Southwest Airlines’ Approach to Developing Leaders

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Southwest Airlines has a reputation for incorporating fun into everything it does. So it’s no surprise the company makes fun an important element in its corporate learning program.

In a session during the recent Corporate Learning Summit in Chicago, Bonnie Endicott, senior manager of People Development at SWA, discussed how her company chooses and develops its future leaders, including a camping trip that takes participants out of their element.

"We go camping—we take them camping do some challenge courses," Endicott said. "You learn so much when you take people out of their element. We go to Arkansas—there are no phones in Arkansas, no cell service …"

Southwest’s University for People in Dallas offers leadership and corporate development courses that all employees can take advantage of. Some employees selected by their managers are tapped to take the company’s Management in Training (MIT) program, which creates a path for high-potential employees to move up into leadership positions.

A select few of MIT 1 graduates are able to move on to MIT 2, a six-month program that amplifies the managerial experience and provides a deeper level of executive training. All of the participants in the MIT 2 program have been interviewed by either the vice president of People or the chief people officer, and all are sponsored by vice presidents, who keep the learning going even when the MIT 2 program is not in session.

"They have conversations throughout the year about how they are doing, how are they growing, what opportunities are they having, what are they learning," Endicott said. "We encourage employees to talk about what they learn because when you don’t talk about what you learn and if you don’t get additional assignments using what you learn you’re going to lose it.

"We believe if you are going to learn and we’ve made that investment in you—and it’s an investment of about $25,000 in each of these folks—it’s not a good investment if you’re not going to use it," she said.

The program also features guest professors—leaders within Southwest who come in and teach classes to offer additional real-world perspectives. Plus, MIT 2 participants are able to spend time "shadowing" an executive so see how work is different—an extremely helpful experience for many, Endicott noted.

"If you like to be in the weeds with people you’re not going to be doing that as much as an executive, and these help you decide whether that’s something you really want to be doing," she said. "You need to figure out what’s your mojo, what’s your thing?"

One of the final program elements is a business simulation developed by Enspire Learning, a provider of simulation-based leadership programs. The simulation is designed to demonstrate what the participants have learned about change, their financial acumen and managing people, among other things, to run a successful business.

"Southwest wanted a capstone experience for non-financial managers to have a better business acumen, a better sense of the numbers and what drives shareholder value," said Bjorn Billhardt, CEO at Enspire Learning. "The simulation we are using not industry-specific—we firmly believe that in teaching the basic building blocks, it is a detriment to get into industry-specific application because people start to nitpick. Can distract very easily by getting into industry-specific areas."

Where the simulation does differ is in functional areas, he noted. "When we work with marketers it’s different from when we work with engineers. And that’s when we use specific debriefs, which are more meaningful for one function than another. And that is focusing decision-making on certain areas of the simulation."

"We try to engage folks in lots of different ways," Endicott added.

The camping trip, which is part of the MIT 2 program, is designed to take people away from their environment of comfort. It’s also designed to enable the participants to establish connections and forge long-lasting business relationships.

"If you do nothing else for the upcoming leaders in your organization, at least get them together to break bread and have fun because they will forge those lasting relationships," she said. "Moving up the organization’s ladder they will know who to call now. Business gets done so much better because people know each other."

During the six months of the MIT 2 program, which begins in February in ends in October, participants are away from their job for the whole week. In their absence, their work should be handled by their successor, Endicott said. "We try to make sure we coach their coaches so they are able to have that time away to learn."

Each week is an immersive experience, with all participants staying in a hotel together even if they live in the Dallas area. The idea, Endicott noted, is to provide that environment to forge those connections and keep their mind on learning, not on working or family or other outside obligations.

At the end of the six-month session, graduates of the program move into senior leadership positions. Endicott noted the current session has 16 participants, and the program normally has between 15 and 20 participants, all of whom were hand-picked.

"If we are going to spend this much money we need to make sure it’s the right people moving up," Endicott said.