Trailblazing Leadership: Lessons from Isabella Thissen and Inspiring Female Leaders

Photo of Sohrab Salimi
Sohrab Salimi
Photo of Selda Schretzmann
Selda Schretzmann
15 min. reading time

In a captivating Agile Insights Conversation hosted by Sohrab Salimi, we delve into the remarkable leadership journey of Isabella Thissen. Throughout this insightful interview, Isabella shares invaluable lessons learned along her path to leadership excellence, from navigating the challenges of the dynamic startup world to embracing diversity and inclusivity.

But Isabella's journey is not an isolated case. We also include inspiring stories of other female leaders who have made their mark in various industries, such as Sarah Blakely (Founder and CEO of Spanx), Gillian Tans (former CEO of, Belén Garijo (CEO of Merck KGaA), and Indra Nooyi (former CEO of PepsiCo). 

By weaving together the stories of these exceptional women, we provide a comprehensive view of what it takes to succeed as a leader in today's complex business environment. Their experiences highlight the strategic value of diversity in leadership, the importance of resilience in the face of setbacks, and the power of seeking guidance from unexpected sources.

Join us as we explore the key principles that have shaped the leadership philosophies of Isabella and her fellow female leaders. Discover how you can apply these insights to your leadership journey, whether you're an aspiring entrepreneur or an established executive.

So, are you ready to embark on a transformative leadership journey? Let's dive in and uncover the secrets to success, as shared through the engaging dialogues and experiences of Isabella and other remarkable female leaders.

The Foundation of Leadership: Adaptability and Mentorship

Embracing Versatility in a Startup Environment

"My journey began in an unexpected place, studying psychology, which then led me to a fascinating startup focused on aligning individuals' soft skills with suitable job opportunities."

Isabella's transition from psychology to the vibrant startup scene reshapes our understanding of leadership. Her story emphasizes adaptability and the importance of leveraging a diverse background. By applying psychological principles to manage team dynamics and foster organizational growth, Isabella demonstrates that effective leadership goes beyond narrow field expertise, thriving instead on empathy, motivational skills, and relational abilities. This departure from a linear career progression disputes the traditional belief that leadership is confined to advancement within a single domain, advocating for a broader, more inclusive approach to developing leadership skills.

Isabella's experience highlights that in the fast-moving startup world, being adaptable and open to personal development are as crucial as strategic versatility. Her journey is inspirational for emerging leaders, encouraging them to view all experiences as valuable lessons and to stay open to unforeseen paths. It prompts a reconsideration of effective leadership, arguing for inclusivity and flexibility as essential for fostering innovation and ensuring resilience. Through Isabella's lens, we see a call for a leadership model that values diversity of experience and the integration of varied perspectives, key drivers for leadership excellence in the contemporary landscape.

Case Study

From Fax Machine Salesperson to Billionaire Entrepreneur: Sara Blakely's Spanx Story

Background: Sara Blakely is the founder of Spanx, a multi-billion dollar undergarment company that revolutionized the shapewear industry. Blakely, born in 1971 in Clearwater, Florida, graduated from Florida State University with a degree in communications. Before her entrepreneurial journey, she worked as a fax machine salesperson for office supply company Danka.

Identifying a Gap in the Market: Blakely's journey showcases her keen ability to identify and fill a gap in the market. While working as a salesperson, she often wore open-toe shoes and was frustrated by the lack of suitable undergarment options. This led her to cut the feet off her pantyhose, sparking the idea for Spanx. Despite having no formal business training, Blakely's determination and problem-solving skills helped her turn a $5,000 initial investment into a billion-dollar company.

Persistence and Resourcefulness: Blakely's path to success was not without challenges. She faced numerous rejections from manufacturers who didn't see the potential in her idea. Undeterred, she researched patent law, wrote her own patent, and found a manufacturer willing to take a chance on her product. Her persistence and resourcefulness in the face of adversity demonstrate the importance of these qualities in entrepreneurial leadership.

Authentic Branding and Empowering Women: A significant part of Spanx's success can be attributed to Blakely's authentic branding and commitment to empowering women. She has been a vocal advocate for body positivity and self-acceptance, using her platform to inspire confidence in women. Blakely's personal touch in marketing, such as being her own model for product demonstrations, has helped create a relatable and trustworthy brand image.

