The Agenda

#17 - Nicole Herzog - The importance of building trustful relationships

September 06, 2022 SHERPANY Season 2
#17 - Nicole Herzog - The importance of building trustful relationships
The Agenda
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The Agenda
#17 - Nicole Herzog - The importance of building trustful relationships
Sep 06, 2022 Season 2

The key components to running successful companies: trust and the environment of trust

The Agenda podcast series uncovers what it takes for leaders to build trust and inspire people. In this podcast, angel investor and entrepreneur, Nicole Herzog, speaks with former BBC interviewer, Nisha Pillai, about building trustful relationships with leaders and teams, and running successful companies. 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

The key components to running successful companies: trust and the environment of trust

The Agenda podcast series uncovers what it takes for leaders to build trust and inspire people. In this podcast, angel investor and entrepreneur, Nicole Herzog, speaks with former BBC interviewer, Nisha Pillai, about building trustful relationships with leaders and teams, and running successful companies. 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 trust is a must for any leader. But how do leaders leave their egos at the door and build work environments that are inclusive and safe? Let me introduce you to angel investor Nicole Herzog. She's also Chairwoman of Sherpany and has vast experience across a range of companies. So what does she have to say about creating successful businesses?

Nicole, welcome to The Agenda. Good to have you with us.

Nicole Herzog 00:01:03

Hi, Nisha and thank you for having me. I'm very excited.

Nisha Pillai 00:01:07

So, Nicole, you've been a business angel and an entrepreneur for several years now. What makes some companies work and others not?

Nicole Herzog 00:01:17

It sounds simple, but I invest in people. It's not the best idea or the best product that will be successful. It's the best team, a diverse team that is capable of adapting to a changing environment.

Nisha Pillai 00:01:37

You must have observed many different leadership styles. What, in your opinion, makes a great leader?

Nicole Herzog 00:01:45

Authenticity. For one. And you need to leave your ego at the door. It's not about you. It's about the results. And it's about the people you want to empower.

Nisha Pillai 00:01:55

Leave your ego at the door. It doesn't sound easy.

Nicole Herzog 00:01:58

That's a hard thing to do. That's right. Especially if you have a strong opinion on things. Imagine working without a trustful relationship to your leader or to your teammates.

You know, when I did my internship, I had a boss who had a toxic leadership style. She blamed me for doing mistakes even in front of clients. In the end, I was so terrified of making mistakes, I couldn't even perform anymore.

So, I learned the hard way how it is. If you have a leader who does not trust in your skills and who does not have your back.

Nisha Pillai 00:02:40

You learned the hard way. But you also learned very early in your career. So it sounds like it was a good learning, huh?

Nicole Herzog 00:02:48

It's a good learning. You know, we only learn when it hurts, unfortunately.

Nisha Pillai 00:02:56

So how does one build this thing called trust? Because like you've just told us, it's not that widespread. Your very first boss was anything but a trusting and credible leader.

Nicole Herzog 00:03:09

Yes. I had a positive experience as well very early in my career. So I learned the two sides of leadership, the positive one and the negative one.

So when I started my own company, Humantis, a tech company, we lost our CTO. I mean, lost, he left the company, unfortunately, and we didn't have a successor. So I took over.  And as you know, I'm a lawyer by training, so I'm totally not the obvious choice.

But we didn't have a successor, as I mentioned. So I took over and I had to lead this team of engineers. So, I was forced into this leadership style of trusting the people we hired, of trusting the experts.

And they rewarded me with amazing results, and they trusted me as well. And they knew I relied on them, and they knew as well that I will have their back. So that's how I learned what trust can do for performance and for a team.

Nisha Pillai 00:04:18

And what can it do?

Nicole Herzog 00:04:18

It can totally empower and it can lead to high performing teams and to the best results.

Nisha Pillai 00:04:27

Beyond what you had expected, I presume?

Nicole Herzog 00:04:28

Totally, yes.

Nisha Pillai 00:04:32

Now, you were forced to trust your team when you had to step in as an emergency CTO. 

What happens in a situation where you actually do know a lot about your role? You do know the functions of your team extremely well, and you could do that, perform that function if you needed to. Is it harder to trust in that situation?

Nicole Herzog 00:04:54

It's harder not to control. You have to let go of control. And I as a person know that really good, that this is the hard thing to do. I'm a total control freak, so this is my daily challenge. I have, to not control, to trust the people, and not to interfere. But eventually doing it yourself is not scalable at all, right?

Nisha Pillai 00:05:20

What about from the other perspective, you've been talking about leaders having to trust their teams. How and why would teams trust their leaders? What enables that trust to go both ways?

