ICology: A LUV affair with internal communications

Episode 43, Sydney Leonard from Southwest Airlines

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There are a few companies out there who have been known for a while for creating unique and consistent employee experiences. One of these is Southwest Airlines.

In this episode of ICology, hear employee communications specialist Sydney Leonard talk about the challenges of communicating to on-the-move employees in the aviation industry, of which 83% are union. She shares the key channels Southwest Airlines uses to keep employees up to date, along with the challenges social media presents their internal communications team. 

Information, whether real or not, can spread in an instant. The company doesn't stand a chance to get in front of information before it hits social media sites. But as Sydney points out, their goal is then to provide depth for employees, giving them necessary context and information. 

Southwest recently announced financial earnings and Sydney noted that visuals are a huge part of making them real for employees. This tweet from CEO Gary Kelly shows one of these visuals. 


They also do a great job of using external social media like Instagram to recognize hard-working employees and tell their stories. 

Episode Transcript

Chuck Gose: This is ICology. It's a podcast about interesting people doing interesting things in internal communications. In this episode I'm chatting with Sydney Leonard from Southwest Airlines. If internal comms is your passion then this is your podcast. Listen in.

I'm Chuck Gose, the host of ICology, thanks for listening to this episode. Join me in Las Vegas March 28th through 29th for ALI Conference's Digital Workplace Summit. I'm chairing the event and I've worked with ALI to assemble an all star line up of speakers. Past guests of ICology, Julia Markish, Kristin Hancock and Liz Jurewicz will be there along with communicators from American Express, Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Verizon and Southwest Airlines, today's guest, will be there. If you're not there it's an event you'll regret not checking out. Go to learnIcology.com/vegas and you'll find out what you need.

Now on this episode of ICology I have employee communication specialist, Sydney Leonard from Southwest Airlines. I do want to point out one thing. One thing we are not going to talk about on this is Southwest boarding policy. I know some of you love it, some don't, it's almost as divisive as politics today, but in case you're curious I love it. It's been scientifically proven to allow passengers to board faster blah, blah, blah. We're not going to talk about that. Sydney Leonard, welcome to ICology.

Sydney Leonard: Good morning!

Chuck: Great to have you on the show. There's a new podcast out completely unaffiliated and way more popular than ICology, but it's called "Tell Me Something I Don't Know" so I'm going to steal a tactic from their show. Sydney here are some things I do know about you. You are a Dallas native. You went to SMU where you also studied abroad for a bit. You've been to Cuba. You love dachshunds and you have a birthday coming up. Tell me something I don't know.

Sydney: Oh wow. Wow. I see you've been checking out my social media profiles but you're completely spot on. I'm a proud dog mom to Fritz. He's a semi overweight dachshund. I also have Scout who's a golden retriever. He came with my husband. As far as studying abroad in Cuba, yes I've always had an appetite for travel. It's one of the things that really drew me to Southwest. I was really lucky to work the inaugural flight to Havana in December so I just fell in love with the country and mostly the people.

As far as something you don't know, I don't have a sense of smell.

Chuck: Wow.

Sydney: It's kind of odd, but just some sinus surgery some issues there. That's my thing you probably didn't know.

Chuck: I did not know that about you. That's an interesting one. I like it.

Sydney: It can be very good or bad.

Chuck: I can see that. Especially walking by a Cinnabon at the mall. You don't have that pleasure of smelling the Cinnabons.

Sydney: Yes.

Chuck: Let's talk to listeners about what your role at Southwest encompasses.

Sydney: Sure. I primarily manage the content and provide strategy for our main news source, which is our employee blog. We call it SWAlife. Along with other channels like our breaking company news text message tool, leader specific emails, a weekly survey tool on our internet, those kinds of things. Typically, I'm tapped by our team of communicators for advice on the content they're working on so we talk about what channels make sense, timing, who should author a post. My other main responsibility is leading a group of content contributors from throughout the company.

We've got a little over I think 58,000 employees now so really large. I think Southwest has always done a really good job of giving our employees a voice and one of my personal goals since taking on this job was just to do a better job of having the person closest to the work tell the story. That's been really exciting. It takes a lot of time and patience. It's not always as easy to turn things around, but the results are really worth it. I've been really pleased for that. Shout out to my content contributors.

