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From the Death Zone to the Boardroom

Benedikt Böhm is CEO of the mountain sports equipment supplier Dynafit, a speed mountaineer, adventurer and father of three. In his new book From the Death Zone to the Boardroom, which has just been published, Böhm describes what managers can learn from extreme mountaineers. In a SUITS. Talk with Inga Empt, the 43-year-old talks about what led to his success and how he copes in a crisis.

Benedikt, which instils more fear in you – the death zone or the boardroom?

Well, I’d have to say the death zone. But I would soon burn out if I found myself at a company where everything revolved around ego, positioning and power games. That kind of atmosphere be like a death zone for me.

You clearly feel at home with the medium-sized company Dynafit. You have been there for 17 years now. When you started, the company was insolvent; today the brand is a global market leader. How did you manage that?

It wasn’t me alone, it was a great team effort. But I threw all my passion into the project from the start. At the time I was a on the national ski mountaineering team and at first I was reluctant to use this new and different Dynafit ski binding – then I was so fascinated that I absolutely wanted to work for the company. So I simply applied on my own initiative. And I arrived at exactly the right time. Three months earlier, the Oberalp Group had acquired the brand. Back then, ski touring had such a tired image. It was completely out of style. But that was our opportunity. We relaunched the brand in 2005. First of all, we put everything aside and focused on a single product: our binding. We loaded the brand with hard-core athletes and pursued this path rigorously and relentlessly.

At the same time, you continued to advance your career as a speed mountaineer. In 2006, your speed ascent team took on the first 8000m peak, the Gasherbrum II. It took you 17 hours – ascent and descent – because you raced down from the summit on skis at top speed. Normal expeditions take four to seven days. Could you ever have imagined such an achievement?

I just bumped into a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen for a long time. She had asked me back in my student days: Where do you see yourself in ten years? At the time I thought, what’s up with her? If I’d set myself an 8000-metre target from the start, I would have cracked under the pressure. It just seemed an infinite distance away. The most important thing was to take the first step. You know there are thousands and thousands more steps to come – but you have the momentum. Many people talk about their great ideas all the time, but they don’t set off on the journey.

Let’s do a speed interview. What connects the extreme mountaineer with the CEO? What are your top 5 keys to success? And please be quick…

Number 1: I create the conditions to succeed. As a mountaineer I involve my whole team in the planning and prepare the expedition meticulously. For years if necessary. It’s no different as CEO. I provide the conditions for my teams to succeed. Success factor number 2: total commitment. When I set myself a goal, I intend to see it through, though I still retain the ability to turn back if necessary, before it’s too late. Third: making decisions and taking responsibility for them, even if things have turned out badly at times. That’s when I put my hands up and say, ok, that was not good, and I expect the same openness from my colleagues. That makes you predictable as a boss, too. For me, there’s nothing worse than an unpredictable boss. Fourth: speed is of the essence. It’s nothing to do with rushing around. It’s about being so well prepared, having the process so well planned and thought through, that I am able to make decisions quickly and easily further down the road. Last but not least: communication. This factor cannot be overestimated. In our team I have made one of our top rules: Take the direct line! I always wonder why so many people find this so difficult. They would rather write 20 mails than have a brief conversation with the person. So many misunderstandings could be avoided. But many shy away from direct confrontation.

You didn’t grow up in a mountaineering family. Money was tight too. You are the second youngest of six children. So success was hardly a birthright for you.

Right, and I count myself fortunate. My parents didn’t have much money, they had other values. By the time we were 15, we had to support ourselves. To finance my studies in England and the US, I had to earn every cent myself. So I spent months working as a waiter at the Hofbräuhaus brewery and at Oktoberfest. So I would say my parents unwittingly did me and my siblings a big favour by forcing us to be independent at an early age. If you’re already in the land of milk and honey thanks to your parents, you might not be inclined to put in the hard graft. And why would you? If there’s low-hanging fruit, you’re going to pick it.

Where does your hunger stem from?

