One of the words I’m starting to hear at conferences and in business conversations is “intentional.” It means, of course, to do something on purpose or to be deliberate. Professionals are talking about having intentional discussions within the business or to implement something intentionally.
While on one hand you might question, “Shouldn’t everything be done intentionally?”, I think the addition of the word intentional is to add emphasis. It implies that the business thought about their options, discussed everything that needed to be discussed, and came to this decision. As a result, resources are being allocated to make it successful. It wasn’t taken lightly.
I found a great example of “intentional” decision making at Southwest Airlines. This Fall, I will be speaking at CPP’s MBTI© Users Conference. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a personality inventory designed to help individuals recognize their preferences and increase self-awareness. It is used by 89 of the Fortune 100 Companies. Also speaking at the event is Chris Robbins, senior program leader with Southwest Airlines University and a learning performance professional with over thirty years of experience. In his role at Southwest, he is focused on the professional development of the University’s 300+ staff.
I asked Chris if he would share with us some insights about the Southwest learning organization and, thankfully, he said yes.
Chris, give us a brief description of Southwest Airlines University and its role in the organization.
[Robbins] Southwest Airlines University is the single-source for training and development for our 54,000 Southwest Airlines (SWA) employees! It’s responsible for all training, except technical operations and flight operations (mechanics and pilots, respectively; required due to maintaining their Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certifications, although we do train their instructors and new hires in our orientation). Our 300+ SWA University instructors and training support staff are responsible for all initial and recurrent training in our new 500,000sf facility in Dallas as well as in every city we serve.
You mentioned that Southwest Airlines University has recently undergone a big change, can you offer some frame of reference for what the prior university was like?
[Robbins] Sure! In 2013, Southwest centralized training for consistency and shared services due in large part to our acquisition of AirTran Airways and their 8,000 employees. We saw the opportunity to further develop our instructors and developers and provide additional growth opportunities. Centralization also allowed us to develop consistent training policies, procedures, and project management for new training requests, such as our new reservations system and over-water procedures required for our new international service. While the mission remained the same, we transitioned from the ‘University for People’ to ‘Southwest Airlines University.’
In the past, each operational group had its own training department. For example, if you were hired to work at an airport as a ramp agent (baggage handler), customer service agent (at the ticket counter or gate), or provisioning agent (stocking drinks and snacks), you attended ground operations training in Dallas for your initial coursework and skills development, regardless of the city in which you were going to work.
If you wanted to become a flight attendant, you attended inflight training in Dallas before being assigned a ‘base’ (aka home city) in our network. If you were hired for one of our call centers as a customer representative (reservations sales and customer support), you attended initial training in your city, with content designed and delivered by customer support and services training. Even if you already possessed FAA certification as a licensed mechanic or pilot, you attended technical operations training or flight operations training in Dallas on our policies and procedures and on our aircraft.
After initial training, employees would attend ongoing required recurrent training at their locations on policy and procedure changes, CPR and first aid, and federal topics such as safety and airport security. This training was developed and delivered by each operational training group for their employees.
Separate from the operational groups, the University for People was the leadership and employee training and development team. We were responsible for all personal and professional development, including new hire orientation (every employee spent their first day in training with us, learning our history and culture), leadership development, elective courses (communications and other self-development topics), computer training (i.e. Microsoft Office suite), and facilitated meetings or intact workgroup teambuilding sessions such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI.)
Speaking of MBTI, both of us are speaking at this year’s MBTI Users Conference in September. I don’t want to give away your session; but can you share with us a bit about the “Leadership: Southwest Style” program (where MBTI is used.)
[Robbins] I’m proud to represent Southwest Airlines University, and grateful for the opportunity to share my passion for the MBTI! Leadership: Southwest Style (LSS) is our foundational leadership program for newly hired or promoted frontline leaders. We use the MBTI to help them understand and appreciate the differences in preferences in people that they’ll be leading and supporting.
