The end of Oliver Kahn
Shortly before his two-year anniversary as CEO of FC Bayern AG, the club parted company with Oliver Kahn. In what was only nearly a cloak and dagger operation, the supervisory board dismissed Kahn before the last game of the season.
Kahn, who wore the FC Bayern shirt for fourteen years as a player and led the team to Champions League victory in 2001 with his saves, had been on the FC Bayern board since 2020 and succeeded long-time Bayern boss Karl-Heinz Rummenigge at the helm on 1 July 2021.
Kahn himself made no secret of his disappointment. He will be replaced by Jan-Christtian Dreesen, FC Bayern’s former CFO.
How do you measure the performance of a CEO? What may sound trivial is not. There are owners who evaluate their CEOs purely on the development of the company’s value: if the share price rises, the CEO stays. If the share price falls, the CEO leaves. More modern approaches agree on a mix of different goals and indicators. Financial results are just as much a part of this as strategic direction and assessments by employees. Financially, FC Bayern is a robust entity, but what are they beyond that?
Generally, it is a core task of a CEO to set the strategic direction of a company. In which direction is the organisation heading? What are the key, long-term business goals? The second core task is to enable employees to enjoy working and to work well.
What were Kahn’s strategic goals? Where did he want to take the club? Already a year ago, in a preliminary assessment of his work as CEO, I stated:
“Real impulses or a new direction are hardly discernible so far. That’s understandable given the starting position, but it’s not enough in the long run. (…) Kahn needs his own vision, perhaps even an unpopular one. A vision in the pursuit of which he can grow as a leader and by which he can be measured.”
This has not changed in his second year as CEO. Kahn has not given the club a discernible strategy, at least not one that he has formulated with sufficient precision and clarity.
On Linkedin a year ago, he wrote: “People at the club need to know what our goals are for the future and how we want to achieve them,” and went on to elaborate: “We want to offer our fans attractive, emotional and successful football – ideally winning as many titles as possible.“
As a formulation of goals, this is neither specific nor measurable nor time-bound and thus insubstantial beyond a phrase.
Kahn has failed to formulate a concrete goal of his own. New stadium, winning the Ballon d’Or, founding the Super League, abolishing or strengthening 50+1, bringing women’s football to the fore, making FC Bayern climate-neutral, earning €100 million in revenues with Esports, becoming the most valuable sports brand in the world, moving the club’s HQ to the Campus. There are more than enough goals he could have set for himself. Goals that go beyond mere “business as usual”.
Oliver Kahn would have needed such a theme, such a vision, to take the staff along on his journey.
He has tried to change many things internally. FC Bayern have grown rapidly in the last decade, it is very plausible that there is a need for change and improvement in the organization.
But if the goal is not clear, it is difficult to motivate the employees to set out on a common journey. His strategy project “FC Bayern AHEAD” seemed headless. Seemed like change for the sake of change.
You have to imagine it from the point of view of the people at Säbener Straße: FC Bayern have become German champions nine times in a row, won the Champions League twice during this time and also reached new heights in terms of finances, awareness and popularity. Everything is hunky dory.
When now a new CEO arrives from the outside and puts everything to the test as his first order of business, it naturally does not lead to enthusiasm. A two-year consulting project like Kahn’s “AHEAD” puts a double burden on employees: first of all, in practical terms, through the cooperation and collaboration in all the streams, drumbeats and sprints that arise as additional work in addition to the day-to-day business. “But I will need the KPIs for the stream process optimisation in partner management by the end of the day, if that’s alright with you.” In addition, projects like this are associated with constant uncertainty for the employees: What does this mean for me? What will change for me personally?
In this respect, it is no surprise that Kahn’s internal approval ratings plummeted.
A renovator is needed when the organisation has or had a problem, losses or faces downsizing. A hard time for employees follows. Renovators don’t make friends, but they may save the organisation from going under. They do this through a hard pace, a lot of work, and stressful meetings where things get loud.
This wears down and frustrates many employees. Basically, however, they understand the situation and are prepared to make cuts. The crisis is visible to all, visible and tangible.
