Making the start-up culture a mentality – Interview with Marco Wagner, Airbus

Leadership and Organizational Development

Study: Aerospace 2019

Leadership in Times of Change

Airbus Labor Director, Marco Wagner, (member of executive management of Airbus in Germany) and Staufen partner Christoph Heine (Branch Manager Aerospace & Defense) explain in an interview the approaches that are already available today in the German aerospace industry for a modern leadership culture and where there is potential that has still not been grasped.

Mr. Wagner, there is hardly any term that is so omnipresent these days than “agility”. How well do the aerospace industry, which traditionally long-cyclical in nature, and agility get along? Are Airbus and agility even a good fit?

Wagner: Innovation cycles are becoming shorter and shorter, even in the aviation industry. This kind of acceleration also brings changes to our research activities. For example, here we are increasingly applying agile methods and in the meantime have been developing prototypes in short sprints instead of lengthy R&D projects. In addition, in many areas we are specifically working with start-ups in order to be able to learn from their nimbleness.

What exactly does this kind of collaboration with start-ups look like?

Wagner: We give these typically young entrepreneurs an opportunity to test their concepts in the aviation industry. While doing so, in some cases we provide them with the financial support they need. The goal is always a win-win situation. Here, though, we not only want to see the specific results of the tests, but what is also important is that we carry over the mentality of a start-up culture into the thought processes of a “giant” such as Airbus.

Mr. Heine, are these kinds of collaboration forms something for medium-sized aerospace suppliers to consider as well?

Heine: Structures are definitely available to do so. Start-ups are able to solve partial tasks for Airbus just as well as they can for suppliers, and often they are much quicker and much more focused on the process than the company itself. However, this only works if executives identify the relevant tasks and delegate them consistently to start-ups. Fitting in this vein is one of the core findings of the study presented here (see p. 28), which is that the key for agility, new work and Co. is clearly with executive management.

Can management learn the necessary amount of open-mindedness to practice new leadership methods? Or is this a quality that one has to be born with?

Heine: Of course, a certain innate curiosity for new things is a prerequisite. However, what is ultimately the deciding factor is that companies provide enough space to this kind of curiosity in the day-to-day. This may be easy to say, but it is not always that easy in practice. Often we need to balance resources and overcome actual and perceived obstacles. Coaching can be a helpful instrument here.
Wagner: Allow me to briefly clarify how something like this is practiced at Airbus. For example, we have teams that are headed by a manager, but who only steps in if the work method that the team developed on its own clearly puts the results at risk. Other teams have alternating bosses – one project is supervised by colleague A, another project by colleague B.

How are these kinds of latitude and flexible structures compatible with the time and delivery pressures that many projects are subject to?

Wagner: Here, as well, the skills of leadership are required. Even in pressure situations, they must take a step back and scrutinize the current approach instead of forging ahead with a blunt ax unchecked. This skill of being able to pause and review reveals a lot about the manager’s experience. And managers can only gather experiences and transfer them into the teams if the company consciously allows them to do so.

How do you motivate your executives to actually use this freedom?

Wagner: One thing that I do is to hold a large event with up to 400 executives once a year. Here, successful examples are presented on a large stage by managers from this circle on how leadership and collaboration are already being innovatively rethought.
Heine: Of course, what is important here is cultivating an error mindset that does not stigmatize negative experiences, but instead understands them as a part of a learning company.

Wagner: Exactly right, because looking back, every experienced executive learned much more from his or her failures over the course of their carrier than from their successes. And only if an executive is able to openly discuss mistakes with the team and has the courage to work together to find a solution, can trust be built up.

Do these approaches also work in a timed production?

Wagner: Yes. Because, of course, even if in such a scenario we cannot spontaneously turn everything around, there are also problems that can only be solved within the team and with a sufficient amount of time.  Just for the sake of clarifying: This new work environment – no matter whether it is in research or in production – does not mean that everyone can do whatever they want.

What are the three core skills that the “ideal Airbus manager” must have in the new working world?

Wagner: First off, our managers need to be excellent communicators so that priorities and goals are clear and unambiguous across all hierarchical levels. In addition, they must also have the capability to (self) reflect – especially, as already mentioned, in tense operational phases.
And thirdly, an executive must be able to inspire and convey a sense of purpose. So, she must have the capability to breakdown targets in such a way that every employee is able to recognize his or her contribution to achieving the objective.
Heine: I can only underline this profile. Because the freedoms associated with the term agility require not less, but instead more communication. And here, we are not referring to the infamous annual performance review during which an employee is served up feedback that has “accrued” over the last twelve months. We are talking about weekly or even daily feedback meetings. I know some extremely economically successful companies, in which the middle management spends 50 to 70 percent of their working hours communicating.
Wagner: We have also done away with the annual performance reviews. We prefer to speak in “People Time”. Every department works out for itself the best cycles during which meetings should be held.

Don’t the employees have to be trained differently for this kind of leadership and communication?

Wagner: Absolutely! What is important here is that both sides drive the change. For example, instructors should no longer be feeding the trainees what they need to learn, but instead be their learning companions. At our site in Hamburg, aircraft mechanics are already being trained based on a new teaching approach. They develop solutions for our internal customers in our plants, which require that they acquire specific skills. The learning companions convey to them what these skills are. Our newest group of trainees have completed their first year and we are gathering extremely positive feedback. As a result, our foremen in the workshops are simply thrilled that the trainees are now no longer asking so many questions and are taking more responsibility and are more focused on the customers in their work, while generally participating much more.
Heine: Examples of this kind especially, in my opinion, show that in order to improve the leadership culture, company-wide initiatives can make a lot of sense in the aerospace industry. Small to medium-sized businesses especially do seem to have difficulties structuring a cooperative training program that fits their ideas and their needs. However, this would be an opportunity to raise the SMES to an entirely new level.
Wagner: Even if in case of doubt we do compete with these other companies for the same employees, we at Airbus are very open to such initiatives. Especially given that we can most likely learn a lot more from these “small” companies, who are often world leaders in their fields, than vice versa.

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