Chuck: Yeah 58,000. That is a large workforce and a very diverse workforce as well. You don't, obviously being an airline, you have some staff, some employees who are going to be sitting behind a desk all day. Some days those desks might be at gates, but obviously a lot of your employees are out and about serving the public, flying customers, those sorts of things.

Sydney: Absolutely. It makes it even more challenging to reach them but I think mobile and things like that are helping us get there.

Chuck: What do you wish that people knew about your job?

Sydney: Oh my gosh. That certainly depends on the day and the person right? I'm pretty sure my dad thinks I walk around and pin newsletters to boards in the break room, but you know he also just learned about Amazon so I go easy on him. In all seriousness I'd probably say in regards, not just to my job but to the jobs of all of our communicators, just how much like you said airlines and aviation crosses over into all facets of life. That really just contributes to my day never being the same.

Chuck: Obviously one of the challenges you have is the fact that you do have a workforce that is on the move a lot of time. Do you know just off the top of your head say of the 58,000, what percentage are pilots, flight attendants, that sort of thing?

Sydney: I don't have the exact breakdown but we are about 83% unionized so that kind of covers pilots, flight attendants, rampers, our CSA's who are interacting first hand with customers. Those are our most on the move employees for sure. 

Chuck: Is that the biggest challenge you face at Southwest or is there another one?

Sydney: You know I think it's honestly time. I think a lot of people listening to this podcast would agree, it's just the world we live in is moving at an incredible pace. Especially with social media. Our company blog is not the only place our employees are talking or breaking news. I think that can be frustrating, but at the same time I think what makes me a little bit different is that I'm kind of okay with that. When it's appropriate or safe, depending on the situation, but ideally we'd like to break the news to our employees but if for some reason and it likely will spread on social media before we get to share it. My goal is just for our employees to realize that ultimately they can come back to our channels for the meat of the story.

We are constantly reinforcing talking about the why behind a decision. The effect on our employee base or operation, those are just not going to be things that are initially reported in media. That's been our probably biggest challenge.

Chuck: I think another unique challenge, which I guess is also an opportunity when it comes to the conversation around brand ambassadors, for a lot of the customers their only interaction with Southwest is through their flying around the country or around the world. Your employees are the ones who are truly representing that brand on that day to day basis with those customer interactions. We know that 99% of the time, I'm sure there's numbers around this, there are no issues whatsoever but that 1% where a customer might go to run social media and we know how quickly that can spread, I can see how that could present an interesting challenge with that mobile workforce.

Sydney: Absolutely. I mean our employees are human just like us. Everybody has good days, we have bad days. I think the good thing is we hire incredible people. I'm so lucky to be surrounded by a really awesome team. Not just in communications but whenever I'm on cross functional working teams it's just there are great people here. I think something that's really unique is that our employees are empowered to kind of go above and beyond. You see these amazing stories and they truly feel like they can take ownership and really make a customer's day. It's a really unique thing.

Chuck: Speaking of being unique, one of the things I enjoy seeing as I do travel a lot and I am a frequent Southwest flyer, every now and then while we go through an airport you'll see a particular gate that'll be decorated for some sort of theme or some sort of event. I always appreciate that because that's, in my mind, that's sort of them making it theirs and trying to make it special for customers. I think that's, is that sort of that above and beyond in empowerment that you're talking about?

Sydney: Yes. That's actually something really fun that our culture department works on. That's a big piece of, going back to the employee blog, we promoted heavily our different holiday contests. Southwest has always been huge about holidays. Valentine's day, you know the love airline and then Halloween is a really big deal. It's just really cool to see, you'll look out your plane window and you'll see guys and gals throwing bags and they're dressed as Santa at Christmas. I think it just brings a little bit of lightheartedness and joy in what can be kind of a stressful time when you're traveling with your family around the holidays, or not for a good event. I love that piece of it.

Chuck: You'd mentioned in part of your job you rolled through or discussed some of the channels that Southwest uses to inform, engage, possibly even entertain employees. What are some of the most effective ones that you see and have you seen that evolve in your time at Southwest?