Nicole Herzog 00:05:34

In my experience, trust is reciprocal. So if you trust and if you show trust and if you show yourself vulnerable and open to your team, this helps the team to trust you. You as a person, you have to show you as a person. And of course, as a leader, you have to like people.

Nisha Pillai 00:05:59

So that means you need to have the courage to be honest, to reveal yourself with all your flaws and your struggles. Is that what you're saying?

Nicole Herzog 00:06:07

Yes, that's what I mean with vulnerability, you know. If I am open about my strengths or my weaknesses or my the mistakes I do, or if I struggle, this helps your team also to be open and to make mistakes, and to talk about mistakes and to come to you when they struggle.

But if you seem to be not interested or if you cover your mistakes as a leader, they are scared of coming out.

Nisha Pillai 00:06:42

So, we've been talking about an attitude of mind within an organisation on all sides to foster trust. What about the role of specific tools, for instance, like meetings in order to foster trust? Do they play a role?

Nicole Herzog 00:07:00

In my opinion, meetings are a mirror of your leadership culture. So if you want to know how you lead or what kind of leader you are, try to reflect on how you lead your meetings.

More specific, who is talking? How much? Is it just you? How do you take decisions? Do you usually come out of a meeting with the decision you wanted to take?

Are there opposing opinions? Are people open to go in opposition and to opinions, or are they just quiet? So if you reflect on this, you get quite a good sense of what kind of leader you are and what kind of culture there is in your team.

Nisha Pillai 00:07:46

And having reflected, if you decide, OK, I want to make my meetings more inclusive, hear more voices, including some dissenting voices. How does one go about making a meeting feel like a safe space in which people can express themselves?

Especially when most of the time our meetings are held virtually, you can't read the body language of the people in your meeting, can you anymore?

Nicole Herzog 00:08:12

Yes, that's correct. Virtual meetings are more challenging than physical ones. I start meetings, especially the difficult ones in writing down why we meet, what is the purpose of the meeting and what we want to achieve together.

Then, I establish do's and don'ts - meeting rules. How do we talk to each other? What is important? We listen. We reflect on what anyone said, or we agree that everyone in the room wants to contribute.

Then I start with, for example, setting the scene, meaning that I ask the people is there anything that is in their way? or are there any obstacles for them to contribute to the meeting?

Then there are techniques like brainwriting. Some people don't like to speak in a group, but maybe they like to write it down.

Nisha Pillai 00:09:12

Brainwriting. Tell us a bit more about that. I'm not familiar with this term.

Nicole Herzog 00:09:16

Brainwriting basically is like brainstorming, but you write down your ideas.

Nisha Pillai 00:09:23

And what's the benefit?

Nicole Herzog 00:09:24

The benefit is that you don't have to fear that someone is criticising the idea you bring in.

Nisha Pillai 00:09:35

So you get more thoughts that are drawn out of the team as a result of this.

Nicole Herzog 00:09:40

Yes, you get more thoughts. And for many people, it's easier to write down ideas than to speak them out loud.

Nisha Pillai 00:09:50

So we're talking about how meetings can be a mirror to the broader cultural leadership culture of an organisation, and how meetings can be used to create more inclusive decision making in an organisation.

What about other strategies to promote inclusion in the workplace?

Nicole Herzog 00:010:06

Most leaders know it by now, but it's still important to say it again and again. Diverse teams bring better results. I'm totally convinced about this.

Diversity is just how you set up your team. Now, you have to bring your team up to work, meaning you have to include them. And for me, again, as we said earlier, trust and the environment of trust is key to inclusion.

In the end, inclusion needs the commitment of everyone in the team. It's not just the leader. We all have to contribute to inclusion.

Nisha Pillai 00:10:52

So what are the things we need to do to make sure that when we talk about inclusion, it's not just done in a kind of lip service sort of way, but that we genuinely are making the adjustments to our behaviours and strategies that will help women or young people really find their place within an organisation.

Nicole Herzog 00:11:14

In my experience, there's not one size fits all. We need tolerance. We need openness. On the other hand, we need courage and role models, courage in the sense of if we see that a team is not inclusive, we have to speak up. Or, for example, if you're a successful woman in business like you are, for example, Nisha, then we have to be role models for the younger ones.

So, we have to show and to encourage young women or young people. Everyone has a role to play in inclusion. In my experience, there's not just a structure you can overlay and then everything will be good because this is so deep within everyone of us.

