My conversation with former Ajax-CEO Maarten Oldenhof reminded me to always keep in an open mind.
Before the interview, I wanted to ask him how he managed to deal with so many different stakeholders and personality types throughout his career, especially at Ajax. My assumption was that he had to be some sort of a chameleon to be able to connect with fans, the media, much older board members, 18-year old players who are about to make millions and strong personalities like former coach Louis van Gaal.
But Maarten assured me that he never really struggled with this.
So instead, we decided to focus on what was right in front of us: a huge oak table.
“Be open, be frank, be vulnerable. Show your emotions then you have the biggest chance that the other side will do the same.”
Some six months ago, Maarten started inviting all his LinkedIn contacts for coffee, which includes me. As I noticed, Maarten likes to keep these meetings very open. He doesn’t prepare for them and they serve no specific purpose.
In our conversation, we explore how Maarten’s coffee meetings relate to his previous life as a CEO, his management style and the culture he tried to create as a leader. He also talks openly about the most challenging and important meetings throughout his career and what he would have done differently. This includes an emotionally charged meeting when his management team had colluded against him and the negotiation of a major player transfer at Ajax.
2:17– Maarten’s philosophy behind inviting all his 7,000+ LinkedIn contacts for coffee
5:23– How his guests react to having such an open-ended meeting
6:06– The importance of face-to-face meetings versus using online platforms
7:32– Reflecting on how a numbers guy started to recognize the importance of meetings
8:37– How his first job made him realize that fact-based analysis isn’t enough
10:30– “A good manager should be like a referee in a football match”
11:57– Letting people in the organization own the problem themselves
12:45– Dealing with the groundskeepers during Ajax’ grass crisis
15:02– Painted grass and other experiments Ajax used while working towards a solution
17:23– The management secret to solving the issue
17:52– Creating a winning culture in which people feel free to share their expertise
18:28– The role of open meetings during his years as a senior leader
20:42– Why you need people in your management team who you can trust
22:03– How he handled a coup at one of the companies he has led
24:51– Throwing hot tea through the dressing room: why it’s ok for managers to show their emotions from time to time
25:57– How a personal touch helped Maarten land his dream job at Ajax
28:57– Looking back on Ajax’ golden years and how the fortress started to crumble
31:33– Reflecting on challenging meetings during his time at Ajax
32:48– Canalizing emotions: how Ajax won support among club members for its plans to go to the stock market
36:08– Negotiating with the Italians: learnings from Ajax’ first big player transfer - Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk to Inter Milan
38:28– Maarten’s ground rules for communication and conversation
40:29– The importance of soft skills in sports management: how a former goal keeper can succeed as Ajax CEO
Links to people, books and resources mentioned in this episode:
- No book tip this time because Maarten doesn’t like reading management books. His comments about leadership did remind me of this post by Marshall Goldsmith: Is It Worth It to Add Value? Not Always
Maarten Oldenhof is the former CEO of Ajax, the iconic Amsterdam-based football club that dominated the game in the early 70s and mid 90s. In ‘95 they won the Champions League, the biggest prize in European club football. And in the years after, Ajax moved to a new stadium and became the first Dutch club to go to the stock market. Maarten was CEO in this exciting time in club history.
After Ajax, Maarten held several senior leadership roles, including board member at the Amsterdam convention center RAI and ten years as CEO of AND, a vendor of navigation data. Currently, he serves as a Committee Member at Ajax and he’s active as a private investor in companies including Olde & Hoff tailoring.
A quick guide to European football
This episode is filled with football metaphors and anecdotes. If you’re not familiar with European football (or soccer) here’s a quick guide with names mentioned in this episode:
- Marco van Basten is one of the most successful Dutch strikers ever, who played for Ajax, AC Milan and the Dutch national team
- Dennis Bergkamp is a former striker for Ajax. In 1993 he moved to Inter Milan together with midfielder Wim Jonk in a record-breaking transaction. Thirteen years later, Bergkamp concluded his successful career at Arsenal
- Leo Beenhakker is a former coach of a whole host of national and club teams including Ajax, Real Madrid and Poland. At Ajax, he was succeed by Louis van Gaal
- Louis van Gaal is a former coach of prestigious clubs including Ajax, Barcelona and Manchester United. With Ajax he won the Champions League and World Cup in 1995
- Edwin van der Sar is a former goalkeeper of Ajax and Manchester United, who has been CEO of the Amsterdam-based club since 2016
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