Visionaries are not concerned with day-to-day business. They have the strategic vision. We have to move to the cloud. We are flying to Mars. Streaming is the future. We need to transform from a car manufacturer into a mobility provider. Visionaries are often CEOs who come to the company from the outside.
If the visionary manages to convince the team of her vision, big steps forward are possible. With some risk.
Administrators are the norm in board successions. Usually someone who has been in the company before, usually for many years, most recently as deputy to the CEO or managing director of another division, for example.
The processes in the company continue as before. The administrator sticks to the existing strategic direction. The classic risk of an administrator is to postpone a necessary realignment for too long. That is why they are usually followed by a rehabilitator or visionary.
There was nothing to reorganize at FC Bayern. He had no visions. Kahn did not want to and could not be an administrator.
Kahn combined the wrong characteristics of all three roles. He acted like a renovator and turned over every stone. As an ex-professional, the role of visionary is tailor-made for him, but he didn’t dare to take it, because he was an administrator in that he didn’t emancipate himself from Hoeneß and Rummenigge.
Paradoxically, it is possibly Kahn’s positive virtues such as work ethic, diligence, ambition and obsession with detail that prevented him from filling the role of a visionary with a Beckenbauer-like ease. Would the Kaiser have been interested in process flows and CRM systems in customer support?
Kahn wanted to legitimize his role by working more, managing more, tackling more issues than anyone else. In the process, he lost sight of the big picture, the mood of his people and the essential questions for the future of FC Bayern and professional football itself.
Hoeneß is said to dislike management consultants. He doesn’t want FC Bayern, his FC Bayern, to become a stepping stone for careerists. Hoeneß doesn’t want slick suit-and-tie-wearing businessmen with white sneakers to determine what happens at Säbener Straße.
He wants people with passion, love and knowledge of the club to run the shop. People who know that the focus must always be on the sport and the people.
Who would want to contradict him?
However, his means of achieving this goal alone are neither coherent in theory nor successful in practice.
Hoeneß prefers to rely on ex-players and other former companions. In addition to Oliver Kahn, FC Bayern parted ways with Hasan Salihamidžić. Both have in common that they have a history as players at FC Bayern. What both have in common too is that they had no relevant management experience in professional sport before taking on management roles at FC Bayern.
Back in 2009, when Hoeneß moved to the supervisory board and the newly created position of sporting director was awarded for the first time, he relied on Christian Nerlinger. He, too, lacked management experience before joining FC Bayern at a managerial level.
Ex-players have advantages. They know the business, they have a network, they know the club and the club knows them. That’s why it’s clever to involve ex-players. And of course, people like a Salihamidžić or Schweinsteiger are not supposed to adorn Audi’s cardboard displays as a junior manager or analyse social media exchanges as a marketing analyst before they qualify for upper management. A sensible integration of ex-professionals has to strike a middle ground. If they work there and work well, nothing stands in the way of promotion to top management.
Max Eberl, among others, shows that it can be done differently. He, too, has a red-white and black-white-green pedigree, but above all, Eberl has a proven track record in management and has worked his way up. Eberl started as youth coordinator at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Three and a half years later, he first took over the search for a new coach in a commission. And when the previous sporting director Christian Ziege became first interim, then assistant coach, Eberl took over his role. Two years later he was promoted to sporting director.
There are parallels at FC Bayern: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge joined FC Bayern as vice-president in 1991. A position that was newly devised. A position that initially had primarily a representative function. The previous president Fritz Scherer – a former professor of business administration and management professional – and manager Uli Hoeneß continued to be responsible for the operational management of the club.
Rummenigge took a similarly subdued approach to the role and for the time being remained a match commentator for television network ARD. It was not until eleven years later that Rummenigge was appointed chairman of the board in 2002. Eleven years of apprenticeship. Eleven years in which he was able to get to know the tasks and the club in detail and learn on the job. Eleven years in which he successively took on more tasks and more responsibility.
Someone who can run fast, shoot hard and jump far is not automatically a good manager. That should be the essential insight for FC Bayern. Dreesen is a first step in this direction.
Especially since the club has historically been successfully managed by many non-athletes, including Wilhelm Neudecker, Fritz Scherer and Karl Hopfner.