The Agenda

#15 - Miriam Mertens - Fostering a human centric leadership

July 12, 2022 SHERPANY Season 2
#15 - Miriam Mertens - Fostering a human centric leadership
The Agenda
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The Agenda
#15 - Miriam Mertens - Fostering a human centric leadership
Jul 12, 2022 Season 2

Key leadership traits to attract talented people: empathy, authenticity, and personal values

The Agenda podcast series uncovers what it takes for leaders to build trust and inspire people. In this podcast, Co-Founder and CEO of DeepSkill, Miriam Mertens, speaks with former BBC interviewer, Nisha Pillai, about human centric leadership and the key leadership traits: empathy, authenticity, and personal values, which help to attract talented people to organisations. For more podcasts, stay connected at

The Agenda is brought to you by Sherpany #LeadingTogether

Thank you for listening! Visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn for board, board committee, and executive meetings solutions.

Show Notes Transcript

Key leadership traits to attract talented people: empathy, authenticity, and personal values

The Agenda podcast series uncovers what it takes for leaders to build trust and inspire people. In this podcast, Co-Founder and CEO of DeepSkill, Miriam Mertens, speaks with former BBC interviewer, Nisha Pillai, about human centric leadership and the key leadership traits: empathy, authenticity, and personal values, which help to attract talented people to organisations. For more podcasts, stay connected at

The Agenda is brought to you by Sherpany #LeadingTogether

Thank you for listening! Visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn for board, board committee, and executive meetings solutions.

Nisha Pillai 00:00:06

How do leaders build trust and inspire their people? What skills and tools do they need? How can they develop them? And how about meetings - what role do they have?

I’ve been talking to business leaders and scientists about what leaders can - and should - do to help their people feel trusted, with a sense of belonging and purpose. So, join me, Nisha Pillai, for another fascinating series of The Agenda - brought to you by Sherpany.

My guest today believes that empathy, authenticity and personal values are the key to attracting talented people. Let me introduce you to Miriam Mertens. She has decades of experience in the tech industry and a passion for getting the most out of people, which is why she set up Deep Skill, a digital business aimed at fostering human centric leadership.

Miriam, welcome to The Agenda.

Miriam Mertens 00:01:03

Thank you very much. Thanks for the invitation.

Nisha Pillai 00:01:05

Good to have you with us. So obviously, I'm going to start by asking you, what is human centric leadership?

Miriam Mertens 00:01:11

Yeah, that's a good question. Human centric leadership is for me really to be able to build personal connection and personal bonding as a leader, and really put the human beat and team member, or beat even the customer to put them in the centre of all activities of a corporation. That's for me, human centric leadership.

Nisha Pillai 00:01:30

And where do people actually feel this leadership? Where is it located within an organisation, if I can put it like that?

Miriam Mertens 00:01:37

First of all, I think it's located really in the everyday interaction between a leader and a team, for example. So it's nothing huge, nothing big. It's nothing to put up the walls of corporate communication, or that's at least not the part where, in my opinion, it's most important.
It's really when you talk to people, when you are in a meeting, when you look each other in the eye, even in a virtual communication, for example. All of these small interactions, that's really the place where human centric leadership comes into play and is really shown from a good leader.

Nisha Pillai 00:02:13

So, tell me more about that. How can a meeting be a place in which leaders can show their leadership, and how human centric their approaches?

Miriam Mertens 00:02:21

Yes, I think meetings are actually really important for showing personal connection, and thus, human centric leadership, because meetings, although in our today's business world, they're often very short, very compressed. Often only via a virtual communication or video conference. They're really the place where human interaction and emotional bonding can be shown, and displayed.

So, for example, the question how decisions are taking in meetings or how speaking time is distributed, or also how asking each other how do you do how? do you fear? what's going on around you? Where are you at the moment? Are you at home? Is something crazy going on behind you? And nobody really sees it are like, are you really concentrated?

All of these things are really important questions when you talk to each other. And I think the virtual communication and virtual meetings sometimes have the risk that you forget that, you just focus on content, and they're really short.

So I think it's really important to be very conscious about that. And put these thoughts also in virtual meetings like it used to be when you met physically.

Nisha Pillai 00:03:29

Yeah, I have to say that my experience of virtual meetings doesn't really chime with what you've just been describing, so as a kind of go to aspire to.

Miriam Mertens 00:03:37

I mean, especially in the COVID times, I think we have switched from the physical meetings or from hybrid settings fully to virtual meetings and didn't really think about the consequences.

