Introducing MIT: High Potential Leadership Dev, Southwest Style

Friends & Talent Folk, apologies for the pause in posts! Life happens, as you know. With the COVID-19 spiral + attention needed at work + recovering from jet lag due to a lovely vacation + pinpointing exactly how I'd like to roll out this series, I am late with my post. You likely don't realize that. "But I do," says the responsible inner voice. "Whatever - onward!" says the futurist inner voice. And can we really do any different?


This post is an introduction to a new series focused on leadership development for high potential leaders. Southwest has a unique program that builds talent pools for two groups of mid-level leaders. It's called MIT (Managers-in-Training). It's rather a misnomer, as the program is geared towards building skills and business acumen for leaders who have been leading others for a few years already. Regardless of the name, as of 2019, the program has been alive and well for 30 years within the organization. The MIT brand at Southwest is a strong one within the company, and that's peachy - no need to change what works.

Photo Opp with Herb Kelleher, Aug 12, 2008
with Herb Kelleher, Aug 12, 2008

In 2008, I was hired on to the Southwest Airlines People Team with the primary task of giving a face-lift to the already great leadership development program, MIT. It was a fantastic opportunity. I mean, working with one of the top brands in the world, and one that applies a people-first filter to all decisions. Yes and thank you.


At the time I was finishing up an MBA, and remember while being wowed by what I'd already experienced at Southwest, skeptical that the case studies covered during classes could be 100% true, all the time. I can attest that the case studies are 100% true, all the time. Executive leaderships makes time and space for leadership development, whether mentoring, instructing classes, round tables, lunches, you name it. I was hired during the great recession. Other companies were canceling training and development, laying off talent folks and putting a damper on talent programs. Really, just the time you should be focused on building inspiring leaders who can keep the lights on and folks engaged. At Southwest, we were focused on using the experience to grow leaders and demonstrate how to lead in a lean environment and with heart in challenging situations.


Yes, it was a fantastic opportunity, and the honor of being chosen for the role has not been lost on me. I've been with Southwest almost 12 years now, and the journey has been amazing.


My inner voice also says, "Focus!"

Right. Where I'd like to dive into this particular series is with a focus on one level of the MIT program, called MIT Level II. Level II was designed for high-potential managers with the intention of pipe-lining them to the director level of leadership.


My charge was to center the program on solid leadership principles and move it away from primarily what I'll call "SWA acumen" and into experiential leadership development. At the time MIT II, was a longer, souped-up version of MIT Level I, which was built to give leaders a comprehensive understanding of Southwest's business. MIT I was developed to pipeline leaders from the supervisor to manager level of leadership. MIT II needed to be focused on building leadership skills for high potential senior leaders.


In making updates, I wanted to preserve key elements of the program that seemed to be working well and were already supported by the organization, such as the immersive expectation, a newly introduced action learning project, length of the program at six weeks and a "finale" experience at Camp MIT. I'll own that stepping into this kind of opportunity is a dream for most learning professionals. Never in my previous L&D career had I experienced the overwhelming support for leadership development, the investment and the expectation that we need to be building great leaders for the organization.


As with any program, there are always opportunities for improvement, and that's where I wanted to dive in. But first, let me tell you high-level about the program to set context. That will help when we dive into specifics such as objectives and models.


Ok, give me the skinny on MIT II. What is it exactly?

In bullets, because it keeps it to-the-point:


  • Six-week immersive leadership development experience

  • Target audience are Managers & Sr Managers identified as high-potential via annual talent reviews

  • Each of the class weeks center on a theme, such as "Inspirational Leadership." "Leading as an Executive" or Camp MIT

  • Assessments include MBTI, 360° and Strengths

  • Blended learning is key - they read books, spend time with executives over lunch, participate in a roundtable with our CEO and his direct reports, learn and practice stuff in class, and more

  • Key experiences include an active learning project (Which I'll tell you more about in another post - it's become quite the thing. Participants dread it and executives love it. Participants likely grow the most from this project.), attending the Shareholders' meeting, lunch with a member or two of the Board of Directors and mentorship by an executive leader

Sidenote: The MIT Program Team runs three MIT programs annually, plus a host of other leadership development initiatives. This was the small but mighty team of three when I began in July 2008. These amazing ladies taught me the finer points of running a top-notch program with incredible hospitality, providing POS - no, not that POS. "Positively Outrageous Service," as we like to say. I hope they don't mind me celebrating the good 'ol days with this shout out.


