Women Of The C-Suite: Denise Mueller of Affimed On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior Executive
You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to know everything. Allowing myself to be vulnerable about what I don’t know and to be inquisitive has enabled me to learn really quickly. As a leader, it’s important to show your team that it’s not about knowing everything. Your ability to help others grow and lead is far more important.
As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Denise Mueller.
Denise Mueller is currently the Chief Business Officer and Member of the Management Board at Affimed. She has built a strong reputation for developing high-impact strategies, structures, teams, and alliances that have fueled business results, driven impact to stock value, and created market expansion across multiple therapeutic areas. In addition to her broad and extensive commercial experience, Denise has also held leadership roles at Pfizer, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, and GSK.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Many people think those who are successful found a plan and stuck to it, so let me make one thing clear: When I graduated college, I didn’t have a plan. As terrifying as that may seem on paper, it gave me the opportunity to follow my curiosity without the burden of expectations. Without a fear of failure, I was able to take risks and learn along the way.
I worked in a number of fields before I arrived at my current position, including travel, medical services, and marketing. While it may seem like a pretty wide range of experiences seemingly unrelated to each other, working a wide array of jobs helped me to develop business skills, knowledge of sales, and a knack for negotiation. All of those experiences led me to where I am now as the Chief Business Officer of Affimed. The best part is, I’m still growing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
For most of my career, I worked in a global role, though I had never worked for a non-American company. This became tricky, communication-wise, because the native German speakers I worked with weren’t used to the idiomatic use of the English language. So, in a presentation, when I asked for the opinion of the room and they said my idea was “fine,” I thought they hated it! It turns out that when Germans say something is “fine” they mean it as “better than good,” as opposed to the way Americans use the word in a cultural context. Now, from time to time, I find myself using the German-American meaning of words more often!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been grateful to have been mentored by multiple people through the many stages of my career. But at my foundation, I learned from my parents. My father had a long career at GE and instilled a strong work ethic in me. My mother, who was always incredibly kind and easy to talk to, taught me that sometimes the smartest thing to do was to “play dumb.”
Outside of the home, I can’t point to just one person, as there were so many who had an impact on me. A tough but fair executive at Pfizer took an interest in me, even though I wasn’t part of her organization. She encouraged me to stand on my own and taught me not to apologize for who I am. She was open to giving me coaching and feedback that was incredibly valuable. I’ve had other managers who emphasized that “life doesn’t serve your work; work serves your life,” and to put my family first, especially during difficult times. I learned so much from them and try my best to pass along the wisdom to others.
Even now, working for a German company, I am lucky to work with people and to manage people who help me become aware of the culture I’m now involved in. They may not even know they’re mentoring me, but I’m constantly learning from them by seeing through their lens. Mentorship doesn’t always have to come from someone more senior!
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I tend to have a lot of energy and my thoughts can start to race, so exercise first thing in the morning is imperative to decluttering my mind and focusing clearly. And even if my day doesn’t go as planned after that, I can always be proud that I started my day with exercise. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
People of different races and different genders can experience the exact same thing but process the experience differently. Everyone has a different upbringing, culture, and paths that create a unique lens through which they see things. When building an executive team, it’s exponentially better to model what the population looks like and bring different viewpoints to the table. It’s imperative to creative problem solving.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
A few myths I find amusing:
- We must always be working on very important things, secret things that we cannot divulge to the broader organization. The truth is, sometimes we must focus on the day-to-day operational functions that are necessary to run the business, whether that’s quality control or finance.
- People assume we must get hundreds of emails a day. But we don’t get as many meaningful emails as people might think. I track certain projects to stay in the loop, but I’m not actively involved in as many email chains as someone might assume.
- Most also believe at the executive level, extensive travel is involved, especially now that we are starting to go back to live meetings. This just happens to be true for me; I do travel extensively for work but with everyone so accustomed to meeting virtually, it’s no longer an issue to make myself available when others need me.
