Southwest Airlines has an industry-standard approach to promoting people from within. Sonya LaCore actually began as a flight attendant, rose through many levels of service leadership with in-flight crews, and today is the leader of all in-flight operations. This conversation is about that journey, her calling to serve, and more.
What does “in-flight operations” mean?
Her department takes care of planning and scheduling flight attendants. There are 10 base locations for flight attendants, with leadership in each location. While on-board, her department makes sure they stay safe, compliant, and offer excellent customer experience from boarding to touchdown. Essentially, it’s a combination of human elements and safety elements.
Assessing the work to be done
As a flight attendant, Sonya noticed a “us vs. them” mentality between the flight attendants and the leaders. “I knew I could sit on the jump seat and complain about it, or do something about it,” she notes. That’s why she wanted to pursue a leadership role at Southwest. She makes a good point in this section: when you hire, train, on-board, and develop people, the last thing you should want is for any of them to fail.
One of her main ideas when she rose to leadership ranks was to create a bond between leaders and flight attendants; when she was a flight attendant, she actually initially feared her leader. (She admits it was unfounded.)
Her action plan started with getting to know her direct reports, their families, what made them tick, their “joy” moments, their passions, and their love. As she developed these relationships, she wanted to focus on positive reinforcement as opposed to course correction. “I noticed a change in people when you start to tell them how great they are,” she notes. She used recognition letters, pamphlets, and “broadcast approaches” where a team member is praised in front of the rest of the team. She also strongly believes in personal notes. “They are life-changers,” she admits.
They also tapped into life events — births, deaths, graduations, etc. The whole focus was to make sure the leaders in a hub city were connected to the staff in deep ways. Their tech team also helped them build a program to remember and acknowledge all these dates.
The leadership team and the flight attendants are — obviously — mobile. (They are flying on planes!) Sonya needs to make sure everyone stays connected. That happens across a variety of mediums, including newsletters, memos, emails, live Town Halls, videos, and more. They have regional meetings a few times per year, and once a year they come together for leadership development and nothing else. Airlines are big business, and people can get lost in the tactical elements of day-to-day, so she needs to make sure there are approaches and ideas around coming together for different reasons.
Flight attendants can write to leaders and tell them issues they’re experiencing. About 3-4 times/year, they have focus group roundtables in their hub cities, and flight attendants can come and discuss issues there. Sometimes these are themed (i.e. “hospitality”) and sometimes they are open-ended. There’s also a Flight Attendant Strategy Team (FAST), which you get put on for a two-year time frame. Those flight attendants come in to leadership a few times per year and discuss the broader strategy of in-flight ops, as well as new projects that could be initiated.
Sonya’s team also brings flight attendants together to design their own uniforms. All departments came together on that one, actually — they were given brand parameters, and it did take several months for everything to come together. (42 people were on the uniform redesign project initially.) This was entire-brand uniforms, by the way: flight attendants to front desk to any touchpoint of Southwest for a traveler. Here’s more on the whole process.
Flight attendants also designed the kitchen galley on some new planes, working with Boeing, engineers, and maintenance teams.
Finally, flight attendants now serve on peer-to-peer hospitality committees. This is excellent information-sharing so that people throughout the company understand what it looks like (and feels like) for a Southwest employee to interact with a customer.
And a nice little feedback loop: Southwest introduced sparkling wine on flights on Valentine’s Day. That was a flight attendant idea. It’s all about humanity. Surveys are part of the game, but the people who interact 1-on-1 with customers all day need to have a voice.
“Hire people with will, not always skill”
The skill can be taught. But you need adaptable people who are authentic and want to grow within their role. Also, everyone comes in on six-month probationary periods — which some other organizations are using more and more these days (parts of Disney, for example).
Flight attendants are included in the interview process, in large part because they know what will work well in that context. Southwest flight attendants go through typically 4+ interviews, if not more.
The Pay It Forward Question
I ask all my guests this: “What do you know NOW that you wish you knew THEN?” Sonya’s answer:
- Talk less, listen more: You learn more through listening, but new leaders especially feel the need to talk.
- Listen to challenges: When a flight attendant in the field begins listing challenges, Sonya naturally wants to run down everything they’ve already done to fix it. As she got more experienced in the role, she wants to simply listen more and ask more clarifying questions. People want to be heard.
- Always put yourself in someone else’s shoes: Sometimes she’ll step on an aircraft and a flight attendant isn’t in position. She used to make quick assumptions, but now she goes and talks to the flight attendant, checks on them, and understands the situation before jumping to judgement.