Giving Back and Philanthropy: Blakely's leadership extends beyond her company. She has been a prominent philanthropist, becoming the first female billionaire to sign the Giving Pledge, committing to donate at least half of her wealth to charity. Her Sara Blakely Foundation focuses on empowering underserved women through education and entrepreneurial training. This commitment to giving back and uplifting others is a hallmark of impactful leadership.

Continued Involvement and Rewarding Employees: In 2021, Blackstone, a private equity firm, acquired a majority stake in Spanx, increasing the company's valuation to $1.2 billion. However, Blakely still maintains a significant stake in the company and continues to serve as the executive chairwoman. To celebrate the sale to Blackstone, Blakely rewarded all Spanx employees with two first-class Delta plane tickets and $10,000 in cash, demonstrating her ongoing commitment to the company and its employees, even after the acquisition.

Sara Blakely's journey from fax machine salesperson to billionaire entrepreneur is an inspiring example of how identifying opportunities, perseverance, authentic branding, and a commitment to empowering others can lead to remarkable success. Her story resonates with Isabella's, highlighting that a non-traditional background and a willingness to take risks can be valuable assets in the entrepreneurial world. Blakely's leadership showcases the importance of staying true to one's values and using success as a platform for positive change, even as the company's ownership structure evolves.

If you would like to find out more about Sara Blakely and how she built Spranx from the ground up, we recommend this talk on Youtube.

Learning from Mistakes: A Leadership Imperative

"In the startup world, a key lesson is the inevitability of mistakes and the critical importance of swiftly learning from them."

In the startup realm, characterized by a cycle of trial, error, and iteration, Isabella discovered the invaluable role of resilience. Startups, with their inherent uncertainty and constrained resources, serve as perfect arenas for mastering the art of rebounding from failures. Isabella's experiences underline a pivotal leadership lesson: recognizing mistakes as not merely inevitable but as crucial opportunities for growth. The distinguishing trait of a leader, then, is the willingness to face setbacks head-on and glean insights from these challenges.

Adopting this mindset paves the way for cultivating a corporate culture that prizes innovation and flexibility. It motivates teams to embrace risk, pursue innovation, and view failures as integral to their developmental journey. Such a culture naturally evolves into organizations that are not just adaptive but are in a constant state of growth, setting a solid foundation for enduring success and breakthroughs. This principle, though quintessential to startups, holds profound implications for leadership in any context, emphasizing the importance of nurturing resilience and a progressive outlook within teams.

Case Study

Gillian Tans: Driving Innovation and Diversity at

Background: Gillian Tans joined in 2002 as its seventh employee and played a crucial role in the company's growth and success. She served as CEO from 2016 to 2019. Under Tans' leadership, has embraced a culture that celebrates failure and encourages learning from mistakes.

Learning from Mistakes: Tans believes that making mistakes is an essential part of the creative process, and that it's important to create a culture where people feel safe to fail. In an interview with CBR's Ellie Burns, Tans said, "The biggest lesson that I have learned in my career is not to be afraid of failure. At, we celebrate failures as opportunities to learn and grow. We're a company ruled by data, and we use it to experiment and innovate constantly."

Fostering Innovation: Tans has fostered a culture of innovation and continuous improvement at by celebrating failures and encouraging employees to take risks. She believes that this approach has helped the company stay ahead of the curve in the rapidly evolving travel industry. "You need to create a culture where people can innovate, and failure is a big, big part of that," Tans said in an interview with Forbes.

Encouraging Risk-Taking: Tans encourages employees to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions to challenges. In an interview with Silicon Republic, she said, "Taking risks could take on many forms. It could mean taking the leap of faith to start your own business. Or it could be as simple as having the confidence to speak up in a meeting where a diverse point of view could have a big impact. These moments can be nerve-racking or uncomfortable, but I promise that these are moments of growth. And without challenging yourself, growth opportunities are limited."

Tans' approach to learning from mistakes and fostering a culture of experimentation has been a key factor in's success and ability to adapt to changing market conditions. Her leadership style and mindset serve as a powerful example of how embracing failure can drive innovation and success in the startup world.

Learn more about Gillian Tans and her view on leadership here:

Tech Icon: Gillian Tans,

Interview with Gillian Tans, CEO of

Transitioning to Leadership: Establishing Authority and Team Spirit

Navigating the Shift from Peer to Leader

"Finding a new dynamic, where I was no longer just their peer but now their leader, was challenging."

