For career success, being relevant trumps being cool

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: June 07, 2019

I love the Airbus A380. It’s an engineering masterpiece. The world’s largest airplane. Quiet. Spacious. Loved by passengers. Yet the A380 demonstrates what happens to businesses and careers when ‘cool’ trumps ‘relevant’.

The A380 promised a solution to a pressing aviation issue: congested airports. Getting a landing slot at the notoriously busy JFK or Heathrow is now close to impossible. An A380 can take over 800 passengers from A to B, almost double what airlines pack into ordinary planes. With A380s, airports could handle many more passengers. And if airlines filled the plane, costs per head would plummet. The A380 superjumbo also promised a solution to an emotional issue: making Airbus cooler.

With those prospects in mind, Airbus’s management squeezed the A380 into the firms’ busy agenda, siphoning capacity from urgent priorities, such as a new single-aisle plane (Boeing was then developing the popular 787 Dreamliner) or the renewal of the short-haul A320 (the firm’s workhorse and breadwinner). On October 25, 2007, after years of delays, crisis and struggle, Singapore Airline’s SQ380 lifted off from Singapore to Sydney. The new plane stunned the world.

A new era had begun. It would be short lived. Just over a decade later, Airbus announced the A380’s demise, wrote off billions in development money and turned to new projects. What had happened? Most airlines had failed to fill the plane. Airports weren’t so clogged as to justify rebuilding terminals to accommodate it. And with four engines and lavish bar spaces, the A380 easily swallowed a third more fuel per passenger than the latest 787. As a commercial venture, the A380 had failed—badly.

Doing business is tough. Much tougher than writing leadership columns about it. In hindsight, everything is always clear and easy. I have great respect for leaders who take risky decisions (which is fitting, as I’ve screwed up so much myself), and I’m not here to blame Airbus. I’m certain its management was diligent at the time. In fact, they convinced governments, customers, and suppliers to take risks and pour money into the massive project. These weren’t all stupid people. And the A380 had many rational arguments on its side. But the superjumbo was also “cool”. British Prime Minister Blair named it a “symbol of economic strength” and Span’s premier Zapatero spoke of “the realization of a dream”. Inside Airbus, the emotions ran high. The management was facing the classic choice: sticking to the facts—or being part of a dream. Eventually, the warning finance and engineering voices were silenced by the guys in the cool-camp. The rest is history.

I’ve picked the A380 for two reasons: It’s an iconic failure, and it’s easy to remember. More importantly, it represents a crucial day-to-day leadership dilemma: how to set priorities while avoiding the pitfall of choosing cool projects that fail the relevance test.

Cool for a day

Who wants to work on boring stuff? Nobody. That’s why marketing, for example, is so attractive. I know CEOs who push for advertising simply to meet celebrities (proof on file). These are extreme cases. But look around. Which are the ‘cool’ projects, the ones everybody wants to be a part of? At Airbus, it was the A380. The adventure. Beating Boeing. Building the biggest.

I recently met a firm that has a massive customer-data challenge. They have reams of amazing customer insights from years of interaction sitting in their drawers, but no way of analysing or using it. But they have also decided to rebrand. Rebranding—the magic word. Guess what everyone in the C-suite is talking about now? Rebranding. And the massive customer-data potential? Postponed to some indefinite future. They’re too busy.

The moment glamour comes into a project, leaders face an agonising choice. Should I go with the cool, jump on the bandwagon, no matter how relevant the work is for customers or the business? Or should I keep my cool—instead of being cool?

Reality always kicks in

No matter how cool a project is, one day it will hit reality—and in business, that’s profit and loss (simply put). The cool A380 was a massive market failure. Airbus simply didn’t grasp what it would take for customers to operate a plane of that size (they even had bigger versions in mind). News Corps much-hyped leap into the cool digital arena with its purchase of Myspace (in a market it knew virtually nothing about) had a hard landing. And the many marketers who glut fancy yachts during the Cannes Lions later get fired for not driving revenue.

Case in point: I sometimes go to Cannes to teach leadership (and to see some great creative work). One year, I went with two CMOs. One raced straight to the yachts; she’s now looking for a job. The other did two events and then, while the DJs filled the dancefloors, asked me to meet and work with him on his annual plan. He’s just been promoted to CEO. It’s not always that simple—I know. But at the end of the day, what matters for success in business and careers is relevance.

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Make relevance your game. For the next project, for the next career-defining move, look at the options and evaluate two things. First, how cool is this? That’s all about the word of mouth, the trends, the hype. There’s nothing wrong with working on a cool project, providing you can answer ‘Yes’ to the second question: Is this relevant? Relevant is a big word. Look at relevance for customers. For the market. Will the project make a genuine, positive difference to them? Think about relevance for the organisation. Will this make a real dent? Will it help the firm thrive in a way the C-suite will appreciate? When you get this right, you are working in the Value-Creation Zone—where you are relevant for the market and the firm. Relevance is how promising careers start, and it’s how good careers become great careers. Make relevance your game. And if you succeed, hop on an A380 while they’re still around. It’s failed the relevance test, but it’s a cool plane to fly.

(From my Marketing Week column)