My energy has always been there. But things could have taken a wrong turn. I had the lowest school grades of all six siblings and got up to a lot of mischief. But I learned to channel my energy and realised you can get a long way if you’re willing to put in the effort, that dedication is more valuable than talent. Without dedication, talent comes to nothing. But the combination of talent and dedication can take you to great heights. I’ve always been interested in pushing the limits of what is possible. That’s something that concerns me these days. I wonder what has happened to hunger in our country.

In your book we learn how crucial goals are to success. What does that mean for you as a CEO?

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in that respect: I assumed that if I think something is really worthwhile, other people must too. But if people don’t feel like doing something, you don’t stand a chance. My lesson: you don’t set targets, you agree on them. Today I invest a lot more time into planning these goals and getting people on board. To make my goal the goal of my team as well, that’s actually the great skill. So instead of the employees saying “that’s what Böhm wants”, they see the project as their baby.

Another chapter of your book is called “About suffering – One day you’ll look back on your days of suffering as the most beautiful.” Why?

What are the experiences that really stay with you? The ones that involved blood, sweat and tears, where you got stuck in and emerged as a stronger person. Where you stepped out of your comfort zone. It’s true for a mountaineering expedition and it’s no different when you make a big presentation at work. That stays with you.

Like your Speed Transalp project last year? You crossed the Alps from north to south non-stop in 28 hours on touring skis, losing half your heel in the process…

I had open wounds on my feet, which were swimming in blood. It was a flesh wound of the highest order, and every step I took was like rubbing sand paper over it. I really thought about quitting. I knew it would only get worse. Then I had something like a Buddhist experience. At first I could only think about the damn pain, but then I was able to turn it around, I told myself that the pain is my companion now, and that I accept it. You have to accept it as a friend, otherwise it will destroy you… I am still amazed that it worked.

Let’s talk about crises. The Covid-19 pandemic: how hard has your company been hit?

It has hit me hard personally. We had a record year last year and this year we were on course to go even higher. We had just launched a huge investment programme, and then we had to do a complete U-turn and head the other way. Even just mentally I had a hard time with that. Then we responded quickly. Everyone was placed on short-time work. We immediately called every single retailer and told them there’s no need to return the goods, we’re extending the payment terms for an initial 8 weeks. Business was at a standstill in March and April, but in May it exploded again. We had a sensational start to the summer and have made up an incredible amount of ground. I’d never have thought that was possible in April. We are in the fortunate position that our brand stands clearly and absolutely authentically for performance. The all-round brands are having a harder time.

Doesn’t coronavirus seem somehow insignificant to someone like you, who often faces death during expeditions?

Yes, absolutely. And I don’t want to play down the dangers. My sister is a doctor and she told me about the scenes in intensive care. But I also called an old friend in Nepal and asked him about the situation there. His answer was: “What the fuck is corona? We have malaria, we have this and that… Why are you asking me about corona?”

You have lived through the worst kind of crisis. Your best friend and climbing partner Basti Haag was killed while you were on an expedition together.

The friendship I had with Basti – with all its ups and downs – is something that probably very few people experience. Where you trust each other on such a deep level. I am very grateful for the time we had together and for what he enabled me to accomplish. We always challenged and encouraged each other.

How did you process the loss?

When such a close friend dies right by your side, it leaves enormous wounds and deep scars. Those won’t go away. But somehow I had to escape this cycle of guilt, asking myself continuously “what if this, what if that…” You get stuck on this loop, like a carousel you can’t get off. You have to try to come to terms with the fact that things will never be the same again. Accept it.

We’ve spoken a lot about success. What do you find difficult?

Staying put during the lockdown was a challenge for me personally. I discovered that again last week on a family holiday. It’s a great weakness of mine. I find it extremely difficult to not be busy. That’s not my thing. I often wonder why I don’t have the self-discipline to just relax and do nothing.

Is that something you could learn? To relax?

I don’t know. It’s probably related to how my endorphins are released. I’m used to getting up at three or four, heading up the mountain, then to the office, one appointment after another. When I have to take a break, I sometimes feel like a junkie going into withdrawal.

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