2003 – 2020: Pioneering spirit meets life skills

Zeppelin University (ZU) and the Zeppelin Group not only owe their names to the same person – Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin – but also share values and a partnership of support. Professor Dr. Klaus Mühlhahn, President and Managing Director of Zeppelin University, and Peter Gerstmann, Chairman of the Management Board of Zeppelin GmbH, discuss what unites the institution and the company and how they work together.

Prof. Klaus Mühlhahn (left) and Peter Gerstmann discussed their collaboration. © Zeppelin Universität, Foto: Samuel Groesch

Peter Gerstmann: You came from Berlin to Friedrichshafen a few months ago and took over the position of President. How have you found these first few months?

Klaus Mühlhahn: I was delighted to take on a new role here and I experienced an open university that welcomed me. I was also well received by the region and city. I see enormous potential for developing the university further – especially in terms of collaboration between the university and the region.

Peter Gerstmann: You are a professor of Sinology and have previously taught at FU Berlin, one of the largest public universities in Germany. What attracted you to a private foundation-based university such as ZU? Where do you see fundamental differences?

Klaus Mühlhahn: I have spent a lot of time at state universities and experienced both their strengths and weaknesses. The original idea behind being a university is based on innovation, flexibility and agility. I have seen the potential of realizing this original idea more successfully here than in a large institution, which often behaves like a ‘giant tanker’, with its size alone making it less agile. I felt a pioneering spirit and a ‘kick’ to put something in motion here, which just isn’t possible elsewhere. We have excellent student-supervisor ratios, and this allows us to advise and motivate students in close contact, in an approach that is highly appreciated. This direct interaction signifies a huge difference, as state universities have supervision on the basis of a one-to-eighty ratio, whereas here we work with a ratio of one to six. This is a unique selling point and is also reflected in the students’ commitment. Beyond this, we are in close contact with industry, such as the Zeppelin Group. On the one hand, this collaboration is about financial support, but sharing, learning and mutual understanding are just as exciting and important. We are close to the company, the economy and practical applications.

Klaus Mühlhahn: Zeppelin has been supporting ZU since it was founded. What do you value about the partnership?

Peter Gerstmann: We have tasks and questions that we discuss with students and professors, and at the same time the Foundation Chairs we support share their knowledge with us. They attend our strategy meetings, for example, which helps us keep the dialogue between business and science open. That’s why we also have ‘connector employees’ who work continuously with ZU and further develop the sharing of knowledge and ideas.

Klaus Mühlhahn: Where can we learn even more from each other: in practice or in theoretical knowledge?

Peter Gerstmann: Our partnership offers us the opportunity to enthuse young people for Zeppelin and therefore perhaps also attract future employees. But this means that we learn to understand young people and tailor our recruitment programs accordingly. Generation “yz” in particular is a challenge for all companies, as this generation has different values, ideas and expectations in terms of their profession and employer. ZU is a wonderful ‘playing field’ where we can recognize this, for example in some joint projects. Guest lectures give us the opportunity to start a conversation. We can and should also continue to work on specific tasks. For example, there’s a professor who is very interested in the economies of Eastern Europe – these are important markets for us. We exchange ideas.

Peter Gerstmann: The student placements at ZU are highly sought after, and applicants are subjected to a competitive selection process. This is not just about academic achievements.

Klaus Mühlhahn: I’m proud that we don’t look at diplomas here. We try to see the actual potential in every applicant. What do they bring to the table? How can the candidate develop? Are they a good fit for us? At special selection days, we ask applicants to take on tasks. We want to find out about their personalities and are looking for young people with a pioneering spirit who are curious, innovative and committed, as well as being interested in the world at large. This is how we have managed to establish a great community; following the example of our namesake Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, who embodied this pioneering spirit.

Peter Gerstmann: You also inspire young people to get involved in start-ups. Since 2003, students have set up over 120 companies. What is the recipe for success?

Klaus Mühlhahn: With our start-up center PionierPort, we have developed our own format, which in effect is our incubator. This is where we promote start-ups by supporting business and project plans. I see ZU as an entrepreneurial university in which we embody this spirit of entrepreneurship, founding and design and help students apply this spirit. We have different formats including lecture series, where entrepreneurs share their experiences. What makes this special is that we provide scientific support so that the students get multiple perspectives. We show the founders how they can approach their projects from different angles in order to understand different dimensions. We are proud of the companies that have emerged from our university to become very successful. These include costume jewelry manufacturer Stilnest, long-distance bus pioneer DeinBus.de, and Rock Your Life!, a socially oriented enterprise.

Peter Gerstmann: Looking at the German higher education market, you can see a broad and diverse offering. Every niche is occupied, and most of it in the public arena – meaning without tuition fees. How can ZU attract students? 

