How to Transform Leaders: Insight From a Former Southwest Airlines Executive

How to Transform Leaders: Insight From a Former Southwest Airlines Executive

Businesses have invested in Leadership “training” for many years. According to Forbes, US companies spent $70 billion on corporate training in 2014 alone. Of this amount, 35% was allocated to leadership training. Sadly, companies are not developing effective leaders.

The ultimate objective in any leadership training is to transform leaders’ thinking and behavior on a long-term basis. Smart companies, therefore, have turned to “Leadership Transformational Training” versus “Leadership Training”.

Companies like Southwest Airlines, renowned for the quality of their training, have known this for years. As the manager for the University for People at Southwest Airlines, I was tasked with creating transformational development, not just provide a one-time educational session. How did we do this? Here are some tips:

When in a classroom, make training “fun”. Adults learn better when they are having fun.

Try this: Create trivia teams at the beginning of the class and have them compete throughout the day for “fabulous” prizes. Make the trivia relevant to the topics you are covering. We did this routinely and found that people stayed more engaged and remembered the information they learned while having fun.

Curiosity Helps Stay Ahead of Competition:

Make the experience “real”. One of the leadership competencies in today’s fast-changing environment is the value of curiosity. Curious leaders are always looking for new ideas in order to stay ahead of the competition.

Try this: Introduce your leaders to that concept in your session by having them break for lunch and, in teams, go to different restaurants. Before they return to the classroom, have them find someone to have a “curiosity conversation” with, then have them share their conversation with the rest of the class. We’ve had teams watch police chases, talk to homeless vets, and chat with bartenders who gave them the behind-the-scenes details of working at Disney. They then took the concept back to their teams.

Comfort Zones:

Take them out of their comfort zones. Create opportunities for the participants to get uncomfortable…very uncomfortable. We remember and learn from our “uncomfortable” moments because we don’t want to repeat them. Leaders should possess the ability to speak credibly in any given situation. Jerry Seinfeld said, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking… if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Try this: Prior to class, give leadership participants a book to read and tell them they will have to give a report to the class about the book. Then assemble an audience and when the participant comes into the room, have them present this report in front of a group of strangers. Add a twist by telling them it is a contest and the audience will be voting on who delivers their report the most effectively. When we did it, this exercise resulted in leaders realizing they needed to improve their presentation skills. Many left the session and signed up for Toastmasters.

Key Leadership Trait: Adaptability

Push Their Limits. Adaptability is another critical element in leaders today. Immerse them in an outdoor environment. Nature is unforgiving. Mountains don’t move. The individual has to adapt.

Try this: Take your group on an outdoor hike up a mountain. Equip them with everything they need (including a professional guide) and have them work, as a team, to physically push themselves to reach the summit. When we did this, the teamwork and individual lessons were rich.

Senior Leaders:

Involve senior leaders in the training. When participants see senior leaders participating and contributing to their learning, it helps in two ways. First, it shows that the senior leaders are open to learning and helping, and secondly, it allows the senior leaders to interact with and get to know the participants on a more personal level.

Try this: As a senior executive, volunteer to attend a series of classes with a group of high potential leaders. The CEO of one particular company I worked with was so committed to the learning journey of his senior executives that he attended every single session for a year. As a result, once the learning journey was completed, he was able to reassign some leaders to roles that better fit their strengths.

Leadership Training ROI:

Are you ready to take your training dollars and get a better return on your investment? Try these techniques and, like Southwest Airlines and many other smart companies, you will see your leaders’ thinking transformed. Stop investing in “training” and start “transforming” your leaders.

This article was written by: Lorraine Grubbs

Lorraine Grubbs recently co-authored “Beyond the Executive Comfort Zone: Outrageous Tactics to Ignite Individual Performance.” Grubbs is president of the consulting firm Lessons in Loyalty. As a former 15-year executive with Southwest Airlines, she takes principles and practices she helped develop to companies that strive for better employee engagement and loyalty.



Amanda Whitfield
Amanda Whitfield

Amanda Whitfield is a writer and speaker and a relationship builder. She believes that meeting people in person is important. After attending numerous fashion, startup, and creative events, she founded Windy City Cosmo is 2015 to help people make connections in the city as they build their businesses, start and end relationships and see and be seen. Over the past three years, the entrepreneurs she’s interviewed have become the most successful in Chicago and Windy City Cosmo won an award in 2017 for her work for female entrepreneurs.

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