Isabella's transition into a leadership role highlights the multifaceted nature of assuming greater responsibilities. This change transcends merely overseeing more tasks; it necessitates a shift in how leaders engage with their teams and propel them towards unified objectives. Her journey underscores the significance of leaders mastering clear communication, demonstrating empathy, and maintaining a strategic focus. These elements are critical for effectively navigating the shift from being a peer to assuming a leadership mantle.

Furthermore, Isabella's experience points to the delicate task of recalibrating team dynamics and establishing a leadership style anchored in mutual respect and trust, while also clearly delineating expectations and guidelines. Achieving this equilibrium is essential for cultivating an atmosphere where team members feel valued and driven, ensuring that the team not only adjusts to but flourishes under new leadership.

Case Study

Belén Garijo: Pioneering Leadership at Merck KGaA

Background: Belén Garijo, a Spanish medical doctor specializing in clinical pharmacology, became the Chair of the Executive Board and CEO of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in May 2021. She is the first woman to lead a DAX 40 company, marking a significant milestone in Germany's corporate landscape. Before her current role, Garijo served as CEO of Merck Healthcare, where she repositioned the portfolio, reorganized R&D, realigned the commercial model, and forged major global alliances, making Merck a key global player in oncology, immunology, and immuno-oncology.

Transformational Leadership: Garijo's leadership style is characterized by her ability to drive transformation and growth. Upon taking the helm as CEO, she led a business transformation to strengthen the company's position as a global science and technology leader. She has mobilized the organization for long-term growth and aligned 63,000 colleagues across 65 countries to unlock customer and patient value. Her focus on four key priorities - high-impact culture and leadership, innovation powered by AI, data, and digital, efficient growth and sustainable performance, and long-term value through sustainability - demonstrates her proactive approach to steering the company towards success.

Fostering Diversity and Inclusion: As a pioneering female leader in a male-dominated industry, Garijo understands the importance of diversity and inclusion. Her appointment, along with the addition of Helene von Roeder as CFO, has created an all-female leadership duo at Merck KGaA, a first for a DAX 40 company. In 2022, she received the German Diversity Honorary Award, recognizing her commitment to creating an inclusive work environment.

Navigating Global Challenges: Garijo's leadership has been tested by global challenges. She has accompanied Chancellor Olaf Scholz on state visits to China in 2022 and 2024, demonstrating her role in navigating international business relations[3]. Her ability to adapt and respond to complex situations highlights her resilience and strategic thinking as a leader.

Embracing Digital Transformation: Recognizing the importance of digital transformation, Garijo has positioned Merck as a leader in the convergence of biotechnology, electronics, and data. Under her leadership, the company has pursued innovation powered by AI, data, and digital as one of its key priorities[1]. This focus on digital transformation is crucial for resilient global supply chains and the future of work in the science and technology sector.

Belén Garijo's leadership at Merck KGaA serves as an inspiring example of how vision, inclusivity, adaptability, and a focus on innovation can drive success in a complex, global industry. Her pioneering role as the first female CEO of a DAX 40 company is not only a testament to her individual achievements but also a significant step forward for gender equality in corporate leadership.

If you would like to find out more about Belén Garijo and her path from Physician to CEO, we can recommend this interview from the Harvard University on Youtube:

Emphasizing the Role of Diverse Mentorship

The Varied Sources of Mentorship and Guidance

"Effective mentorship frequently comes not from direct superiors but from those in different lines of work."

Isabella's journey into mentorship reveals its complex nature, showing that a leader's growth benefits greatly from embracing diverse viewpoints. Mentorship is not just about receiving advice; it involves a rich exchange of different experiences and perspectives that enhance a leader's development. Drawing on various sources and backgrounds in mentorship opens up new ways of thinking and problem-solving, improving a leader's ability to face leadership challenges. Isabella's story underlines the value of listening to insights from a wide range of mentors, indicating that effective leaders are those who actively seek and appreciate these diverse learning experiences.

Moreover, Isabella's insights challenge the traditional view that mentorship must follow a strict hierarchy. Instead, valuable mentors can come from unexpected places, offering unique perspectives and advice that are specifically suited to a leader's personal challenges and context. These mentorship relationships can significantly shape a leader's methodology, fostering flexibility, understanding, and a deeper grasp of their leadership style. This highlights the critical role of openness in leadership development; being receptive to lessons from any source can lead to innovative strategies and a richer comprehension of effective leadership.

Case Study

Indra Nooyi: Fostering Diversity and Mentorship at PepsiCo

Background: Indra Nooyi, an Indian-American business executive, served as the CEO of PepsiCo from 2006 to 2018. During her tenure, she was consistently ranked among the world's 100 most powerful women. Nooyi's leadership at PepsiCo was marked by a focus on innovation, sustainability, and diversity.

