A Deep Dive into the Learning Elements of Southwest's High Potential Leadership Development Program

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

This article is third in a series focused on leadership development for high potential leaders. In particular, I'm sharing details behind a program called MIT (Managers-in-Training) Level II for high-potential leaders at Southwest Airlines that has been running for more than 30 years now. For context, start with this introductory post.

In this article, we'll dive into the program design, discuss the learning elements of MIT II and take a close look at one of the weeks within the six-week program. We’ll also discuss the importance of blended learning.


The last article shared The Authentic Leadership Model that provided context and connectivity for the skills we targeted for the MIT II program. It was built upon Southwest's Expectations for Leaders and Senior Leaders, with particular focus on the skills needed at the director level of leadership. Read more here to learn how the model was developed.


I reference the model as we'll use it along with the identified objectives as the content direction for each of the six-weeks of the MIT II program. Yes, IKR! Six-weeks is a very generous period of time to invest in a program. I can't claim the wisdom of that decision - it had been established early in the history of the program. I was simply determined to make the most of those weeks so that we kept them intact and valued.

MIT II Program Elements

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I was recruited to update the program, rather than create fresh. The great thing about this? There were several elements already included that were fantastic and met the program objectives. These included a new action learning project that had recently been incorporated and elements like "Shadow a Leader" where participants shadow an executive for a day, a community service project and Camp MIT. These elements we kept, because don't mess up good things.

Other elements that we built into the program:

  • Presentation skills training to prepare participants for the culmination of their action learning project - a presentation to our senior leadership committee

  • Executive sponsorship

  • 360° assessment

  • Book discussions with senior leaders

  • Lunches with senior leaders

  • Practical skill development

  • Online financial acumen module

  • Business simulation capstone

Let me jump around a bit here to share with you why we added a few of these elements to the program design:

  • Time with senior leaders is an element of exposure that is key to any high-potential program. If folks are labeled high-potential, you want to broaden the visibility they have to senior leaders, as well as the visibility senior leaders have to them.

  • Business simulations are a fantastic way to synthesize all of the elements you've built into your program. In this case we focused on strategic thinking and business acumen, but I've seen assessments and simulations that synthesize those two elements, as well as typical skills in leadership development programs such as leading meetings and providing coaching.

  • I like the definition of action learning from this HBP article: "Action learning is….a learning experience that includes a problem, an action, a group of peers and the crucial piece: built-in reflection." I don't so much agree that action learning projects are terribly difficult to administer. But I also don't think that every learning program should have a full-fledged let 'em run with it action learning project, as we do with MIT II. I'll save details about MIT II's action learning project for another time. The basics are that we organize the class into small cohorts to assess a business opportunity within specific parameters. We give them four months to develop their proposal and then they present them to the executive team. It's a highlight day for the executives and more than half of the recommendations have gone into "production" mode. It's cool stuff.

Blended learning. That's just the way to build a solid learning plan. We included a lot of it. Blended learning is using multiple learning methods to build skills. These days of course, it's silly to not incorporate a digital component to learning in some capacity. Back in 2009, I wasn't quite that savvy, so along with traditional face-to-face learning, we also included books, 360° assessments + coaching, an online module and lots of doing. Plus, The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) published research on the importance of learning "on the job" and 70/20/10 was all the rage in the L&D community, especially for talent growth and leadership development. 70/20/10 reflects that people learn 70% of what they know from job-related experiences, 20% from interactions with others and only 10% from formal education. Thus, you'll find a large component of job-related and doing kinds of learning in MIT II.



Value of Networking

A quick side-bar here on another element of the program that was not new but that we amped up, especially as we recognized the importance and value - networking. MIT II is an immersive experience, in that participants are with their cohort class for the entire week, from Sunday evening dinner through Friday afternoon's debrief. Even if local, they stay in the hotel so that they can continue discussions over dinner or a drink. One of the consistent values participants report is that the relationships they build throughout the year are one of the best personal values of the program. They are creating a network to call upon throughout their careers, but also as they promote up together. Classes often share that they host reunion happy hours to continue the networking with their classmates. You didn't see "create a strong network of cohorts" in the objectives or program purpose statements. Nevertheless, it's a key outcome for effective high potential programs. You want leaders to create lasting relationships and to know each other well.



Using ADDIE

A coaching moment now for those new to the learning and development field. At this point in the training design process, I've loosely worked my way through the design step in the ADDIE model. We've analyzed needs, collected data and built program objectives along with a loose design of the overall program.

ADDIE is an instructional design model used to organize how you collect data (Analyze), Design, Develop then Implement and Evaluate a learning program. As a young trainer, I grew up using ADDIE as a flexible framework to develop learning programs. There are other great models out there, and you should check them out. I suggest ADDIE, as it's been an easy fallback for most any talent program I've developed.

If ADDIE is new to you, here are a couple of resources to reference:

  • Association for Talent Development (ATD) should be a go to for you for training & development basics. They provide an article with a good summary of ADDIE here.

  • Here's a fun infographic with quick descriptions.

Weekly Snapshot

Let's look at how the program elements came together into one of the MIT II weeks. This week-at-a-glance is from the early curricula where participants presented strategic proposals to the senior leadership committee on Monday, and then we filled up the rest of the week with influencing and the simulation capstone. We've since realized that it's a lot to expect for the week and they need a break after the presentation. The presentation is a really big deal - an excellent learning opportunity and full of anxiety and accomplishment. I'd love to tell you all about it at another time.



As you are designing a learning program, it's important to connect design elements with your learning objectives and any models you've earmarked. In this case, let's assess a few of the elements in this particular week-at-a-glance with The Authentic Leadership Model and the core objectives:

  • The strategic presentations cover a lot of ground with our objectives and hit several elements on The Authentic Leadership Model. One of the learning objectives was to "assess business opportunities using a strategic planning process and make recommendations to the Executive Team." Check. On The Authentic Leadership Model, it also focuses on knowledge and skills in "Know Your Stuff" and "Lead Inspirationally."

  • Influencing skills are key across a broad array of leadership competencies, from communication to inspirational leadership to relationship building. It was also one of our program purpose statements, and impactful for "Develop People" and "Lead Inspirationally" on The Authentic Leadership Model.

  • We've already talked about the business simulation. It fit nicely here as a kind of capstone exercise on strategic thinking.

  • We wrapped up the week with time spent on individual development plans, which is also an objective of the program.

You hopefully also noted things like evening events. In this week we happened to engage Herb & Colleen for lunch. Those were precious times of open Q&A and leadership advice from the founders. Herb & Colleen were moving into emeritus status at the time and made space in their still busy calendars for opportunities like this. They told stories and shared opinions and laughed… a lot.

In this article, we covered the MIT II program design and learning elements with a peek at one of the weeks-at-a-glance. Also, blended learning - do it. In the next article, we'll talk about building a communication strategy for a learning program, and we'll use the communication plans we engaged for MIT Level II as a sample.

People are sharing that these articles about MIT are providing good ideas for your own work. I'm so glad to hear that. Scroll on down and join the mailing list. It'll let you know when a new article is ready to review. And comments, love those. I'd love to hear about a development program you've built and how you set it apart.