But it doesn’t stop there. Once a leader has attended LSS, they often are so enthusiastic about the learning that they request their whole team go through the MBTI. We have offered various workshops for over 20 years, including Step I, Step II, In the Grip, and other custom sessions for intact workgroups.
One of the first things that caught my attention in the case study was the term “intentional learners.” What is an intentional learner and how does Southwest position employees to become intentional learners?
[Robbins] Intentionality is a reflection or manifestation of an adult learner’s independence. As stated in our company Mission Statement, our employees have an “equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.” We want people to take advantage of those opportunities, so we invite and encourage rather than demand or coerce. Some training is required, but we spend a lot of time and effort helping employees establish relevancy for themselves in their roles. We find people will learn more and actually apply what they learn if they’re treated as intentional and independent learners, and not treated like ‘prisoners’ or ‘vacationers.’
Outside of class, Southwest employees are encouraged to be creative and innovative to improve our effectiveness (another part of our Mission). We provide opportunities for employees to do a ‘Day in the Field’ and shadow or work alongside other employees in an area of interest. This way, they get to see what it’s like to ‘walk a mile’ in someone else’s shoes. Even if they don’t change jobs, participants have a deeper understanding and appreciation for different work groups and how they contribute to our success.
When it comes to learning, a lot has been said about how different generations view training and development. I can see this being especially true in transportation. The industry has the benefit of long-term employees and is growing, bringing young professionals into the field. How does Southwest Airlines University support their culture with a diverse workforce?
We have a proud and large work population that have made Southwest ‘home.’ In fact, we have less than 3 percent annual turnover! Many of our employees have been here 20+ years (myself included.)
That being said, we’re also hiring approximately 7,000 new folks each year, mostly GenX or Millennials. And, we’ll be seeing GenZ at work in just a few years! I developed a Generational Differences session in 2005, and it’s been updated and delivered to a variety of groups over the years. We often include a discussion about Type in that session since so many of our employees have been through a MBTI workshop. But it all comes down to living our values, including respecting others and following the Golden Rule.
Last question, here at HR Bartender, we try to do serious work but not take ourselves too seriously. Southwest Airlines is known for fun. Since we’re talking about learning, do you have a fun learning tip that you can share with readers?
[Robbins] That’s another one of our values! We take our jobs very seriously (we’d better – inherent risks abound in our industry), but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Just look at pictures of our Chairman, President, and CEO, Gary Kelly, dressed up for Halloween!
We value FUN reviews and icebreakers interspersed throughout our training sessions. A favorite is the ball toss review. After an information sharing session, have small groups of 4-6 circle-up, and gently toss a ball to each other while lively music plays. When the music stops (much like the game hot potato), the person with the ball must answer a question about what was just covered to their group. Repeat until everyone has had the chance to answer a review question.
We do another called snow ball fight – each learner writes a question related to what was just covered on a blank sheet of paper, along with their name at the top. Once they’re done, they get into a large circle, wad up the paper with their question into a tight ball, and throw their ‘snow balls’ at others in the circle while winter/holiday music plays. Once the music stops, they pick up a ‘snow ball’, find the author, and answer the question to the author’s satisfaction.
In fact, we teach these activities and many more to our instructors in a program I lead called Instructor Essentials. We discuss ‘Training: Southwest Style’ as being fun, engaging, and energizing for instructor and learner alike – we call it ‘professionalism, worn lightly.’
My thanks to Chris for sharing his professional expertise and a couple of training activities with us. I know I will be trying these out during my next training session. Regardless of your industry, being intentional is important. It sends the message that communication and decisions were well thought out and planned.
Oh and speaking of planning, if you’re a MBTI professional and looking to expand your knowledge of the inventory, consider joining us at CPP’s MBTI© Users Conference in San Francisco on September 26-28, 2016. I expect this to be one of those events where you learn just as much about yourself as you learn to share with others. It should be a fabulous time.
Southwest logo and mission used with permission.1