Championing Diversity and Inclusion: Under Nooyi's leadership, PepsiCo made significant strides in promoting diversity and inclusion. She believed that diversity was not only the right thing to do but also a business imperative. Nooyi implemented several initiatives to foster a more inclusive workplace, such as establishing a Global Diversity and Inclusion Governance Council, setting ambitious targets for increasing representation of underrepresented groups in leadership positions, and introducing inclusive policies like paid parental leave.

Mentorship and Sponsorship: Nooyi recognized the importance of mentorship and sponsorship in developing diverse talent. She actively mentored and sponsored women and individuals from underrepresented groups, both within PepsiCo and in the broader business community. Nooyi's approach to mentorship emphasized seeking guidance from diverse sources and building a network of mentors and sponsors.

Mentorship Philosophy: Some key aspects of Nooyi's mentorship philosophy include:

  • Recognizing that mentorship is a two-way street, with both the mentor and mentee learning from each other.
  • Encouraging mentees to be proactive in seeking guidance and feedback from their mentors.
  • Emphasizing the importance of sponsorship in addition to mentorship.
  • Fostering a culture of mentorship and sponsorship throughout the organization.

Leading by Example: Nooyi's leadership style was characterized by authenticity, empathy, and a willingness to learn from others. She led by example, demonstrating her commitment to diversity and inclusion through her actions and decisions. Nooyi's personal journey as an immigrant and a woman of color in the business world shaped her leadership philosophy and made her a strong advocate for diversity.

Indra Nooyi's leadership at PepsiCo serves as an inspiring example of how championing diversity, inclusion, and mentorship can drive positive change and success in a global organization. Her journey highlights the importance of commitment, advocacy, and active engagement in fostering a more diverse and inclusive business world.

If you are interested in learning more about Indra Nooyi, we highly recommend this podcast. In this interview, Nooyi discusses her leadership journey, including her dedication to corporate social sustainability through PepsiCo's Performance with Purpose pledge. She shares lessons learned from her upbringing and how her family influenced and inspired her. Nooyi also touches on the importance of giving credit to mentors and staying in touch with them throughout one's career.

Advocating for Diversity and Inclusive Leadership

The Strategic Value of Diversity in Leadership

"In meetings where I was the sole woman among men... it was exhausting constantly to represent a different viewpoint."

Isabella's experience in male-dominated leadership settings sheds light on both the challenges and advantages of enhancing diversity at senior organizational levels. Her story reinforces a critical insight: creating a leadership team with diverse perspectives is not a luxury; it's a necessity. It involves appreciating the unique contributions of different viewpoints and intentionally incorporating them into decision-making. Such a commitment to inclusivity enriches the organizational culture, leading to a more innovative and adaptable entity. Isabella's narrative is a compelling testament to the fact that pursuing diversity is not merely about meeting a quota, but about boosting leadership effectiveness and depth.

Additionally, Isabella's journey underscores the importance of diversity in leadership for fostering an environment ripe with innovation and resilience. By welcoming varied perspectives, organizations unlock fresh ideas and solutions, driving growth and enabling a more creative and resilient response to business complexities. Isabella's efforts to champion inclusivity highlight the imperative for today's leaders to view diversity not as an optional extra but as a fundamental strategy for success. Her experiences illustrate that exceptional leadership emerges from leveraging the broad range of human experiences and insights.

In Conclusion

Delving into Isabella's leadership journey, alongside the achievements of notable leaders like Sarah Blakely, Gillian Tans, Belén Garijo, and Indra Nooyi, illuminates the essence of effective leadership. This essence is adaptability, resilience, and a dedication to diversity and mentorship. Their experiences serve as a beacon for those seeking to master the complexities of leadership in the modern business landscape.

These stories highlight a crucial insight: leadership is not about maintaining the status quo but embracing growth and learning from various experiences. By fostering an environment of inclusivity and innovation, these leaders have shown how diversity of thought and experience is a driving force behind successful leadership.

As we absorb the lessons from these leaders, the importance of adaptability, embracing diversity, and the pursuit of continuous learning stands out. Whether you're just starting out or have years of experience, the insights from these leaders offer valuable strategies for personal and professional development.

By adopting these key principles, we can drive our own growth and contribute to creating a more inclusive and dynamic business world. Inspired by Isabella Thissen and the exemplary leaders mentioned, let's commit to leading with empathy and inclusivity, reshaping the leadership landscape for the better.