So in my opinion, at least now, it's time for really doing like these things more consciously and setting agendas more consciously and really also paying attention. How to how to set up emotional bonds between team members.

Nisha Pillai 00:04:01

So emotional bond between team members recognising people and the whole humanity, including our messy lives beyond work, is this what you mean by being authentic as a leader? Because I've heard you talking about authenticity in business, and I wondered what you meant by it?

Miriam Mertens 00:04:19

Authenticity for me is a bit more than just setting up emotional bonds, although that's also, of course, really important. Probably authenticity is a precondition for doing that. But for me, it's a bit more.

To be an authentic leader, it means for me first hand to be very clear oneself about personal strengths, talents and derive from that personal values, and I think you have to be really clear about what's important for yourself to be a good leader.

What do you want to do? and what do you not want to do? And once you have that set up, you can align that this corporate values. But you need to know, of course, beforehand what's important for you to align that with corporate values.

And that's the precondition for being authentic, to have really an alignment between what you think and what you say, and also how you act in a corporate setting, and what's important for yourself.

If that's not congruent, at least I would say for 70% - 80% feel that and see that, and then you lack leadership power.

Nisha Pillai 00:05:18

I don't recognise this in most leaders that I have worked with, this kind of honesty that you seem to be calling for, but you really know what you stand for. How widespread do you think it is? Is it the norm?

Miriam Mertens 00:5:29

I think that people look for leaders who are like that. And when we think about big leaders, I don't know, big political leaders, or maybe economic leaders, in my opinion, they often present that.

I think people look for it, and maybe they don't feel the psychological safety to act on that and maybe they don't feel safe enough to really say what they think.

But I think it's definitely something we should look for, and we should try to achieve as an economy and as a as a society.

Nisha Pillai 00:06:04

How do we create psychological safety within organisations where we're demanding quite a lot of people and we have targets, we have goals, we have ambitions that have to be met. Some are very short term.

How can we then together and around that create psychological safety?

Miriam Mertens 00:06:20

I think in the business world, it's very important to see that to create psychological safety is something that really pays off economically. So it's something that's good for the people, but it's also good for business, on the long run, at least.

If you have an atmosphere, where there's fear and no psychological safety, people won't come up with new ideas, with new problem solving approaches.

They will not just show their full potential and that's, of course, bad for the business. That's the first thing. What I think is really important to recognise, to create such an atmosphere in a culture.

I think it's really important for example, as a leader also to admit, for example, if you have done something wrong, to create really a good failure culture, and be just open about things that didn't go so well, or maybe also open about own fears or risks that you see.

And once you've done that and really create a space for people to do the same I'm sure they will follow and also come up with new ideas and show their full potential that they can bring into the everyday business.

Nisha Pillai 00:07:25

And have you witnessed this in practice, Miriam?

Miriam Mertens 00:07:26

Yes, absolutely. I think numerous corporations, companies are trying to establish a culture with more psychological safety just because there is also a need for new business models especially in times of crisis like we have now, in times of huge changes, very fast innovation cycles, for example, businesses need new ideas.

They need the creative power of everybody. And in these times, I see that many corporate cultures are trying to establish such a culture where people can bring in their ideas.

Nisha Pillai 00:07:55

Amongst the many challenges that businesses are having to deal with, having come through COVID, we now have all of the uncertainty over the economy and what's going to happen to supply chains and inflation and potential recession. But there's also a major talent war going on, trying to recruit the best people and there are so many vacancies unfilled.

What are your thoughts about how businesses and organisations can try and address that and be competitive in the recruitment market?

Miriam Mertens 00:08:24

The war for talent is really tremendous and it's growing. I think it's growing every day. And we also see that in our business that it's harder and harder to get good talent. But I see also big chances in this development.

First of all, I'm sure it will foster more diversity because companies need to look for new target groups for their employees or for their talent.

So, they cannot just rely on the job profile as they used to, and maybe just get to hire the person that was hired in the last years, but really look for new approaches, for new groups of people. So that's the big chance in the end, I think.

And on the other hand, another good point about the role for tenants is that they really need to care about the people, because not only recruiting is really expensive in times like we have today, and I'm sure it will be it will get worse in the next months and years.

Also, if we lose good talents, I mean, that's even worse because if you have recruited a talent for a high amount of money, it's even worse if they quit their job in the next three or six months.

So, companies really need to think about concepts, how to keep people, for example, in developing them better, although it's of course quite challenging.

