,” Klein says. “Then you need to get them to do the right stuff. It’s not simple.”

Some companies have Chief Happiness Officers and Employee Happiness Directors – people dedicated to creating a culture of happiness. Sabre doesn’t have any of these positions. Instead, it keeps its finger on the pulse through employee surveys and committees.

Every couple of years, Sabre conducts a deep employee survey. One will be going out to staffers this year. “We want to get a feel for what folks are thinking about and what’s important to them,” says Klein. “We want to address all the things that matter to people when they come to work every day.”

Once the survey results are in, employee committees are established to address different aspects of the survey. Employees are asked to champion ideas and make recommendations. Klein doesn’t just want the executive team to see the results and make some adjustments; he wants to create a dialogue.

“It’s important to get out and talk to folks,” he says, “and have employees tell us things they’d like to see or changes we should make. I think that matters.”

Getting out and talking to people is a big part of the happiness culture at Sabre. Klein isn’t holed up in an office all day with the door shut. In fact, Klein doesn’t have a door. He doesn’t even have an office. Anybody can walk into his cubicle and share what’s on their mind. “Being inclusive and having a leadership team that’s open and available is crucial,” he says.

That’s how everyone stays on the same page. It’s how employees understand their purpose for being at work every day. It’s how trust is built.

“It starts with making sure everyone understands what we’re trying to do as a company,” he says. “Then we can celebrate successes as they happen. People like to feel that progress.”

Open communication and regularly celebrating employees’ successes are two defining characteristics of Klein’s leadership style. And, like most leaders, his style has evolved over the years.

Before joining Sabre, Klein held a variety of sales, marketing and operations roles at American Airlines and Consolidated Freightways, Inc. His first role with Sabre was leading a Sabre joint venture in Mexico. Klein then went on to serve in a number of leadership roles at Sabre, including company president and group president of Sabre Travel Network and Sabre Airline Solutions.

In these roles, he learned how to motivate people in effective ways. He never wanted his employees to act out of fear or because they were told to do something. Instead, he inspired employees to work at something because they would be successful at it.

“Great leaders get stuff done with influence – not a big stick,” Klein says. “It’s important for employees to know that you’re behind them and that you have their back.”

When employees do well – even if it’s not at Sabre – Klein feels fulfilled. During his career, he’s had employees go off and start their own companies or take big jobs at other companies. He’s happy for them all the same.

“The most rewarding part of the job is seeing people succeed; seeing them get wins,” he says. “Whether it’s a career win by getting promoted or seeing someone have personal success. That’s increasingly the enjoyable part. I take a lot of pride in their success.”

DON’T FORGET TO HAVE FUN

Laughter is another key component in a culture of workplace happiness. Something that makes Klein laugh is what he calls “Dilbert” moments – those times when the company is at risk of becoming a parody.

On NBC’s “The Office,” which had its final episode in 2013, Dunder Mifflin, the much-adored fictional paper company upon which the show was based, was acquired by a company called Sabre. Michael Scott, the paper company’s endearingly foolish manager, mispronounced Sabre as sah-bray, and the next run of episodes played out in uniquely funny ways.

“We got a big kick out of that story line in the show,” says Klein. “I always think: We’re just one step away from being Michael Scott or a ‘Dilbert’ cartoon. Any time I see a ‘Dilbert’ moment coming, I just have to laugh.”

Outside of the office, Klein cooks, skis, attends art shows in Dallas, and, although he’s not a “sports guy” (as he puts it), he sometimes catches a Rangers or Mavs game. His family keeps him busy.

He’s been married for 20 years, and he and his wife have two daughters: a 14-year-old and 16-year-old. His oldest daughter just started driving. “It’s an eventful time,” Klein laughs. With his daughter now behind the wheel, Klein has just one more reason to smile.

Sabre employees weigh in with why they’re happy to be part of the Sabre team.

“It’s a place that motivates me to excel and celebrates me when I do. I’ve been a guest blogger on Tnooz, spoke at SXSW, and have my first book coming out in August. Hitting stretch goals like these can happen in a culture that encourages all of us to be awesome.” 

Ken Tabor, product engineer

“My management has always encouraged me to expand my skill set. Not only have I been given the opportunity to work in several different roles over the past eight years, but I have gotten to work with the best in the business all across the globe. The people at Sabre are the best, bar none.”

Jenn Petric, hotel and media sales

“We are encouraged to try new things and to collaborate across our different businesses to be creative thought leaders. It’s also inspiring to be part of a corporation that encourages community involvement and volunteerism.”

Tyra Jordan, global corporate responsibility manager

“I’ve found Sabre to be a comfortable environment where I can grow and prosper as a young professional. When I’m on video calls with colleagues from all over the globe, I can’t help but embrace the diversity. I couldn’t have made a better choice of a place to start my career.”

D’Andrea Willis, marketing coordinator


SABRE AT A GLANCE

• Founded in 1960

• Includes three businesses: airline, hospitality and travel network

• Publicly traded company (NASDAQ: SABR) with revenues exceeding $2.5 billion

• Sabre’s technology processes over $110 billion of travel spend and more than 1.1 trillion system messages each year

• Ranked 11 consecutive years on the InformationWeek 500 “Most Innovative Technology Companies” list

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