Klaus Mühlhahn: The higher education market in Germany is more difficult than in the USA, for example, where tuition fees are normal. In contrast, we are competing with a product that is offered for free elsewhere. In response, we need to position ourselves clearly, set ourselves apart from the competition, and be much better, for example in teaching and education, but also in terms of more current content. We must offer clear added value, and we do so by ensuring that our offering is better related to professional practice, and that our educational content engages with current developments more quickly than other organizations.

Klaus Mühlhahn: The Zeppelin Group works with many family-run construction companies. ZU has several affiliated, cross-disciplinary research institutes, including the Friedrichshafen Institute for Family Entrepreneurship. Where can we adapt this specially designed training even more specifically to the needs of companies? 

Peter Gerstmann: I cannot speak as an entrepreneur who runs their own family business, but rather from the perspective of someone who works with many medium-sized family-run businesses. What I notice is that entrepreneurs ensure that their children receive an excellent education, and often in the technical arena, for example as a construction engineer. The ‘finishing touch’, which ZU is excellent at providing, is often still missing. This concerns subjects such as social and societal responsibility, an orientation to the future, and sustainability, but also leadership. How do I deal with people, and how do I inspire them for a market or company? Business management requires more than accounting or marketing alone. You also need the ability to manage a project or company, and to solve a problem. Conveying these skills is a major challenge, and I believe that private universities in particular can afford to prioritize. Succession planning is important. What can we expect of the next generation of entrepreneurs, and how can they use their needs to shape the design of their parents’ company? These are questions that trigger generational conflicts. Creating understanding and building a bridge – through good training – would be valuable steps for these companies.

Peter Gerstmann: ZU not only offers university-level instruction, but also in-service courses for working professionals. Management training courses are aimed specifically at companies. These formats extend beyond basic university classes.

Klaus Mühlhahn: We have masters programs that are taken while practicing a profession, for example in the areas of digital business model innovations and for successors and external managing directors in family-run companies. I envisage other initiatives here, and would like us to set up new certification programs that target specific needs more precisely. The goal behind this type of program is to convey concrete knowledge. I think we can do even more in this area, including in collaboration with companies – for example relating to sustainability, accounting and controlling. This would be perfect for a certification program aimed at people who work in accounting, but to whom we can specifically pass on new knowledge.

Klaus Mühlhahn: You are a business management graduate and have enjoyed many successful years in a company with a technical orientation. Looking back today, what was the most important thing you learned in your studies?

Peter Gerstmann: When my son asked me which field of study I would recommend to him, we came to business management. I told him: “If you’re studying business administration, you have a huge advantage, because it is a course of study that gives you life skills. You learn everything you need for life: How to deal with money, market yourself, position yourself, and think strategically into the future.” I learned that in my studies as well. How do I deal with the future, how do I design it, and how am I equipped for it? I really enjoyed being able to carry all of this forward in my profession. It always depends on how ‘emancipated’ you are as a management expert. Although my education was in controlling, I was increasingly interested in the question of how controlling can be used to shape a future for the company: The strategic side, the long-term nature of planning, the improvisation that happens if you don’t fulfill the plan because you fail – developing a company based on these exciting tasks has always been an appealing challenge for me. But how can we prepare young people even better for the demands of working life in the future?

Klaus Mühlhahn: Interesting that you described your studies as conveying life skills, because this is also what we work to achieve – we want to impart concrete knowledge, but also avoid the designation of ‘specialist’. It’s about seeing the big picture, but still acquiring concrete skills. There are two important points that stand out when it comes to a successful future for young people. They must recognize the necessity – and also have the ability – to undergo further training several times during their professional lives. They may need to reinvent themselves by acquiring new knowledge. This requires willingness and patience. Endurance is indispensable here, and resilience is also very important when it comes to surviving crisis situations, not giving up, and pursuing a clear goal on a long-term and consistent basis, even under difficult circumstances. I only had the opportunity to gain this tenacity during my studies in China – and it’s a trait you can train yourself into. 

Peter Gerstmann: This also has to do with accepting failure as a basis for learning and starting over again. A question for the sinologist: Are you allowed to fail in China?

Klaus Mühlhahn: You can fail, but never give up.

Peter Gerstmann: What is your view of the distribution of power in the world, especially after the US elections? What role will China and the US play and what role will Europeans take?

Klaus Mühlhahn: I fear that the tensions and confrontation between the US and China will increase. Far beyond the current Trump administration, certain key messages about China are also shared by the Democrats. There is a rivalry at the base of it. The US had been used to dominating the world since World War II, and that is no longer the case. China is a real competitor. We Europeans must be careful not to get caught in the middle of this conflict. What is our interest and what are our values? What do we stand for? This calls for new reflection and will be a central question of the future.

The German version of this interview was published in baublatt, November / December 2020 edition.

Further information

Zeppelin University

1900: Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin and his vision of an airship

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