The place to begin… Input, Vision & Objectives

In this first article, let's talk about the approach taken to hone in on the core objectives and purpose of the new program. Specifically, let's cover:


  • Collecting input, such as stakeholder interviews and good old fashioned research

  • Clarifying the vision and purpose

  • Identifying program objectives


Reminder of the task: transform the existing MIT II program from a "SWA acumen" experience to one focused on developing high potential leaders for director level roles.


Let's talk first about collecting needed input.

As with all good needs analysis, where do you begin? Customers, right! The opportunity as a new leader at Southwest was a great reason to make time with executive stakeholders across the company to learn more about what they'd like to see from the program. Plus, my boss was great about ensuring I met key leaders, making that introduction and setting the stage for building relationships and making the needed connections. My boss' support with networking within Southwest gave me room to share the voice and influence needed to launch new programs.


Over the course of several months and a host of meetings with executives, I collected and synthesized notes about what was working and what wasn't working with the program, where they'd like to see an improvement of skills for their leadership teams, what they saw on the horizon as important for leaders at Southwest, and so forth. While quantitative data has it's place, sometimes there are more subtleties you can glean from qualitative, anecdotal input, especially with a program that wasn't broken. It just needed a redirection.


At the same time, I immersed into all the current leadership development theory and techniques. I wanted to be sure what we incorporated into the program was the latest and greatest, and focused on leadership capability needed in the next ten years. There is a wealth of info available on leadership competencies, capabilities, best practices and the like. There's no need to recreate the proverbial wheel, unless that's your thing, of course. Then please create and share the goodness!


Program data available to us included Level 1 participant feedback from previous MIT programs and a plus / delta chart (google it, if that's a new term) debrief by the team each week. We also ended each class week with a quick participant debrief, as well as asking for input in the follow-up Level 1 survey. We were emphatic that their feedback was critical to the ongoing success of the program and that we would incorporate input from one week to the next. The great thing about the participating leaders - they took us up on the offer and the feedback was rich.


Then we set a vision and clarified the purpose.

As we distilled the feedback and began to formulate objectives, we ensured with our stakeholder group that we were focused on the right vision and objectives.


I was digging through materials looking for that initial vision and purpose statement we set for the program. I found a slide deck from August 2008 that is as close as I can remember. Here was our slide on vision and purpose:

Not rocket-science in the least. It was simple, and linked to the Employee and Leadership Expectations that are integral to how we hire, train, develop and manage people at Southwest. It also focused on three skills that needed attention at the time - strategic thinking, influencing and communication. For funsies, note that snazzy logo in the top right of the slide. We're looking at vintage material from back when every program and initiative at Southwest had a catchy logo and matching t-shirt!


Once we were centered and stakeholders were aligned, the next step we took identified specifics. You can go many directions with a program. It's key to identify the handful of objectives that you must tackle to deliver on the vision and purpose.


Don't design until you identify effective objectives.

Indeed, a solid training and development program begins with well constructed objectives. Now, I'm not a stickler for a proper objective - I don't really do rules. But I do believe in well constructed objectives that are behavioral, demonstrable and get to the point of what you want folks to learn, experience or do differently as a result of a program. Keeping them simple, purposeful and clear - that's the thing.


If you're new to learning, there are a couple of models you should be informed about:

If you're not a full-time instructional designer, learn enough to be dangerous and apply the principles. Designing learning can be a deep science, and if that's your jam - many kudos to you! Either way, both approaches are great tools to add to your tool belt as you design learning experiences.


For MIT II in 2008, we narrowed down the objectives to:

  • Assess business opportunities using a strategic planning process and make recommendations to the Executive Team

  • Debate and discuss the business of Southwest, the state of the airline industry and the impact of today’s economy on our future

  • Experience “Leadership in Action” through shadowing a Leader and attending a Shareholder’s Meeting

  • Discuss the unspoken rules of Leadership at Southwest and their importance in effective Leadership

  • Think strategically in delivering customer service

  • Demonstrate a Servant’s Heart through planning, preparing and executing a Share the Spirit initiative

  • Practice and promote Living the Southwest Way

  • Create an Individual Development Plan focusing on your continued growth as a Leader


Once objectives were identified, socialized and approved, we began the work to develop content and shape the learning weeks. We'll pick up in the next article on the leadership development model we used to center the topics.


Until then, I would welcome your thoughts on how you approach objective design and establishing a purpose for learning. There are certainly new and innovative approaches to instructional design. Or, questions on the MIT Program that I can answer without getting into other posts? Please sign-up and post a question or share your insight.