Exploring these transformative leadership insights opens doors to a journey that embraces change and innovation in an ever-evolving world. May they serve as a foundation for your own path, equipped to navigate and flourish amidst the challenges and opportunities ahead.

About Isabella Thissen

Isabella Thissen is a digital media executive who was appointed Managing Director Digital at RTL News in Germany starting March 2024. Prior to this role, she was the Chief Operating Officer at Ad Alliance GmbH, the media sales house of RTL Germany. She was responsible for day-to-day business operations and led teams in product management, pricing, ad tech, data, and client services.

Isabella has over a decade of experience in product leadership roles, working in startups and international corporations. She started her career at HR-tech company Talents Connect before moving to StepStone in 2016, where she became Head of Product B2C in 2017. In 2018, Isabella joined RTL Deutschland as Head of Product & Design, overseeing the company's journalistic digital portfolio and innovation topics in publishing. She was promoted to Senior Vice President in 2021.

Isabella holds an educational background in Organizational Psychology and Digital Business Management & Entrepreneurship. In 2023, she was recognized as one of the "40 under 40" newcomers in the media industry.

To explore the depth of the conversation between Isabella and Sohrab, read the full transcript below:


Sohrab Salimi (00:01.139) Hello and welcome to our next episode of the Agile Insights Conversation. Today I'm hosting Isabella Tissen, whom I've known for a long time now, who's been ...

Sohrab Salimi (00:01.139)

Hello and welcome to our next episode of the Agile Insights Conversation. Today I'm hosting

Isabella Tissen, whom I've known for a long time now, who's been a participant in my courses

and whose career I could basically follow as an outsider, insider to some extent, and I'm super

interested and excited to have her here with us. Isabella, very welcome to the show. How is


Isabella Thissen (00:24.946)

Yeah, thanks for having me. It's so good to see you again and to speak with you about a lot of

topics, also, because you said, like, we work together for such a long time now, right? So for

several jobs that I've been through, actually, you always helped me and my teams to go to the

next level. So I'm really excited to talk to you today. So. Very good.

Sohrab Salimi (00:46.091)

Yeah, you're too kind. You're too kind. I think I played a tiny role. The vast majority was done by

yourself. But yeah, as you mentioned, it's been a while and we scheduled this call, I think in

June of this year. And now it's almost, not almost, it's end of November. And in the meantime,

we just figured out before we started the conversation, I had written you some questions up

front and I had completely forgotten about them. But fortunately, my notes now with the question

I sent you back then.

Isabella Thissen (00:54.54)


Isabella Thissen (01:08.384)

I'm sorry.

Sohrab Salimi (01:15.187)

they still match. So I think we're set for this conversation. Otherwise we improvise, absolutely.

Now Isabella, as I always start, I want to give you some space, some time to introduce yourself

properly so that the people who don't know you yet get a better sense of who is this person, who

am I going to have this conversation with? And then I kick it off with a few other questions.

Isabella Thissen (01:19.604)

Otherwise we improvise.

Isabella Thissen (01:39.766)

Yeah, perfect. Thank you so much. I'll just do a quick overview if you have any questions. I

mean, you will ask them either way. So that's perfect. So Isabella, I'm now, I would say for about

10 years in product or agile leadership positions. I started off with something completely

different. So I studied psychology in the beginning because I always wanted to think about

organizations as like a system and...

And actually I wanted to study psychology as like clinical psychology, but back then the grades

that you needed to get into University of Cologne was 1.0, which is the best grade that you can

get basically. And I was quite far from that. In school I was not that eager. So there were things

that interested me and not, but that's a whole other story. So I studied business psychology with

a focus on like diagnostics, assessment center, et cetera. And I worked...

bit in that space, like next to my studies. And I got to know like a super interesting startup or

people with idea of a startup, the startup was not founded by then. And it was a startup that had

the mission of matching a person with their soft skills to a specific job, right? So not with your

hard skills, but because especially when you studied and you studied something very broad, it's

really hard to find a job that fits to you.

and where you can flourish in your role as a person, in the team, etc. So we thought of it as like,

skills are replaceable, personality is not. That was kind of the claim and I worked with them with

my psychological background on the matching algorithm, how would we think about what

matches to what, who matches to which company. And I started in this company when there

were four founders, so I was the first employee basically.

