As last week’s headlines revealed, Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, is stepping down. One of the company’s longest-serving CEOs, he has made an indelible mark on the Southwest legacy. As some of you may know, last August I married into the Southwest family. I have always admired Southwest’s work culture, but the past year gave me a new appreciation for how the airline was able to lead while under intense pressure. Every weekend, my pilot husband and I listened to Gary’s “fireside chats,” when he sometimes had to deliver difficult news. These heartfelt and direct video statements to employees were just one of the tools that helped Southwest navigate the pandemic and are part of what makes Southwest’s internal communications outstanding.
Internal communications are an art and a science, particularly as we move toward more hybrid workplaces. A simple conversation or email used to be sufficient for conveying relevant information. But when the organization adds staff, expands to multiple sites, creates more departments or programs, or has employees in the office and working remotely, that simple conversation no longer has the same reach or impact. Here are a few creative tools to help achieve communication wins at your organization using Southwest Airlines’ time-tested approaches.
Communication Tool: Town Hall Meeting
Description: A town hall meeting is an open forum where employees can discuss a particular set of issues and ask questions of the organization’s leadership. It is also an opportunity to gather feedback and suggestions on proposed future actions.
Good for: Town hall meetings are great for increasing clarity on a particular issue for employees and management. The open forum format is transparent and allows leadership to gauge the temperature of their teams while efficiently conveying information to all. Town hall meetings are helpful for addressing or easing concerns about changes in the organization like paid time-off policies or initiatives that will affect day-to-day work like strategic plans or mergers. However, a town hall may not be the best first step for communicating controversial issues, as initial reactions can kill constructive dialogue.
Communication Tool: Video Update or Newsletter
Description: A video update or newsletter takes the traditional content conveyed through a CEO update or company newsletter and delivers it via a short video.
Good for: Video is now the preferred format across all demographics. In addition to conveying a message to an audience, it also imparts body language and verbal intonation, which can underscore your desired messaging. In addition, if video content is concise and accurate, users are more likely to watch it and recall the key messages. You may want to consider adding video content to your CEO updates and see if it is a more effective communications tool for your employees than written communications. For a good example of CEO updates, check out some of Southwest’s past videos called “Ask Gary” and its 2021 Annual Report.
Communication Tool: Office Layout
Description: The physical layout of your office, including where departments and physical structures like buildings and walls are located, can facilitate or be a barrier to effective communication.
Good for: Reconfiguring your office layout can be great for breaking down silos and building camaraderie. For example, placing development staff with program staff creates opportunities for often contentious teams to build understanding and teamwork. By witnessing each other’s daily struggles and hearing informal conversations, staff from different teams will glean new information that can improve the organization’s overall operations.
Communication Tool: Dashboards
Description: Dashboards are snapshots of key organizational metrics with action plans to achieve those goals.
Good for: Dashboards are great barometers for the entire organization to track progress on goals. Conflict tends to arise when there is uncertainty about who is responsible for a certain task or what the next steps or deadlines are. Dashboards help avoid these conflicts by clearly communicating key steps to achieve organizational goals, assigning responsibility for milestones and allowing team members to note status updates so everyone in the organization knows exactly where an initiative stands. Organizations can also utilize culture assessment surveys to get a picture of where the staff stands and track communication goals on those dashboards to measure progress.
Southwest Airlines has built a successful company through a solid commitment to people-focused leadership. But, that success also starts at the top – in 2021, Gary Kelly was recognized as #4 on Glassdoor’s 2021 Top CEOs List. We want to congratulate Gary on his retirement and thank him for his leadership. We welcome your thoughts on how you’ve improved internal communications at your social sector organization.