Sydney: Yes. That's a great question. As far as just internal, as far as two way communication, SWAlife our intranet that I talked about is our main communication channel. I believe we had about 1.9 million views last year. Some content items perform better than others, but SWAlife is our hub for employees where they do so many different job related functions so it's really effective in actually getting in front of our employees because they've got to come there to do things that relate to their job, but also book their travel. Things like that so it's a great resource.

As far as evolving, this was before my time, but we added the commenting function. That's really great. We gain a lot of insight from our employees there and we have a team of moderators that answer any of their questions. I think it's really a great way to get just some deeper insight and also sentiment, which is so important.

As far as one way communication, another channel we've had a few years is that SWA News Brief, which is a daily news brief email similar to like The Daily Skim if you're familiar with that. That's a combination of our SWAlife News and then also industry news, which as you can imagine it's become extremely popular with our mobile workforce. They're just on the move and it's easy to click an email on your phone and get to update on Southwest but then also on the industry.

Chuck: Earlier on you had mentioned using surveys on SWAlife. I'm curious about those. What sort of surveys and have you found there's a type of question or an amount of questions where you get better response? Because you know communicators are always looking to get feedback and create feedback mechanisms so I'm curious how surveys have played a role or how they're featured on SWAlife.

Sydney: We have a weekly, we call it a pulse point survey, just like you said. Some questions do better than others. We have anything from, a lot of things that are talking about certain content items we have up that week, so maybe distracted driving on the ramp, safety related questions. We also have things like, "Hey do you like lightly salted or honey roasted peanuts?" We try and have a mix of questions and we also have questions that relate back to our, every two years we have an employee survey, and we try and tie in some questions there just to kind of see how we're tracking.

Chuck: Now I hope, I hope that the lightly salted won over the honey roasted.

Sydney: It didn't and I was just so...

Chuck: That is a shame.

Sydney: I was shocked. I'm a lightly salted gal. We also gave the option you know if you don't like peanuts at all we get that, but honey roasted and they're coming back in 2017 so people are really excited about that.

Chuck: From a content standpoint on the intranet, there are some stories that do well and some that don't and that's pretty common for a lot of communicators, but I'm curious is there one story in particular that might've done really well that you remember or surprised you?

Sydney: We have a, he's actually one of our content contributors, Bill Owen, and he is one of our Senior Network Planning folks. He just does a great job. He kind of, I like to say he breaks down these kind of nerdy complex deviation geek type ideas and things he's working on. Kind of breaks it down for every one. Those we've seen do really well on, not just the employee blog, but then we've taken them if they make sense to our social media channels and even customers love it. Like you said, you know you're a big flyer and there are a lot of av geeks out there that fly us so they've done really well externally as well, which is really cool to see.

Chuck: Now there's a listener of the show, she's made a request. She wants to start learning more about how companies are communicating earnings and other financial news to employees. I'm not a financial analyst first off, but Google who I guess kind of is in a way, told me that Southwest recently posted record annual profit and passenger numbers so congrats on that. Had to be a great year at Southwest. It's Julie Cook, who's the internal comms manager at La-Z-Boy, she wants to learn more creative ways that earnings and financials are shared. How does Southwest share this type of information with employees?

Sydney: That's a great question. We actually just came off of financials like you said. I think when I came on and started working on financials I was a little bit intimidated coming from a communications background. One of the things we've done that I think has been really successful in addition to just doing a blog post from our CFO, and then we have a read before lead email, which goes to our leaders to kind of help them be able to answer questions for their employees. One of the things that we've done recently and I think was really, really fun was just being better about using graphics to kind of tell that story.

We looked at some of the pieces of financials that are most important to employees because let's be honest, some of those numbers can be really cumbersome and just not make sense to the average employee. We kind of went through and we said, "Okay. ROIC is a big topic we talk about with our employees. Profit sharing, those kinds of things." We created kind of an overall graphic, infographic if you will, and it shows just kind of those five key pieces that our employees really, really want to know about. I've seen them share it. It's actually on, it was really great to see that Gary Kelly tweeted the graphic last week so our hard work is paying off.

Chuck: I've got to ask. What is ROIC?

Sydney: Return on invested capital.

