‘We are sexy!’
Dirk Hoke

One of the biggest challenges established businesses face is winning the race for top talent. We asked Dirk Hoke, Chief Executive Officer of Airbus Defence and Space, how he plans to make Airbus Defence and Space attractive for millennials. How do large companies compete with fast-moving start-ups and increasing demand for young employees?

Dirk Hoke is the Chief Executive Officer of Airbus Defence and Space and a member of the Airbus Executive Committee. Hoke came to Airbus in 2016 after holding a variety of executive-level positions at Siemens. He began his career as a process and software analysis engineer at Renault in Paris. In 2010, he became member of the Young  Global Leader Class of the World Economic Forum.

Young leaders say they want jobs with a purpose. Building weapon systems and suing the German government for breaking existing deals for the export of security systems to Saudi Arabia might not be the purpose they desire. How does Airbus attract young employees?

I do not think that these two things have a lot in common. Purpose-driven means asking, ‘what do we do in order to define a reason for the company’s existence and the people who work for us?’ If you go and talk to Airbus employees, you will find people who are extremely excited and passionate about what they do. They love the products and systems we create. They see that we contribute to society, because we enable people to travel, to be protected and secure. We have a lot of directions that create purpose. And, even more importantly, we create an environment where our employees feel rewarded, recognised, and where it is fun to work.

Can you explain how that works in practical terms?

We are on what we call a value journey. We did not do this top-down but bottom-up: We asked our people about the most important values that drive our business, and they named respect, creativity and reliability as key values. In workshops, they further described what behaviours they expect from managers and people behind them. We  implemented initiatives like ‘No Shame No Blame’, where people like me go and talk about our failures in order to encourage people to speak up when they make a mistake. And we have value ambassadors, who represent the values and multiply the message. Unfortunately, we have not yet decided how we reward people who are role models  of our values yet. They are intrinsically motivated, but we hope to add incentives for them in the future. And there will be sanctions for people who go against the company’s values.

Fifty thousand Airbus employees are expected to retire over the course of the next ten years. Last year, you hired 2,300 newcomers. With the market for talents shrinking because of changing demographics, how do you plan to double your annual hiring?

We are doing a lot of new things. We are adding more and more digital, data-driven business models. We just went live with a new start-up in Berlin called UP42, a geo-information store, like a marketplace, where you can buy and sell drone and satellite data. The start-up has been able to hire very talented people very fast. It shows that a lot of talented people recognise that the combination of modern IT and an innovative platform provider can generate a lot of interesting challenges, challenges young talents are interested in meeting.

Airbus wants to shape technological change. Yet in fields like robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, you’re competing for talents with companies such as IBM, Microsoft, or Google for talent. How do you make Airbus sexy for millennials?

We are sexy, because we have really cool products. I strongly believe that we can attract talent. We have proven it. It is not our intention at Airbus to be a leader in artificial
intelligence – despite the fact that we are very good at it. It is more important that we have key teams that are able to source these specific capabilities from the right partners, on top of what we have. We will not try to be the next deep learning company. What we’ve been doing for decades, for example, is machine learning on satellite imaging. For an algorithm, it is not very simple to recognize whether a picture is of a snow-covered mountain or a cloud.

Dirk Hoke

Companies are under pressure to adopt more sustainable business practices. Climate change is a huge challenge and young people want to work for environmentally-conscious companies. How do you compete?

Where do you think the information about climate change comes from? We’re the ones producing it. Airbus produces the satellites and the sensors that measure carbon dioxide, air quality, and wind speeds. We measure sea level changes and we monitor deforestation together with Nestlé. A lot of our products provide the core of climate change analysis. Together with other companies, we can create business models to support the necessary changes that need to be applied in order to be more sustainable and responsible with our resources.

Getting back to the new value system: You say part of it is about empowering people, and that gender equality plays a role. Aren’t you a bit late to the party?

A lot of these issues have been around for a while. The whole Airbus group is pushing diversity and inclusion right now. We tried before, but now we’re seeing real results.
For example, my executive team had no women when I came in, and now there are four women on the executive level – and not in human resources or financing, but as Head of Engineering, Head of Operations, Head of Programme lines and Corporate Secretary Chief of Staff.

You came to Airbus three years ago. What was Airbus doing four years ago? Is this new approach really something the company had never tried before?

