How Southwest Airlines Retains 96% of their High Potentials

I just got back from a room packed-full of Human Resources professionals who attended the HRDallas May Monthly Luncheon. Those who chose to wait and register at the door found themselves without a seat at this sold out event.
 So, who was that speaker who commanded such a following? Petra Holcomb, Manager People Department, who heads up Southwest Airlines’ Leadership Development Programs. The topic of “Leadership Development” is a hot button in most every industry across the U.S.

4 Reasons Why Southwest Airlines Leadership Programs Soar

  1. First of all their leadership program works! The proof?…. 96% of the employees who took part in the leadership development program are still working for Southwest.
  2. They offer a great support system for High Potentials, such as Alumni networking and mentoring before and after the program ends.
  3. It all starts with “Living the Southwest Way.” Every employee who is selected for the leadership program has to go through a week of training on Southwest’s values and culture. Future leaders become the newest messengers to take the corporate values and culture forward.
  4. Broad-based Leadership program that also identifies external talent: Southwest’s leadership program looks beyond their own pool of talent and reaches out to all candidates that demonstrate leadership behaviors that include innovation and vision.

What Southwest Airlines Employees have to say about their company: 

There are many reasons to develop talent from within, but one reason that keeps coming up in almost every performance management article addresses the influx of Millennials entering the workplace.  Knowing that at least 50% of their leadership would soon be retiring, Southwest decided to grow their future leaders by attracting talent externally too. Southwest has three program tracks – two for internal only candidates (MIT I and MIT II) and one that includes external candidates (Emerging Leadership Development).
In 2009, they launched the new version of the MIT II program which is designed for managers and directors who are seeking senior leadership roles within Southwest. In this newly designed program what really stood out as extraordinary was the Capstone Project.  In this project, MIT II participants are asked to identify and design a business plan that can save the company a minimum of $5 Million. Participants then pitch their ideas in a 30-minute presentation to the Senior Management Council.  And guess what?……. they have even implemented some of those ideas!


 In 2013, with a test group of 20 employees who they felt had the traits necessary for leadership grooming, Southwest rolled out their beta Emerging Leadership Development Program (ELDP).  This new program is made up of “high potentials” from internal and external sources, including veterans and new college graduates.  The program participants get access to Airline 101 training and gain business acumen through mentors and MIT alumni.
Today Southwest accepts 200 employees a year into their leadership development programs; and their success rate for retained program attendees is a whopping 96% over its lifetime!
Southwest’s innovative programs and extraordinary employee satisfaction attracts the best talent too.  More than 20,000 college students applied for one of the 160 summer internships offered this year.

You build it and they will come; you embrace it and they will stay. That’s one heck of a retention plan! 


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