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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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“Meaningful conversations can happen at any time and can be of any length,” says Birthe Mester, Deutsche Bank


Birthe Mester is Global Head of Performance, Engagement & Culture at Deutsche Bank. She has 20 years professional experience in change, including cultural, behavioural and perceptional change. She previously lead a change management consultancy and before that was a diplomat with the German Foreign Office. Birthe will be speaking at the HR Directors Business Summit in early February 2018 on the subject of “Driving Performance through Meaningful Conversations.”

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: You’ve worked in OD for a long-time. What things do you think companies get wrong time and time again?

Birthe Mester, Global Head of Performance, Engagement & Culture, Deutsche Bank:

  • Although it seems to be obvious, it is absolutely vital to link business strategy with organisational development. Often they are separate, or don’t have enough glue between them with organisational development being a bit of an afterthought. Though without the right people strategy it’s nigh on impossible to execute in the most effective way.
  • Being realistic on timing – understand the time it takes to for global companies to change. Make sure that you build in achievable milestones to create a sense of progress.
  • Harness the power of leaders and managers; for example walking the floor, spontaneous conversations, a genuine interest in others and what happens on the ground combined with regular manager/employee meaningful conversations. All of these could do with much more attention. In fact, if I had one choice I would always opt for these low key/high impact/no cost approaches.  
  • Less is more; simple is better than complicated. Focus on some essential programmes or approaches that will make a difference. More activity looks good on paper but often achieves little as energies get dissipated.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: You believe in having ‘meaningful conversations.’ What do you think defines a meaningful conversation?

Birthe Mester, Global Head of Performance, Engagement & Culture, Deutsche Bank:

Meaningful conversations can happen at any time and can be of any lengths – 5, 10 minutes or an hour. They happen impromptu in corridors, in meetings and between manager and employee.

On the whole, conversations get more meaningful as people develop mutual trust and respect for each other. This trust emerges through appreciation, offering support and a focus on continuous improvement. Over time people will feel they can be more open and transparent.

It is really about the unconditional appreciation of the other and wanting to be available to listen and to work out a solution together for the individual or for the team or division.

To me it’s about listening to understand. That means being open minded to fully understand where the other person is coming from rather than listen to speak, which is all about being busy crafting their next argument than to listen attentively.

I am frequently in meetings, at any level, where people repeat each other just because they didn’t listen. Apart from wasting time by going round in circles, it can be very demotivating to people and can stop them from contributing.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What are some simple tips people can follow to improve their ability to have meaningful conversations?

Birthe Mester, Global Head of Performance, Engagement & Culture, Deutsche Bank:

Here are my top 5:

  1. Put away the phone and focus on the individual; multi-tasking hardly ever leads to good conversations
  2. Appreciate that conversations are better if each side really tries to understand the different perspectives
  3. Maintain eye contact, or when on the phone give signs that you are listening
  4. Convey genuine interest through clarifying questions
  5. Use humour, compassion or any other appropriate emotional connection. People want to be appreciated as ‘human’. Emotional connections are the ‘oil’ that drives meaningful conversations.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: People talking of ’embedding’ things in organisations – L&D frameworks, no blame cultures etc. But many fail to do it. How do you do it effectively and sustainably?

Birthe Mester, Global Head of Performance, Engagement & Culture, Deutsche Bank:

Point one which gets often lost is understanding how an organisation makes decisions, secondly it requires patience and tenacity to stick with an approach and see it through.

  • Tie your solutions to your strategy. Is what you have chosen really going to solve the problem or making the working environment stronger?
  • Make sure your solution is based on research both internally and externally and don’t fall for fads or dismiss something just because it sounds too simple
  • Set realistic time frames with achievable milestones on the way
  • Engage through different tactics to raise awareness, open minds and change behaviour and connect with people at all levels to show how it will matter to them. The last point is critical. If you don’t take people with you they’ll work against you and your project. 

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What sort of legacy would you want to leave behind when you leave the working world? How do you want organisations to have changed from when you started?

Birthe Mester, Global Head of Performance, Engagement & Culture, Deutsche Bank:

That’s a big question!

I would be thrilled to know that people with whom I have worked, would hold the firm belief that anything is possible; as long as you do your ‘homework’.

I had been told it wasn’t possible to make any great OD changes in big matrixed organisations. Today, I can say hand on heart this is not the case. It is true that it doesn’t come easy. To succeed it is vital to have the conviction, the facts, bringing people along combined with hard work, patience and ability to be pragmatic without giving up on your principles.

You might not succeed all the time, but these basic ingredients are a pretty good start to turn your ideas into reality.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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