And we grew over the years 200 people. So in this time, I did like almost anything that you can

do in a company. Right. So I was doing the matching algorithm. Then I was like, Hmm, what

else can I do? Or maybe we can do investors and pitch investors. Maybe we can go to first

customers together and then, Oh, the telephone is ringing, probably the founders should not be

the ones to pick up the telephones. I will do that in the beginning until we hired customer

service. So I was growing into a lot of roles and.

Isabella Thissen (04:04.462)

and having different roles in the company. But in the end, I was leading the product

management and project management department. So I was focusing really on building the

product itself, which was really exciting. And then there was a decision for the company to focus

more on projects with customers. And I wanted to be a bit more professional in product

management. And this is when I got the idea to make a change. And I started at StepStone,

which is an international job board, probably many,

the people will know it. It operates in a lot of countries, especially in Europe. I was beginning

there as a lead product owner for the user experience part and was having projects of having a

lot of technical platforms built into one. So, this was the time of responsive web design and

where you almost all had mobile websites still. So, there was this huge project of getting

everything unified into one unified user experience on all the channels. And over the course of

time, I was getting into the head of product role for the B2C product. So for the job seeker side,

and I was leading a product management people and UX people and SEO people. So a bit

broader. And after several years at StepStone, I worked there for, I think, almost three years,

there was a change in leadership.

that didn't really fit well for me. I think it's really important that you fit to your boss, right? And

your boss fits to you, so it needs to be a really good collaboration. I think it didn't fit that well for

both of us, and then I decided to start to search for something new. And this is when, I think now

five years ago, I landed RTL Germany, which is like one of the two big broadcasters in

Germany. There's RTL and ProSieben and the public sector, right?

and I started there as head of product for the news portals. So there were a lot of news portals

that were, every one of them was one business case basically. So there's RTLDE, there's

SportDee, there's Vettadee, which is like a weather site, a cooking site, and they were all just

like one business case. And I was really loving the fact that I could manage small business

owners and have a team of small business owners to work with.

Isabella Thissen (06:29.366)

And I did this for now, I think, three years. And the team was growing from product owners,

more product owners, then UX designers. And this was quite interesting. And then at the end, I

also took over the responsibility of the revenues, basically. So of the monetization side of things.

And last year, I think a lot of people read about the big change at RTL. There was this big...

a big integration of Kroner & Jahr, which is another big publisher in Bertelsmann. And in this

context, we were a lot of people in a lot of roles double. This was the point where I said, like,

OK, maybe there's something else in the company for me, because I love the company. And

maybe there's another point in the company where I could also help. Right. And this is when I

came now one and a half years ago, roughly to Etterlines, which is the sales house of RTL


And now currently I'm in the role of, it's called Chief Operating Officer. So I'm responsible for the

day-to-day business, basically day-to-day business operations at the sales house, which is

product management, which is pricing of all our products, which is a tech on data, all the tech

and data developments that we have and also client services. So it's a broader range. It's a bit

more generalistic role. And that's where I'm currently at.

And what I'm always forgetting is I did a master's study somewhere in between, and I never

know when I started and when it stopped basically through all the jobs. And I did a master's in

digital business management and entrepreneurship, which was quite a new master when I

started. I think we were the first group to have it actually. And this was super interesting and

helped me like really a lot with the digital business models and everything that I worked on.

That's like a quick.

Sohrab Salimi (08:22.419)

Yeah. Cool. So that's been a hell of a journey. There's... Yeah, and there's probably way more to

come in the future as you're still very, very young. Now, let's start Isabella with the time in your

startup, because what's interesting for me is what did you learn at each of those stages? You

already mentioned some of those things, for example, it's really important to fit with your boss

and that your boss fits with you, right?

Isabella Thissen (08:22.862)

Thank you.

Yeah, it has done. It has done, yeah. But a great one.

Sohrab Salimi (08:50.587)

This is one of those learnings. But let's start with your very first job out of university where you

joined that startup and you helped it grow to about 100 people in size. What were some of the

key learnings that you made back then, especially looking at it retrospectively, that supported

you becoming the leader that you are today?

Isabella Thissen (09:09.802)

Yeah. And it's funny that you mention now that you look at it, because I think now I look at it

completely different than when I did back then. So I think this is one of the biggest learnings that

just in retrospect, if you think like, ah, that might be a good learning back then, and it's probably

because of this. Now in the startup, I think there were different points that I really learned. I think

one of the most important points that you learn in the startup is that you will...

definitely make mistakes along the way, like a lot of them. Because we were all super junior.

That's how startups, it was not back then as professional as it is today, maybe, with the hiring,

with the big fundings. It's just like you start with a young team, and like a super motivated team,

but with a young team that has not a lot of experience, right? And then you start and you are

like, okay, there's a new task and I have no idea how to do it. And I probably start.

to Google it, to go on YouTube, to read a book or something, and then I will try it out. And if it

works, great. If it doesn't work, I need to find another way because there's not one other person

next to me that does the same job as I do. So I need to figure it out somehow. And I think this

mindset of I need to figure it out and it's completely okay that I will take some time to figure it

out. Not that much time, but I have a lot of trials.

I think today it's called this culture of you can make mistakes, etc. that a lot of companies want

to do. I think it's built into a startup that you make mistakes all the time. You just make them

really, really fast. And you need to learn from them really, really fast because you cannot afford

to make the mistake like two, three times in a row. So this was a huge learning in the startup

and you get comfortable with it. And that's quite nice now to be comfortable with, oh, it didn't

work. Okay, what do I do now?

So that's really nice. And I think one thing is also that you become quite a generalist in a startup,

because a lot of times you grow faster than you can hire. And then somebody needs to take on

that job because there is a customer, you need to do it right now. And then you expand your

abilities, right? And you need to, okay, nobody does it. Okay, I will do it. Come.

Isabella Thissen (11:29.138)

I will look into it and you become quite a generalist. And I think this helped me to look at

problems, not only like from a tech perspective or from a singular perspective, but rather to learn

to think in a company view and not into a department view. And this helps you to get into that

helicopter perspective, to look at things from above and say like, how does this help the whole

company that somebody does that right now and how we do it and not how does it help me?

And this is what you also learn in a startup, because it's like a family at that time. You're small,

you have a lot of challenges together. It's a journey. I mean, you probably know it very well

because you're also a founder. And I think that's the journey. You're a family. There's a lot of

struggles, but you kind of learn to think as a whole and as a company and to learn a lot in that

time. So I think these are the two most important things that I learned.

Sohrab Salimi (12:21.515)

It's interesting that you mentioned those two things because these are also concrete examples

that I bring up when I talk to my larger corporate clients about the enablement and the ability of

people to learn new things, right? They look at, for example, a developer. And in many cases,

it's just a backend developer. And in some cases, even like a database developer, then I'm like,

okay, this person, that's what he is. And I'm like,

No, really not, because if you are in a startup, but you cannot say I am that. There's always new

things that are coming at you. And every startup that I've been part of, that I've observed from

the outside, similar to what you were just mentioning, people really have that mindset, right?

And also then based on that, the ability to go out, try new things, do things that they have never

done before. And as part of that, of course, build new skillsets.

Are they going to be an expert in marketing and everything? No, of course not. But they will do it

in a good enough way so that you can please the customer at that moment. And then if you see

that it's going to happen more often, you can think about either having one person specialize in

it or hiring someone from the outside that can take it over. But this one thing where people are

like really open to constantly try new stuff and as part of that learn new stuff.

and be willing to do mistakes as you go. This is really, really key. And I love that about startups. I

mean, right now.

Isabella Thissen (13:55.074)

Well, there comes a point where you say like, I might love like a bit stability sometimes, like one

process, not like, I don't want to have all the process, but I want one process that works the

same all the time. And maybe I also, I don't know, I also want to professionalize in at least one

thing, maybe. Want to be a bit more professional in certain things, but I think it's a great way to

start your career also. I think it's a lot of people start right now really in like the big corporates

when they're young. And I'm like,

Don't do it. Go into small companies and startups. You will learn so much faster, like the most

important skills, from my perspective. But that's also what I did. So I'm probably the outlaw,


Sohrab Salimi (14:34.075)

Yeah, yeah. And so this is one aspect that you mentioned. The other aspect is that things are

constantly changing. And you mentioned that you get used to it. Right? A lot of, one of the

questions that people ask me are not, oh yeah, with this whole agility thing, then this means we

have to constantly change and this is going to be very like, uh, really bad for morale. I'm like, no,

because you can also get used to change and then it becomes just very normal.

Actually, you would be bored if things are not changing, right? I agree with you, a bit of stability,

a bit of predictability is great to have, because otherwise it's just too much stress over a long

period of time. But I personally, I would get bored if things stop changing for us.

