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DU, FC Bayern Munich Grow Partnership During Crisis

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Lorne Fultonberg


Lorne Fultonberg


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The University and famous soccer club teamed up to talk leadership during coronavirus

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Kerry Plemmons

Kerry Plemmons leads a webinar while (virtually) standing in Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena.

Without defense, University of Denver Chancellor Jeremy Haefner told a group of executives, it’s hard to win a game. But it’s also impossible to win without some sort of offense.

The international business professionals listening in understood, of course. They were, after all, C-level executives with FC Bayern Munich, a German soccer powerhouse and global company. But they also knew the chancellor wasn’t talking about sports.

“There will be a very strong temptation to hunker down and simply survive this pandemic and come out at the other end not much different than we are,” Haefner said during an April 14 webinar. “That’s the last thing I think we should be doing as leaders of our organizations.”

Instead, the FC Bayern employees, stationed all around the world, were about to explore ways to move forward and emerge from the coronavirus crisis stronger and more unified than ever before.

To guide them, the Daniels College of Business Executive Education program hosted two digital trainings on leadership during difficult times, made possible by a two-year-old partnership between DU and FC Bayern.

Professor of the practice Kerry Plemmons led the sessions, standing (virtually) inside Allianz Arena, the stadium in which Bayern Munich plays its home games.

“Truly, this is the perfect time to invest in growing the capacity of your people,” Plemmons said in an interview after the session. “When people get stressed out, we have a tendency to put our heads down. We’re locked into these four corners of our office, reading things online and [feeling] blue. If leaders get locked into that without that sort of external collaboration, I think they’re doomed.”

The University of Denver and FC Bayern joined forces in October 2018 to explore a multitude of opportunities, including cultural exchanges, research collaborations, educational opportunities, and the sharing of coaching and leadership philosophies, methodologies and techniques. The relationship is meant to be cross-disciplinary, ranging from DU Athletics and Recreation to the Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

In April 2019, Haefner and two trustees accompanied DU’s soccer coaches to Munich to exchange ideas with FC Bayern executives and partners, including Siemens and Allianz. Together, they discussed artificial intelligence, e-sports, sports psychology, analytics and more.

The men’s soccer team planned to travel to Germany in March to scrimmage an FC Bayern developmental team, until the coronavirus outbreak shut things down. But Rudolf Vidal, FC Bayern Munich’s president of the Americas, considered it essential to find ways to partner this spring.

“We wanted to ensure we were still being active partners,” Vidal said, “so we quickly started a conversation about how we can engage and support each other during this time, enhancing the knowledge and understanding of the leaders within our club and how we can better support our staff during times of crisis.”

The webinars focused on leadership and teamwork, how supervisors can help their organizations navigate difficult times and create healthy work environments.

Vidal participated in the discussion too and said he enjoyed the small group discussions with his staff, facilitated through Zoom breakout rooms.

“We have a saying in football,” Vidal said. “We want our players to run through walls for the club. The same is true of our staff, but in order to make that happen, you have to equip them with enough knowledge and support to create success.”

Vivek Choudhury, dean of the Daniels College of Business, was happy to arrange the training, knowing that the school’s Executive Education program routinely works with Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits and organizations around the world.

“Our goal as a university, and certainly as a business school, is to add value to the community in these kinds of meaningful ways,” Choudhury explained. “We need to be embedded in this community, not just in Denver but globally. This is an example of that. Every time we execute one of these programs it speaks to the capabilities of quality that we’re able to offer.”

Plus, Vidal said, it shows what an alliance is really about. He agreed with Haefner, who noted that a partnership that was critical before the pandemic hit is even more important now.

“While our initial partnership with the University of Denver was with the soccer department,” Vidal said, “during an unprecedented time we have come together to see what other resources could benefit our organizations, representing the true spirit of partnership.”