Oliver Kahn: 'Strategic radar' must be constantly switched on

Read article contents
Increase size

In an interview with the new FC Bayern Basketball magazine, FC Bayern München AG board member and chairman-elect Oliver Kahn gives his take on the corporate management at the German record champions as well as his thoughts on football’s business model at a time of the coronavirus pandemic.

The interview with Oliver Kahn


Mr Kahn, you’ve been in office since January 2020. What has impressed you most since then, and has anything surprised you?
Oliver Kahn: “I stopped playing professional football in 2008 and then gradually got into the corporate world. I’ve set up companies in the digital sphere, where hierarchies don’t play such a big role. In contrast, FC Bayern has a very hierarchical structure. That was something I had to get used to at first. What’s always impressed me about this special club is the strict mindset for success, which you don’t get as much at other clubs. This culture is a powerful differentiating factor. You can feel the energy and power here every day. After the treble win in 2013, the club grew rapidly again from around 500 employees to over 1,000. That’s quite impressive.”

How do you structure your day?
“I’m a big fan of digital aids. For a long time I’ve been using Trello, a tool that allows me to considerably increase the team’s and my personal efficiency. With this programme, I can easily organise a packed diary like the one I have today.”

Where do you get your inspiration from?
“I’m someone who likes to keep developing. I get a lot of stimulation and inspiration from various online courses. Harvard and Stanford University offer substantial course and programmes in this area. The advantage of the English language is that a lot of things can often be explained in a simpler and more understandable way. In German, certain topics are often explained in great detail. I also like reading books and I do a lot of travelling for business. I visited various places last year, including China, the Middle East, Thailand and the US. I got a lot of new ideas from there.”


Do you have a mentor?
“I don’t have one particular mentor, but I try to get feedback and advice from people from different fields. In Herbert Hainer, Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, there are some experienced people at FC Bayern who I can talk to.”

What are the central themes for the club at the moment?
“A central issue is obviously how the current crisis will affect and change the football industry in the future. The most important question at the moment is when it will be possible to play in front of crowds again. There are plans here which, provided things continue to settle down with the coronavirus pandemic, allow for an incremental increase in the number of spectators. The crisis has ruthlessly laid bare how vulnerable the football business model is. The saturation of the clubs’ traditional sources of income, coupled with further increases in salaries, will lead to a dead end in the long run. Pandemic clauses and Financial Fair Play regulations that apply to all clubs and, more importantly, are enforceable are possible options for dealing with a sport that has gone off the rails.”

What kind of a corporate leadership have you discovered at the club?
“I’ve found a company that has been very strongly moulded by Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, and of course this also includes the structures and the corporate management.”

Are there things that could be changed?
“For me, leadership means creating an environment in which people can realise their full potential. A leader must be measured by their ability to make the people they work with strong enough to achieve their personal and corporate goals. In English one would say “building others up”, with the emphasis on “others”. I always keep an open mind and demand contrasting views and perspectives so that creative ideas can emerge.”


Are there projects that have had priority in your first year in office?
“In the first six months of my job at FC Bayern, the priority was getting to know the individual departments of the club. Here I was able to gain valuable information and insights into the status quo at the club. Now it’s about looking to the future and coming up with answers to the key strategic questions. We mustn’t take the sporting successes of the past decade for granted – we have to constantly work for it. Our underlying potential enables us to deliver top performances in all areas. Whether it’s our staff, the team, the relationship with our fans or our partners, we want to keep setting standards. Alongside FC Bayern’s sporting and financial success, we expect more in terms of social commitment and sustainable action. Carefully combining all these areas will be the task over the months ahead.”

How long does such a process take?
“Since we live in a time of constantly accelerated change, a strategic process can never be over. The strengths I have today may be obsolete tomorrow. New technologies and the digital transformation offer great opportunities and can massively change entire industries. We have to be prepared for this in football as well. This means that the ‘strategic radar’ must be constantly switched on. I can well imagine that football will change significantly in the coming years. For example, younger generations watch the game in a completely different way and have different expectations than older generations are used to. If we don't want to lose them, we have to create digital ecosystems that make it possible to respond to each fan individually in the future.”

What are the particular skills that you want to bring to FC Bayern?
“From my time as a player at FC Bayern Munich and my business experience of recent years, I’m able to bring together the commercial aspects of a club with the traditional values of football. I would say I’m a very strategic person, who follows a certain plan in business activities while staying true to my principles of openness, tolerance and integrity, and motivating others to perform to their best.”

After the end of your playing career, did you think you would work at FC Bayern again in another capacity?
“Somehow it was always obvious. After the end of my career, I kept in touch with the powers that be at the club, such as Uli Hoeneß and also Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. And because of my work as a ZDF pundit, my contact to Bayern was never cut off and my focus was always on football. One day, I said to those in charge that if they hit on the idea of bringing me back, it would be better to give me good notice because I’m not someone who likes to jump into things ad hoc. The period I’m in now gives me the opportunity to steadily prepare myself for the role and the responsibility that comes with it.”


In terms of team or individual leadership, what elements are important to you?
“Leaders have to get people enthusiastic about objectives and motivate them. In order to achieve this, I have to make it clear to the people involved that everyone is a part of the big picture and makes an important contribution to the achievement of objectives. For me, that is real appreciation. Irrespective of hierarchies, everyone can get involved and contributes in their own area to FC Bayern's success. Furthermore, I value an intelligent communication and feedback culture which enables further development.”

There’s a lot of talk about diversity these days. Is there a successful formula when it comes to assembling staff? Is there an ideal team in your eyes?
“Putting together an ideal team has become a real science, to some extent, and diversity is a factor in that. As a former sportsman, I’ve learned how teams work successfully when there’s a lot of cultural diversity. Diversity brings new perspectives, which can in turn lead to creative solutions.”

How important are staff as brand ambassadors? And how important is it that you’re visible?
“Every employee of FC Bayern Munich is a brand ambassador and represents the club’s values. It’s important to demonstrate these values, to practise them and to convey them to the outside world.”

What can you learn from younger employees?
“I’m learning new things every day. I’ve noticed that having clear values is very important. In internal workshops that we have with the staff, the questions of what we stand for, why we’re here and what value we give to society always come up. Sporting success on its own is not enough anymore. Giving clear direction and imparting meaning is a key theme for all football clubs.”

What does networking mean to you?
“For me, networking means building and maintaining contacts internally and externally. As well as the social element of getting to know interesting people, networking is also about making commercial and work-related connections. Networking puts you in contact with a person who can give you advice or open a particular door for you. Good networking doesn’t just mean having contacts in your own industry, but being meaningfully connected across all sectors.”

Why are personal connections particularly important in sport?
“The starting point of every successful partnership in sport begins with a good relationship between people. If that personal basis is right, then many problems and challenges can be overcome.”

Oliver Kahn wants to lead the German record champions into a successful future with the ‘FC Bayern AHEAD’ project: