Team Spotlights

How Southwest Airlines Fosters Project and Team Health

Kate O'Neil
April 1, 2023

MJ Haigh works in Change leadership with Southwest Airlines and partners with internal departments and teams that are transforming the organization. She acts as an advisor, facilitator, and coach to help teams reach their full potential.

We want a quick fix for everything and that doesn’t always exist. To develop a healthy and high performing team it has to have a sustaining piece to it. Sustainability Planning is one of the greatest keys to success for last change. - MJ Haigh

Helping your team through change

Across Southwest, MJ helps teams through large changes utilizing a 3-step process. She gives the following advice:

  1. Feel change. Anytime there is change, emotions are involved. People often feel the need to suppress emotions, but giving permission to feel those emotions combined with honesty can help a team create a foundation for working well together. I like to introduce the change curve, explaining the various emotions they may feel during a change, then providing actions to help move through the curve and not become stuck in their emotions.
  2. Achieve alignment. Everyone on the team needs to be on the same page in understanding the why - the case for change. Bringing people together to provide a shared understanding and allowing those impacted an opportunity to be heard is vital to alignment.
  3. Continued sponsorship. Many stats point to executive buy-in and support as being one of the top contributors to successful change. Setting expectations, behaviors, and mindsets of a change leader to executive sponsors and leadership are the first step, ensuring there is alignment across executive stakeholders, followed by a sustainment plan through the life of the project for support and recognition.

How to get and keep project alignment

MJ shared an approach Southwest employs designed to bring a shared understanding and alignment across all key stakeholders:

At Southwest, this alignment strategy starts with a partnership between Change Leadership and Project Leadership. The planning process starts with an anonymous project health survey, which informs an agenda, and is carried out in a day-long customized and interactive workshop. The survey reveals the greatest disparities in alignment. Examples of questions that the survey may include are: Do you feel you can articulate the business challenge this project is addressing? What do you feel are the biggest risks and obstacles facing this project? Do you feel you understand what is in and out of scope? Do you feel you understand your role in delivering this project? Do you feel there is an engaged and supportive Executive Sponsor?
During the workshop, the project team and key stakeholders hear the vision and case for change directly from the Executive Sponsor and have the opportunity for Q&A. They also participate in customized activities and discussions to address any pain points identified by the survey and to get everyone on the same page. At the end of the project, they take the same survey to measure impact and effectiveness. A team lead or Project Manager may also use this survey throughout the course to the project to measure alignment and ensure sustained team health. They’ve seen terrific results with this approach, boasting huge jumps in the pre and post-workshop survey results.

Schedule time for team health

From a project-team health perspective, including the time to allow for team building, checking-in, and alignment is important, but don’t forget about recognition. Celebrating each other and milestones is hugely impactful to your team members. Southwest often celebrates big milestones with a champagne toast, but simply acknowledging good work and positive attitudes can go a long way. So make time to get to know each other, develop strong team relationships, swiftly address challenges or apprehensions, and ensure the team remains aligned for sustained success.

Does change put culture at risk?

At Southwest, when change is introduced, sometimes there is fear that a new system, a new way of working, a new capability could change our culture. Simply put, our culture is our people. It’s how we treat each other and our customers, it’s following the Golden Rule, it’s what makes Southwest, well, Southwest. It’s not our culture at risk, it’s simply a change to a practice or a process. And who knows, a new practice or process helps us more fully realize our culture.

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