Chuck: There you go. I guess that's the point. There's obviously there'd be a lot of industry terms that would be unique to airlines and aviation but then just general financial terms that I'm sure that the more you make it visual for employees, the more they begin to understand it. There's some data that I shared on a previous episode around how the brain processes visuals at exponentially faster than it can text. I'm sure that by translating this visually to employees that it has to help them not just with the understanding of it, but with the retention of that information.

Sydney: Absolutely. Maybe we can give you a link to put in your show notes. Yeah it's just a, a unique thing about our workforce that's really interesting is that our employees are so in the know. They're really engaged about not just what's going on with Southwest, but also in the industry. I think that's something in my career that's been really unique coming here. At other companies you know I felt like they just weren't as involved in the financial piece, but it's just really great to see people kind of want to crunch down on those numbers and understand where we're going as company.

Chuck: While we're talking about numbers here, how do you measure the success of your content at Southwest? How do you even measure in general to see if what you are creating, what you are sending out there is making a difference or making an impact?

Sydney: That's a good question. We really have been focusing on measurement. We have a great team here that does measurement. Again, I'll just talk internal, but as far as the employee blog, SWAlife, we look at page views, video views if there is a video embedded, likes, and comments. Like I said before, sentiment is really an important piece to me. I know to our team we share those comments with our leaders and give feedback to the people who are running projects and running their content on the blog. It's really being fed back up to those who are making those decisions. Our employees, they're really not shy at all. They will tell you if they love something and they'll tell you when they don't love something. That's a good way for us to see what's successful.

Chuck: Quickly on video, have you noticed since the time you've been there, are you guys doing more video and talk a little bit about what types of video that you're using with employees.

Sydney: We do a lot of video. We have a video team. They're wonderful. One of the things I think they've focused on is just showing kind of how our employees do their job. There's a great video that came out this week on social about the deicing process, which is so interesting and one of our video guys just went up there, went up north and spent the day learning about the deicing process. Like I said, our employees are just so intrigued by each other, and what they do, and really have a respect for seeing kind of all the different pieces of the business and how that's how we're keeping this airline moving. It's really inspiring I think to our employees and we've heard in the past that they just want to see each other. What better way than video?

Chuck: Oh no, I agree without a doubt and I think you've hit a key point there. Sometimes it's not always, I mean the message is important, but it's how that message gets delivered and resonates with employees and it is seeing themselves. It's seeing their peers in those videos. Seeing them in sort of real life situations. Knowing it's not perfect, but in a way it becomes perfect because it accomplishes a goal that you set out in the first place to create the video.

Sydney: Absolutely.

Chuck: You'll be speaking at the ALI Digital Workplace event that I talked about at the beginning of the show, in Las Vegas at the end of March. Why don't you let listeners in on a bit of your topic but just a teaser. We don't want to give it all away.

Sydney: Okay. Yeah I hope everyone can make it out. Worst case scenario you're in Vegas so that'll be great.

Chuck: Which Southwest flies to. I'll be flying Southwest out of Indy to Las Vegas for that event.

Sydney: Awesome. I will be too. I will be talking about how to successfully engage employees to win more customers. We'll talk about channel selections, storytelling, communicating in an operational environment, and more so there will be an emphasis on digital signage of course and I'm just hoping we can make it really interactive. I'm really excited about it so feel free to tweet at me. I think my handle will be in there but @sydholtleonard with any questions ahead of time because I would love to incorporate them.

Chuck: Now we're going to move around to the lightning round, which is a chance to learn a little bit about you, Sydney. This is a new question I'm throwing in and it's very relevant. I think it's not going to be a mainstay because it's something very near and dear to my heart. The first question is: What is your biggest travel pet peeve?

Sydney: Oh no. Oh my gosh how long is this podcast? Just kidding. I honestly, I think it's the simple things like removing your shoes, and grooming yourself.

Chuck: Those aren't simple but yet people tend to overlook them.

Sydney: Yes they do. Of course I think being rude to crew members. I'm just kind of shocked sometimes at how people treat, not just the crew, but even each other. That gets on my nerves.

Chuck: That makes a lot of sense. That's the great thing about traveling and flying is it is truly a cross section of the world that's there, but then you end up meeting some amazing people and then you end up in some weird situations sometimes. You never know. Those are some great pet peeves there.

