A Foolproof Flight Plan for Training Leaders & Elevating Employees

Frederick Jerant Human Resources, Issue 14 - Nov/Dec 2014 Leave a Comment

As VP of Southwest Airlines University, Elizabeth Bryant encourages employees to spread the LUV

Bryant_Elizabeth_quoteSince its founding in 1967, Southwest Airlines (SWA) Co., the world’s largest low-cost carrier, with headquarters in Dallas, Texas, has done things a little differently. Don’t be surprised to find pilots helping to stow bags, or flight attendants who pop out of overhead bins and pepper their boilerplate safety announcements with verbal gags.

In 1996, the airline founded University for People, a broad-based function providing classes in leadership, professional development, project management and even emotional intelligence as avenues to achieving one’s full potential. One thing it lacked, though, was a centralized training function.

“Every department—flight attendants, ground operations and so on—had its own dedicated training staff,” said Elizabeth A. Bryant, Vice President of SWA University. “About 300 people were involved. Some used a particular instructional-design methodology; others didn’t. Some groups measured the effects of their programs; some didn’t.”

In fact, several departments had separately drawn contracts with the same vendor.

E Pluribus Unum

By combining 11 separate functions, in 2011 the company created SWA University, a leaner-focused, more efficient operation, and invested in building a state-of-the-art training facility situated next to Southwest’s headquarters. Its 36 classrooms are used for typical instruction as well as hands-on experiences.

Prior to creating SWA University, Bryant held advanced leadership positions during her 15 years with Southwest. Education is practically in her blood. She holds degrees in Communications Studies and Speech Communication, and previously taught business communication courses at Indiana University and College of San Mateo.

As the head of more than 200 training specialists at Southwest, Bryant stresses that, “You can’t be an effective leader if you’re not engaged. Some people think it’s an employee’s job to keep the leader informed. For me, it works both ways. It’s why I keep an open-door policy. If something’s going on, tell me about it!”

She also schedules weekly one-on-one meetings with direct reports. It’s a time to cover business matters, to counsel, to coach… and to stay informed.


In most corporate cultures, calling attention to your own efforts is standard procedure. But a key value at Southwest is “servant leadership,” an approach that values the building of synergistic relationships instead of accumulating power.

“It’s a simple idea, but it can be hard to wrap your head around it,” Bryant said, “especially if you’re accustomed to making sure your efforts are noticed. At Southwest, the development of your team and its success reflect your leadership. I often tell leaders that your IQ gets you the job, but your EQ [emotional quotient] gets you where you’re going.”


Performance Parameters

Prior to 2005, determining whether you were getting where you were going was an arduous task. “When we added up all the published performance metrics, we found over 80 employee expectations,” Bryant said. “And when everything matters, nothing matters.”

That revelation led to formulating a much simpler set. Employees are expected to display their Servant’s Hearts, Warrior Spirits and Fun-LUVing Attitudes. Leaders focus on developing people, building great teams and thinking strategically.

Bryant holds up her end by setting goals and providing constructive feedback; putting the right person in the right job; anticipating tomorrow’s needs; and casting compelling visions.

And direct communication is essential. “If you want to build community and trust in your team, you should encourage open and honest conversations, regardless of a person’s title,” Bryant said.

Southwest views its personnel as a family, and Bryant strives to build personal relationships with her direct reports. “If you’re in it for the long haul, you need to develop a sense of trust and be willing to compromise,” she said. “Life events happen, and you need to deal with them.”

She knows that firsthand. When the stress of her infant daughter’s sleepless nights had her on the verge of quitting, her boss (Executive Vice President and Chief People and Administrative Officer Jeff Lamb) suggested a flexible, reduced-hour schedule. His reasoning was simple: better to have her at 50 percent than not at all.

Bryant_Elizabeth_photo2_sidebarLooking Up to Others

Bryant sees having mentors as a key to continuous growth. “Nobody knows everything. Getting advice and coaching from others is critical to being a good leader,” she said.

She points to Lamb as one of her key mentors. “I got to know him well, and he taught me some significant lessons. One was that truth and grace should go hand in hand. When you’re giving feedback, tell the truth, but do it with kindness and respect.”

Other key influencers include Colleen C. Barrett, currently President Emeritus of Southwest, whom Bryant cites as the ultimate example of servant leadership. Additionally, Bryant’s own grandmother, who taught her always to fight for the underdog.

Fits Just Right

Southwest’s quirky culture includes an unusual incentive program: Tickets for Time. For every 40 hours of employees’ volunteer time at a qualifying nonprofit organization/school, the organization/school can receive a free round-trip ticket (up to six per calendar year) for fundraising or transportation needs. In 2013, employees donated nearly 145,000 hours of their time. That translated to 2,171 tickets with a total value approaching $900,000.

Bryant concedes that Southwest’s culture isn’t for everyone, but those who fit tend to stay. The airline boasts of a voluntary turnover rate of less than 4 percent per year.

“[At other companies], when you don’t fit in, everyone will know it and you’ll work hard just to prove yourself. With the right fit, you’ll still work hard, but you’ll concentrate on adding value,” Bryant said. “At Southwest, I can bring my true self every day—and deliver my best work.”

Frederick Jerant is a freelance writer based in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

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