Nisha Pillai 00:09:33

I'd like to unpack both those thoughts because they're both really interesting. The first one you made was companies have to look wider, further afield and recruit from different talent pools than they perhaps ever have considered before.

Like what, for instance? Can you give us some examples but some flesh on that idea?

Miriam Mertens 00:09:51

Yes. For example, a group of people that we really like to hire are working parents. Working parents are or other people who like to work part time. If we give them this flexibility they need, they're usually very, very loyal team members, and usually they really love what they do if they can arrange their working life also with their private life.

So, that's a group of people that might have a hard time the year before, but from our experience, a very productive group of people. For example, that's where we see a change in attractiveness of these kind of people.

Nisha Pillai 00:10:25

And you also said there's no point in recruiting people, which can be a very expensive process only to lose them very soon thereafter. You've got to be able to attract people and hold them and keep them loyal.

So, what do companies have to do in order to re-engineer themselves, almost to rethink their processes so that they actually retain the people they have?

Miriam Mertens 00:10:47

Yes, retaining talent is a huge, huge topic. I think the first point you need to do to do that is look at your leadership culture because you can write everything in job postings and tell people anything in interviews how good your culture is. But they will find out if your weeks or months if it isn't like that.

So look at your leadership culture, how decisions are taken, how people are treated, how, for example, employees' satisfactions results are with regard to leadership.

I think that's the most important point. And if there are things that are not so going well, then take care of it. Talk to the leaders, talk to the managers. I mean, we all know job portals like Kununu who are Glassdoor. If there's one or two managers who behave really bad, who scream at people people see that, people write that down, and then you can spend as much as you want for recruiting, this will destroy all your efforts.

So look at your leadership culture, act upon it, train people to be good leaders, because also leadership is nothing that just comes by birth. It can be train, it has to be train. So that's the first thing I would say. And then ask your people what they want.

Look at your culture and see also what the people want. Do they want more personal development? Do they maybe want to have more responsibility? and then see how this aligns with your corporate values.

It doesn't mean that you have to change everything upon demands of your employees, but it means if you have to align personal demands with values and with corporate culture, and see how this fits together.

Nisha Pillai 00:12:19

So what should be the key elements of this kind of training in order to improve the leadership culture in an organisation, and make an organisation an attractive place for people? To want to work in?

Miriam Mertens 00:12:31

Yeah, indeed, many of the topics we already mentioned.

So, I think, first of all, it's important also for leaders to know and to acknowledge leadership as I said something, you can learn, you have to learn. You don't have to have it just by birth, just naturally, but you can really train it and you have to train it if you want to be a good leader.

And I think also it's very important that leaders see that times have changed and times are even more changing. So circumstances in society in the political arena have changed, in the economy have changed.

The new leadership style, it's not just something that some millennials want or some Gen Z people wanted, something that's really necessary to be successful in this economy today. That's for me, always the first step.

And then for a leader, what are your values? What's really important to you? What do you really want to achieve in your job when you maybe switch to another job? Which kind of footsteps do you want to leave behind you when you go to another position for example, and then typical skills like communication skills, empathy, how to create psychological safety, but also a huge topic, in my opinion, is how to create resilience, resilience for yourself, but also resilient teams and resilient organisations.

Because if complexity is increasing ,and we somehow have to deal with that, and that's something where I would always put also a resilience part into into a good leadership education.

Nisha Pillai 00:13:58

You are mentioning resilience makes me think about the times we live in at the moment with so much uncertainty, economic uncertainty. There's a war in Europe. We don't know whether COVID will come back and bite us again. Possibly there's a recession around the corner. You can almost feel the anxiety in the air.

How can organisations and leaders help their teams be more resilient, I suppose, in the face of all this anxiety and uncertainty?

Miriam Mertens 00:14:22

That's a quite tough one because complexity is increasing. Like you said, uncertainty is increasing. But one thing we can be sure about this will not change. So first thing I would always do is to admit that it's complex, and that it's tough and that our future is uncertain and not pretending that it's all easy.

And we just have to work harder and just have to do more plans and more structure. But we need to admit that it's complex and uncertain. That's the first thing.

And then really be clear about the resources and energy that you have as a leader, as a team member, but also as an organisation. Which resources are in the organisation? and how can we use them, and not overuse them?