Bottom line, I’m never too busy to speak to someone.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The usual clichés unfortunately still exist, including one of my all-time favorites: Men are passionate and women are emotional. I have a strong personality and my passion can still be misconstrued as being “emotional.” Because of this persistent bias, I feel the need to call out when I feel I (or other women in the room) am being judged because of gender. In larger organizations, I’ve witnessed many women who tire of the “fight” and end up leaving, which is a shame and a loss of good talent for the organization.
Thankfully, the C-suites are changing. It’s an evolution, not a revolution. As a leader, I’m interested in elevating more women into leadership roles. Meanwhile, creating strong bonds with my male counterparts helps to promote more gender and racial diversity on their team. Male allyship is critical.
Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Not everyone can or should be an executive. An executive needs to be able to operate with ambiguity, make decisions without knowing every little detail, and have a certain degree of risk tolerance. Of course, being a confident problem solver is vital for any leadership role, but executives in particular have to be able to manufacture a strategy without having to execute the strategy themselves. They also need to be able to rely on their teams — to relinquish control by giving them clear direction and freedom to operate. They must be a good coach and have the confidence that their team will follow their vision.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Bringing authenticity, accepting your imperfections, and demonstrating vulnerability are all great traits to motivate people to get behind you and thrive as a team.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to know everything. Allowing myself to be vulnerable about what I don’t know and to be inquisitive has enabled me to learn really quickly. As a leader, it’s important to show your team that it’s not about knowing everything. Your ability to help others grow and lead is far more important.
- Know the right things. Focus on what’s most important to drive the business and let the rest of it go. We will pick the things that have the highest impact and do those well. When you’re able to prioritize the right things, no one will notice what didn’t get done.
- Be genuine.. I’ve built great relationships in business development that have become friendships because I bring authenticity to everything I do. Without the presence of ego, you can be yourself and trust that you will be successful. In the C-suite, women are often made to feel they need to downplay their femininity in order to fit in, to be more like one of the guys. But as I learned from one of my mentors, I choose not to apologize for who I am. I embrace myself and my imperfections, and that has been — and continues to be — a key to my success.
- Have a Sense of Humor. I take my work very seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously. As a C-suite leader, it humanizes me and fosters connection. On an organizational level, it makes people feel comfortable approaching me and being honest about what’s on their minds. That way, when decisions are being made at the C-suite level, I’m confident that members at all levels of the organization are communicating openly and honestly with me about changes. I’m able to have a finger on the pulse of what’s actually going on directly from the employees. This tends to get harder and harder for people as they go higher up the ranks, which is why it’s important for me to use my humor as a way to entrench myself with the organization, and most importantly, to have real relationships with people.
- Accept that you will make mistakes and own them. Own your mistakes and talk about them. When I have moments that I’m not at my best, I’m honest about it with my team and communicate what I learned from the situation so that the opportunity to grow isn’t wasted. Create an environment where people feel safe and that it’s okay to make mistakes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’m passionate about mental health. I believe that mental health education needs to start much earlier, as early as preschool. From birth, we should be taught that our mental health is just as important as our physical health. While kids are taught to exercise, care for their physical bodies, and eat nutritious food, an emphasis on prevention would be revolutionary for our society. Especially coming out of the pandemic, it is more important than ever to bring mental health into the conversation and destigmatize mental illness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” — Winston Churchill
I’ve had a lot of struggles in my personal life and challenges in my career. During those hard times, it is tempting to give up, but the fact of the matter is: You’re still in hell. As hard as it may be, you’re allowed to take breaks, but you have to keep going.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
This may sound strange, but I would have lunch with Betty Ford. She is primarily known for the impact she had on the way we aid those who are struggling with alcoholism and substance abuse. But her impact was much broader than that. She was a first lady who was very active in social policy. She was a huge driver for the movement around the Equal Rights Amendment, bringing women’s issues to the forefront — including raising awareness for breast cancer through her own experience, which ultimately resulted in hundreds of thousands of women getting mammograms. She even supported a woman’s right to choose with great opposition from the Republican party, all while struggling with her own addiction problems. She should be remembered as a role model for more than her work around addiction.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Women Of The C-Suite: Denise Mueller of Affimed On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.