Sydney: Very true.

Chuck: What is a book that you recommend every communicator should read? This doesn't need to be a book about communications, but it could help inspire communicators or help them be a better business person. What book do you recommend?

Sydney: I have a copywriter background and I think writing, and a lot of people can attest to this that would be listening in. My book would be "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott, but it's just a really good when you're feeling stuck and kind of uninspired when you're writing all day long, it's just a good breakdown of kind of the basics and some just lighthearted storytelling that can kind of fuel you.

Chuck: Good and that's a new one. That's not one that somebody's recommended before.

Sydney: Okay. Good. Good.

Chuck: What's a tool that you rely on to make sense of your world? This could be an app, this could be a website, this could be a hammer. Past guests have also mentioned Spotify, they've mentioned yoga, they've mentioned their calendar. What's a tool that you rely on?

Sydney: Honestly yeah. I would have to say Outlook calendar is pretty much my brain. I'm able to merge my work and personal calendar, our content calendar for the company, my family's calendar. It's really all I need. On a personal note, I've worked really hard to essentially eliminate every errand I have to run by having things delivered to home. We do Blue Apron, Uber Eats, Walgreens delivers my prescriptions, and Chewy.Com delivers the dog food. It's helpful to get home at a reasonable hour and everyone's fed so I think it's a wife win there.

Chuck: Yeah. I'm still waiting for someone to say Amazon prime. Because to me that's not but you've got into that area so that makes a lot of sense.

Sydney: We just ordered a door knob for our house, so you know you can just get anything on there.

Chuck: What is the best piece of advice you've ever received and do you remember who gave it to you?

Sydney: Yes. I'd have to say it's a quote about persistence from Calvin Coolidge from my college professor for communications while at SMU. I think I realized early on I'm not a big study kind of girl. I never planned to have a 4.0, but I am a doer. I was out doing internships and things like that. My dad is always like, "If you have something, your mind set on something you better get out of the way." The quote is "Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

Chuck: Hmm. That's a good one. I like it. Now for your chance. What's a final piece of advice that you would want to share with listeners. Like you said before, there's obviously a lot of communicators that listen for the podcast. We also just have people in business who want to get better at communicating. What's a piece of advice you want to share with them?

Sydney: Kind of a few things I touched on today. I think we get so caught up in goals, and objectives, and measuring things which are great, but get out of the office and brainstorm with your colleagues. I know some of our team just went to Soul Cycle last night and it just creates a great environment. Get out in the workforce and meet your employees. Go see what they are doing. I mean I ride the jump seat and talk to flight attendants about kind of the things they're seeing. I guess it would just be get out there and really get to know your employees and their pain points. Don't overthink it.

Chuck: That's good. One last question here. People we mentioned before that you went to Cuba, so Southwest now flies to Cuba, was there one thing or a couple things that surprised you about that country and the visit?

Sydney: The people are incredible. I just was, I can't wait to bring my husband back. Their spirit and energy is so amazing. As far as the operational side, I think just really, really important piece was communication. We have our, like you said, our boarding policy and you know that is hard to understand. That's not something that those flyers are used to seeing. Everyone just kind of rushed the gate when we went to leave and fortunately we had some Spanish speaking employees and they said, "Oh you have to line up in your numbers," and things like that. I just think that it'll just be continuing to be an education time for us, an educating time as we continue to serve that market and others.

Chuck: Well Sydney I want to thank you for coming ICology sharing some of these behind the scenes comms activities at Southwest and I'll see you next month in Las Vegas.

Sydney: Sounds great. Thank you for having me.

Chuck: Visit learnIcology.com to catch up on episodes, get to know guests better, read blog posts, check out events. Also, all episode transcriptions are there. Also, keep an eye out for something else. The video series where I ask the internal comms community a question, and they provide the answers. All at learnIcology.com/somethingelse. Also, please follow ICology on Twitter at @learnicology. Find show announcements as well as internal comms news and if you're not already a subscriber, change that. Listen to ICology on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and if you like what you hear, it would mean a great deal if you took the time to leave a review.

If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening in.