So, we all have to work on this. We all have to put the results first and not our ego. And if we put the result first, then we include all the diverse team members we have because it's about the result, and not about me as a person, as a leader, or as a team member.

Nisha Pillai 00:12:29

And that's not at all easy to achieve, isn't it? If you become too results focused, for instance, you can lose sight of the health and wellbeing of your teams.

How does one balance this trade off so that you make sure that you have a healthy culture which therefore is a productive one?

Nicole Herzog 00:12:45

That's a very important question. Thank you for asking because as a leader you need to take care of yourself first. If you cannot take care of yourself, you cannot take care of anyone else.

I had to experience this. I had a burnout 12 years ago. I also here learned the hard way that a balanced life needs different pillars.

Let me make that a little bit clearer. If your life is based on four pillars and one breaks down, for example, work or health or whatever, you still have three pillars that hold your building stable, but if your life is only based on two pillars and one breaks down, you're in trouble. And you can become sick, you can get a burnout. You truly struggle.

And for me, to make it a little bit more specific, those four pillars are work, I love to work. But it's not only work. It's a healthy relationship. It's family and friends, and it's hobbies. Me time. Exercising. My dog. So, these are my four pillars, and I really try to work on all of them. And if I am balanced, I can also be balanced as a leader, and I also can support my team in staying healthy.

Nisha Pillai 00:14:40

That's a very powerful analogy. The four pillars holding up the house. Did you end up working yourself into the ground? Is that what created the crisis moment in the first place?

Nicole Herzog 00:14:30

Actually, it started when I stopped working and I realised that besides work there was almost nothing, so I fell in quite a deep hole. And it took me a lot of effort and a lot of time to get out of it, and to come to my power again.

Nisha Pillai 00:14:54

Fascinating. Thank you so much for being so honest with us, Nicole. So when you reflect on what you yourself have experienced and how many organisations you've been a part of, what do you think that leaders should be looking out for?

What should they have on their radar in terms of awareness of their team's health and well-being?

Nicole Herzog 00:15:15

The easiest and obvious thing is to talk about it. Be transparent. Communicate. Be there. Be approachable. Meaning that your team members know that they can come to you if they struggle.

If you are not approachable, they won't come. And if you see that someone is writing emails at 2:00 am in the morning all the time, just talk about it. Is it why you choose to do so? Because it's your best time to work, or is it because it is too much, or because you struggle?

Nisha Pillai 00:15:57

So actually just being sensitive and scanning for behaviour patterns

Nicole Herzog 00:16:04

It's being sensitive. It's just talk about it. You know, when you have a burnout, you can see it but you don't have to go there in order to be sensitive.

Nisha Pillai 00:16:16

I wonder if I could ask you about your thoughts on the current time. It's hugely uncertain. There's a lot of anxiety brewing among people of all ages. We have a war in Europe. We have a cost of living crisis. Inflation seems to be seemingly out of control. There's a possible recession around the corner.

What are your thoughts as a leader on how one manages a business and also teams in such a time of uncertainty and anxiety?

Nicole Herzog 00:16:45

I always focus on what I can influence. That's how I do it. And I cannot change inflation. I cannot change the war, unfortunately. But I can change my micro cosmos.

That's where I have an impact, and that's where I focus on. As a business leader, you have to work with scenarios, and you have to adapt. And probably it will still come differently than you thought in the beginning.

But I trust that I have a team in place who is able to adapt to this ever changing environment. As I said in the beginning, that's what I'm looking for in people.

Nisha Pillai 00:17:37

It's been such an interesting conversation with you, Nicole. As it draws to a close, can I ask you to do a little thought experiment for us? Go back to your 25 year old self.

If you were to say "Hello, Nicole, how are you doing?" What advice would you give to that former self of yours?

Nicole Herzog 00:17:56

That's a very tricky question. You know, I'm very focused on the future and on the current moment. But if I have to answer this question, I would say, Nicole take care of yourself and don't forget to have fun.

Nisha Pillai 00:18:14

That's a lovely answer. So I'm going to ask you to go down memory lane one more time. And share with us your most remarkable memory, your most memorable memory, if you like, connected to leading people, Nicole.

Nicole Herzog 00:18:27

You know, I spend a lot of time in meetings. And meetings I remember, or when I can feel that energy, you know the pride a team has when they just have achieved a goal together, then I know that it was an excellent meeting, and I know that it was worth our time.

Nisha Pillai 00:18:52

Nicole Herzog, it's been great to have you with us, definitely worth my time. And everyone joining us to share this in the podcast on The Agenda.

Nicole Herzog 00:19:02

Thank you so much, Nisha. It was a pleasure.