Talk and listen to people if you want to make a difference, says Birthe Mester, Deutsche Bank

Birthe Mester believes that to make a real impact in the workplace, communication is key. Birthe is presenting at the CIPD Employee Experience Conferences, 11-12 December in London. Book your ticket today.

Birthe Mester is Global Head of Performance, Engagement & Culture at Deutsche Bank. She has over 25 years’ professional experience in change; including cultural, behavioural and perceptional change. She previously led a change management consultancy and before that was a diplomat with the German Foreign Office.


  • Describe your typical working day at Deutsche Bank.

As they say, there is no typical day! Instead it’s more about a typical week and for me, talking to people is at the heart of my role.

Usually my week includes speaking to colleagues across the globe, understanding forward looking analytics to really get into what makes a difference to people, chairing global conference calls, participating in regulatory discussions, and most importantly working with my team to see where we can make the next difference or course correct, whilst enjoying ourselves!

To me a perfect week is where I have learnt something new about Deutsche Bank’s clients and about my field of practice, and made new connections. It’s important that I gain fresh insights into how our own people work and what makes them productive, solve challenges together with my team or with colleagues from across the Bank, have some reflection time, enjoy some fresh air and exercise.


  • Can you tell us a little bit more about your ‘check-in’ approach to developing performance?

Yes, of course. Throughout my working life I’ve found that teams who have regular and open conversations, are much more productive than those who don’t. They are better at pre-empting issues, course correcting when things go wrong and are generally more motivated.

This is the same at Deutsche Bank. We found that people who had a meaningful conversation with their manager at least once a month, felt more committed and enabled. In fact all themes in our engagement survey improved when people had greater clarity, received regular feedback and/or appreciation for their contribution.

Meaningful conversations can happen at any time and be of any length – often just 10 minutes can deliver the desired effect. It can be an impromptu chat in the corridor or during a meeting.

And it’s true – practice makes perfect! On the whole, conversations get more meaningful as people develop mutual trust and respect for each other. Over time people will become be more open and transparent.


  • What is the biggest challenge you face in your performance conversations?

Personally, I don’t find performance conversations difficult. I love appreciating people for what they do and I think at the same time, for people to be able to grow in their roles, it’s only fair to say when things need to improve or change.

In terms of adapting the organisation, the biggest challenge was to move people from once or twice a year performance conversations to more frequent ones. After much discussion on how often is often enough and how long is long enough, we are now clear what makes a difference. This check-in approach is not mandatory, but we believe the results certainly speak for themselves.


  • What would be your key piece of advice for professionals looking to review their annual appraisal process?

My key message is ‘performance and feedback are not just for Christmas; it’s perennial’. If you want to make a difference, create trust, motivate people and achieve better performance, you must talk and listen to your people frequently.

Make conversations the focal point.

Use humour and compassion. Emotional connections are the ‘engine oil’ that drive meaningful conversations. People want to be appreciated as human beings.

It is so much easier to deliver a development message when people know that you genuinely care and it is so much more meaningful when you appreciate your colleagues.


  • Finally, what is your ultimate career aim?

I used to think I’d be the first female chancellor for Germany, but since Angela Merkel beat me to the post, I decided to go for jobs that allow me to make a difference in the people space.

My career has been multi-faceted working with many nationalities and cultures. I studied law and macro-economics, then started out as a diplomat in war-torn Yugoslavia. I’ve advised energy and chemical companies on risk and reputation issues, consulted multi-nationals on leadership and behavioural change, and I’m currently the Global Head of Performance, Engagement and Culture.

Opportunities came along when I least expected them, however each time they were perfect for the contribution I could make at that point.

So it’s anyone’s guess where my next move might take me.


Birthe Mester is presenting ‘Mastering the quantity and quality of successful performance conversations at the CIPD Employee Experience Conferences, 11-12 December in London. Book your ticket today.