Also on an individual level? On a team level, I would always openly discuss that's what we require from you as an employee, but also tell us where are you energy levels? Where are your resources? Where are areas for you that are really tough to realise? For example, is it much easier for you to work from home? Then why not do that in these difficult times?

Or are there other areas where we can help you and discuss that openly? And then there are small things that can be implemented.

For example, do virtual meetings only for 50 minutes or 55 minutes instead of 60 minutes. Because we really learned in the COVID time that these 60 minute meetings, one after each other, really stressed us. These are small things, for example, that you can easily do when you lead a team.

Nisha Pillai 00:15:50

You know, Miriam, I know you are a real advocate for making the most of women in the workplace, so that women really don't just tick off inclusion buckets, but that they actually thrive in organisations. What are your thoughts on how one can actually make that happen?

Miriam Mertens 00:16:09

Female empowerment, female leadership is a big topic for me. It's diversity and female empowerment is more like a symptom of an emotionally intelligent organisation. So it's also of course also about creating equal opportunities, but when you look from a different angle, from an economic angle and diversity and really using that potential of female leaders, for example, something that just makes sense from an economic perspective.

And if you have an emotionally intelligent organisation, people will come up with this idea that diversity, a diverse leadership team for example, is more productive, creates better ideas, has a better problem solving capabilities.

So I think it's for me, it's really important to look also from this perspective onto diversity and female leadership, for example, and not just on, yes, let's give them equal rights because the something that has to be done today. But it's really something that's necessary to to be successful in the future.

How to do that? I would first start with creating  emotionally intelligent organisation, and then really looking which kind of qualities, for example, which kind of leadership qualities do we really need in our team? What is missing? What are maybe, especially when you have very homogeneous structures, what are common pitfalls or common problems we run into because of our non diversity?

And then usually you automatically come up with the idea we should get somebody in who looks at things from a different angle.

Nisha Pillai 00:17:40

And what would be your advice for women who are looking to grow themselves, either their own businesses or their careers within the organisations they work for?

Miriam Mertens 00:17:48

Yeah, my advice would be just do it, just go out there. Don't feel bad about taking your space, about making big steps. Maybe also don't overthink so much every step you do, and just see it as naturally that you have the right to get power, that you have the right, for example, to found your own business, and not always like problems that much.

But just go out, do it, and don't regret maybe every mistake you make. If you would take a leadership position in, for example, you own your own business, you will do mistakes. There will be things that will go wrong, and that's very natural and nothing to regret about it.

Nisha Pillai 00:18:26

Is that the advice you would have given your own self aged 25? When you are embarking on your career, what is the advice you would have given your 25 year old self?

Miriam Mertens 00:18:37

Indeed, that would have been the advice.  Because I mean I had a very good education, but I was still always in this, over thinking and over perfectionism mode and always like I have to give 150% better than the men.

No, you don't have to give 150% just give 100% and tell everybody, and not just always try to be even a bit better, they will find out if I'm better, or do the extra time.

Nobody will find out. You have to tell everybody and then100% or even 90% is enough. That would have been my advice to myself.

Nisha Pillai 00:19:09

That sounds so true. Don't overthink it. And when you do it, tell everyone you've done it. Own the glory and the credit right. I've got one last question to ask you, Miriam. It's been such a pleasure talking to you.

What is your most remarkable memory, your most memorable memory, if you like, of leading people, of connecting with people?

Miriam Mertens 00:19:30

Yes, there is one situation or one phrase in my life that I have very strong memories in terms of leadership. When started my career, I worked as a management consultant, and I worked a while in Nigeria. And like I said before, I was really like a typical German, very structured, efficient, young management consultant, always on a hurry and always like ticking boxes, and fulfilling KPIs, and always having spreadsheets around me.

And in Nigeria, the corporate culture I worked in was very different, was very about much about having fun and about having for example, playing music all the time in the work area. And we had a very good manager of my team. I was working and he was really creating or doing leadership by creating a great atmosphere.

For example, laughing, having a good time, and really bonding with people. And first I was really confused or I was really thinking, what's going on here? I mean, we have to do all the schedule and follow this project plan. But I really learned  that leadership can be done on various levels, and that our very structured and linear approach to doing business was not wrong.

But there's so much more than just fulfilling KPIs to be a good leader. And that was a big learning ahead from the time.

Nisha Pillai 00:20:51

Wow, such a huge learning from Nigeria. Mariam, it's been a pleasure having you with us on The Agenda. Thank you so very much for joining us today.

Miriam Mertens 00:21:00

Thank you very much, Nisha.