Training & Development the Southwest Way: An Interview with Kristi Owens

March 9, 2022

I recently had the opportunity to ask Kristi Owens, Vice President of Talent & Leadership Development, about training, development and culture at Southwest Airlines. I think you’ll enjoy reading about the approach Southwest is taking to train their People and immerse them in the Southwest Culture from day one.

Q: I love this phrase you use at SWA University: “Make Learning a Habit.” Can you tell us a little more about it?

At the end of 2020, we put together a new leadership development strategy. One of the things that came out of our development strategy session was the need for an annual commitment from our leaders on training and development. Prior to that point, a leader would go through initial development and then was not required to come back for another leadership development class. The problem with that is, say 20 years later, they’re still relying on the learning that they did when they started with Southwest 20 years ago.

Our goal with this new program is to create a learning culture where people are constantly learning and re-honing those skills. While the values we teach have stayed the same, some of the tactics and techniques have changed. Leaders are now required to commit to a certain number of learning events throughout the year.

Our leaders have been very receptive and excited about the new program! We didn’t realize how hungry people were for this, and it’s great to see them taking advantage of it. We hope that this will make learning a habit and create a learning Culture throughout the organization.

Q: When you have a new Employee, how in the onboarding process do you introduce them, and invite them to become contributors to, the Southwest Culture?

I have the most perfect example and it actually happened recently. Because of the pandemic, we have been doing all training virtually, but we just had our first in-person training classes in over a year and a half here in Dallas! Right before the pandemic, we built an amazing training center, but we weren’t able to use it until now.

On day one, everyone comes to “Now Onboarding” which is our eight-hour onboarding class. Before the day starts, we have what’s called the red carpet and we literally roll a red carpet down the hallway and we have it lined with current employees that are cheering them on. We have music pumping, and everyone is shaking pom poms and cheering on these new hires. Since it was Mardi Gras at the most recent one, we had people throwing beads from the second floor. Seeing this literally made me tear up because it is the first one we have had in two years.

It’s just the most amazing feeling. It gives you a shot of our Culture and really pumps up the new hires as they walk into their first class to learn all about the history of Southwest, who our founders were, and why they’re still so critically important to our story.

Q: What do you see as the through-line from investing in your Leaders to employee engagement organization-wide?

We want to make sure that our Leaders learn to walk the talk. Our hope is that whatever they learn from the leadership development courses would be cascaded down to those they lead. The People they lead should be able to witness their growth and development. At the end of our leadership events, we always ask “What are you going to do to cascade down to your employees?”

Q: What do you consider the most unique aspect of the Southwest Airlines’ approach to training and development?

I think the fact that we bring everyone to Dallas for their initial training is very unique. New hires get the red carpet rolled out for them on the first day of training, then they dive into the technical training program for their position. To me, it’s special just having all of them here in this building.

During the training, we always have one or two senior Leaders come in and talk to the students. It could be anyone from our CEO to a Director that comes in to welcome everyone and talk to them. We allow time for the students to ask questions if wanted and I think it’s just a really special way to wrap up the day.

Another thing that makes us unique is we weave fun through everything we do. We take our job seriously, but not ourselves.

Q: Any final words you might have to encourage the Unstoppable Cultures community in their Training and Development efforts?

My final piece of advice is to make training unique and personal. Not everyone needs training in the same areas. Empower your people to do the training that will help them fill the gaps they see in their development.

About Kristi Owens

Kristi is the current Vice President of Talent & Leadership Development at Southwest Airlines and has been on the Southwest team for over 21 years.

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