New ways of working, like empowering teams, are also not something new. But we have begun to realize that you have to reflect what people expect from you. Eighty percent of our newcomers will be millennials. They’ll come in with different backgrounds. They are purpose- and value-driven. This needs to be acknowledged. But what is also  important to acknowledge is that the next generationdoes not come in with the expectation that they will stay in the company for the next 20 or 30 years.

And yet you want to bind people to the company for the long-term, despite the observation that young people change their jobs and companies hoping to experience different values, work environments, learn new things. Your approach seems to be outdated.

We will have both people who want security and those who want change. I have never had a job longer than three and a half years. But I stayed in the same company. What is important is whether the company provides you with enough challenges so that you stay on top in terms of education and can develop further. The advantage of a large company like ours is you can switch from civil aircraft to interior design, then to helicopters and then maybe to a team working on secure communication systems or cybersecurity. You have a vast number of challenges inside the company and you can still start all over with totally new teams, new environments – even a new country.

You’ve said part of the next chapter you want to write at Airbus is personal accessibility: Posting your phone number on the company intranet, for example, or being on WhatsApp and LinkedIn. This seems quite radical. But we’ve been sitting here for a while and I haven’t seen you on the phone, texting employees. How does the ‘revolution in communication’ really work?

I muted my phone, of course. But I have more than 10,000 contacts on LinkedIn, about 7,000 of whom are from Airbus. People contact me all the time, also through social media, inside Airbus. When I published my number I said: In Airbus Defence and Space, every employee with a company phone needs to publish their phone number.
When I arrived, we had these traditionally-minded people who believed the more important their position, the less accessible they had to be, because they have a secretary. And this is not the way I want it. Everyone can contact me, anytime. And I am sure when people call me, it is because it is important. Not because they want to talk about the weather.

Has an intern ever given you an idea you’ve implemented further?

First of all, I talk with all different levels of the company all the time. We have a ‘blue box’ process, through which we get between 300 and 700 ideas per year. The winners get time and resources to develop their idea further. There are a lot of avenues through which ideas come in. A striking idea, that came only through me? No. They come and want to share what they have done, also to ensure that it does not get stuck. Airbus employees, for example, are working on 3-D organ printing. They presented it, they found an internal sponsor and they are developing the idea further.

You want work to be fun. What’s the inspiration behind your leadership style?

I have been working for 25 years, most of them as a manager and leader. I was promoted nine months after my traineeship to be in a leadership position and was in a management position when I was 28. I was always the youngest on the team. I come from a normal family in Germany, I had to pay for my studies, I worked as a tennis coach. I know how hard it is to earn ten Euros.
So I try to create a work environment that I would like to work in: Apply simple rules, make it attractive, ensure that people like the workplace and give them the confidence  that they have managers who guide them. They should be surrounded by people who are friends and colleagues, not enemies. And finally, give them products and systems to work on that are interesting, challenging and innovative.

Facing a wave of retirements in the next decade, Airbus Defence and Space needs to attract talent. CEO Dirk Hoke’s plan is to make it a creative and fun place to work. Managers must be approachable – and present on social media.


The aviation industry is changing quickly. Over the past few decades, flying went from a luxury good to a means of transportation for the broader public. As a result, airlines have to adjust their unique selling point, and boost distribution and sales as new frontiers in a competitive landscape. While youth environmental activists advocate for limiting carbon emissions, airlines are doing their share in ensuring environmental standards are kept and CO2 emissions are minimized.
Max Kownatzki, Lufthansa’s Senior Vice President for Network & Partnership Management Network Airlines, says airlines are adapting to the new realities on the distribution
side by: ”Aligning customer service processes to six customer archetypes, e.g. efficiency seekers, exclusivity seekers, convenience seekers, adventure seekers, or families, and aim at ensuring proper access to these customer segments through modern distribution platforms.”
To take environmental responsibility, Lufthansa recently invested into 40 modern Boeing 787 & Airbus A350 aircraft with significantly lower emission and noise levels, while simultaneously divesting higher fuel consumption, 4-engine A380s. Lufthansa pays to offset the CO2 emissions for its employees’ duty travels. Passengers, meanwhile, can click on a button in the booking process, adding a CO2 offset to the ticket price. “We all have to take social and environmental responsibility,” Kownatzki says. Remarkably, only less than 1% of Lufthansa’s customers hit the carbon offset button.