How Birkenstock’s CEO Motivates His Team

David Kahan really loves what he does.

Here, the CEO of Birkenstock Americas shares a few thoughts on his own career path and how he creates an energized work environment for his team.

Getting my start in footwear:
“I went to school for business administration and accounting, so I’m a bit of a numbers jock. I’ve got an accounting degree. But I happened to work part time when I was in college in the shoe department in a Macy’s. That introduced me to retail, and I fell in love with it. I went from working 12 hours a week in the shoe department to working 12 hours a day, and I loved it from the very beginning.”

My leadership style:
“I believe in creating an environment where each individual’s mission is supported by their co-workers’, both personally and professionally. That’s when you go into this hyper-drive mode and you start operating at a higher level, when people have personal objectives that are completely aligned with the business objective.”

birkenstock Arizona
Birkenstock’s iconic Arizona sandal for spring ’17.

How to foster a supportive work environment:
“Each of our executives in the company has created a personal mission statement, and they’ve shared it, to say, ‘These are my five objectives for the coming year, and what do I need from others to help me accomplish my objectives?’ That way, when you’re going to meet with a co-worker, you know, ‘Oh, this person’s personal objective is to create such-and-such system for accounting.’ But you also know they have an objective to, I don’t know, lose 10 pounds. It’s personal and professional. I believe in creating a totally integrated organization.”

Tips for hiring good talent:
“We’re very diligent when we hire somebody that they’re a good fit culturally with us. We have them meet with a number of people on our team, and we assess more than the skill set, because odds are by the time they’re talking to us, they have the commensurate skill set. [It’s important they are] a cultural fit. Will they work within the team the way we expect people to work?”

birkenstock Gizeh
The classic Gizeh thong from Birkenstock for spring ’17.

My guiding principle:
“Nothing beats hard work. As good as our business is right now and as much momentum as we have right now and as hard as we’ve worked to get here, we’re going to double down on working even harder. Being smart and having a vision is really important, but there is absolutely nothing that beats hard work.”

The secret to being a good steward of a historic brand:
“There are nine ways out of 10 you can screw it up, and only one is the right path. You have to consistently make that right decision, and it’s always the long-term decision, never the short-term decision. But your instinct is always to do what’s right for the short term. So you have to have discipline.”

Outside sources of inspiration:
“I read a tremendous amount of books, mainly biographies and autobiographies — not just from the business world, but from sports and history. There’s a speech that [North Carolina State basketball coach] Jim Valvano gave in 1993 at the Espy Awards when he was dying of cancer. I make everyone in my company watch this speech. It says more about character than about your business goals. But that’s what I do; I hold myself up to the highest level you possibly can.”

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