Isabella Thissen (15:21.08)

It's actually hard when you join then a corporate later on, because then you have the problem is

like, it's so slow. I feel like I'm running like with like 100 miles per hour, like against a wall. I'm

just like, that's not how it can be. It's that slow and then you get adapted to speeds, etc. And it's

different speeds. But yeah, I know what you mean. It's really hard then to change gears.

Sohrab Salimi (15:42.035)

So let's use that as a segue to you move from that startup where you had all of these key

learnings and get into a company which is still not a corporate, if my understanding is correct,

right? StepStone was not a corporate, but it was already a scale up. It has a proven business

model. It was probably much larger in size than what you had back then in your startup. And

you become the lead product owner and soon after you become the head of product. Becoming

the head of product.

is probably your first real managerial position. What, how did you get into that role? What were

the initial challenges that you faced? And now again, looking at it retrospectively, what were

some of the early learnings that you had as a manager?

Isabella Thissen (16:29.142)

Yeah. So I actually did manage like some people at the startup. And so this was probably my

first leadership role was at the startup because I was also leading basically a team of product

managers back then. But then again, looking backwards respectively, I'm like, I probably was

one of their buddies and we worked together and I'm probably on paper. I was their boss, but

like I did so many mistakes and probably I was not really like, it was not really my first leadership

position, I would say. I would say it was really at step stone. And

I think one of the points when I also decided for StepStone was because of my boss or my boss

to be basically. So as back then, Torsten was his name. So he was having all the talks with me

about joining, about his vision of the company, how he wants to develop it, etc. And he was the

reason I joined basically. I was like, StepStone, no, should be.

Probably okay, probably nice products, but he was the reason why I joined. And I think he saw

something also in our talks where he said, like, I want to develop you into the head of role really

soon. So actually in our hiring process, he already said like, I'm building a team and I see a big

potential in you leading the team, like in a half a year, in a year, let's see where the role takes

us, right? And this is why we worked from the beginning on that role, which was really

interesting for me because he really took a lot of time.

And I had the big luxury that a lot of people don't have to prepare, to have a lot of time to

prepare for my first leadership role, my first real leadership role in a corporate. And I was not

just jumping into the waters, right? So he was saying, okay, these are the skills that you need.

And I think there you are there somewhere. And I want to work with you on building your

leadership skills. And also he helped me with the transition, with the communication, with the

team. Because I think the hardest thing in your first leadership role.

is actually not the leadership role. It's that you are the boss of the people that you used to work

with. So you, from out of the team, to be in your first leadership role is really hard, because it's

really hard to find this new relationship with the people that are in your team. Like, are you now

their, like, super, super strict boss? Are you still their buddy? Can you be a buddy with them


Isabella Thissen (18:46.407)

How hard are you in the conversations? How democratic do you want to lead with your team?

So it changes from one day to another, especially for the people that you lead and not for

yourself so much, but for the people you lead, you are in a different relationship to them and I

think this is really hard in your first in your first leadership role to find really this balance of how


Am I part of the team? How do I find my leadership role, but without being too bossy or

distancing myself too much from the team? So that's really hard. That was really, really hard for

me because I love them all, right? It was my team. So for me, it was really hard to suddenly be

their boss. I was always imagining it like, great, I'll be in my first leadership position and then

like, oh shit, I'm the boss of my team. Then that's, that's strange. Right. So.

This was, I think, the hardest thing in the first leadership role that I had to learn.

Sohrab Salimi (19:40.391)

Yeah. No, it's interesting that you bring this up because I cannot, I can relate to you being a

member of that team and then you become the boss and it becomes difficult. Right. All the

questions that you mentioned that I want to explore them with you. But sometimes like in my, in

my role, being the founder of the company, the managing director, it's very natural that I am the

boss of the people, but as I still do a lot of work with them.

I also consider myself as part of the team. So the dilemma that you were in, I still have that

despite being like naturally the founder and CEO of my own company. Now, how did you, how

did you find that balance? And you mentioned the question, can you still be their body? Like,

how would you answer that question today? And how did you answer it for yourself back then?

Isabella Thissen (20:30.486)

Yeah, I think the relationship is always a little bit different than like a normal colleagueship. And I

think you need to accept that because there will always be a natural, I don't want to say

distance, but I'm missing the right word here. So there will always be a natural, it's still the

person who evaluates if I do a good job or not. So there's always this like small barrier of in the

end, it's still my boss. Of course, you can have like a

good relationship with them, you can still go out for drinks with them. That's not a problem, but I

think you really need to reflect yourselves on who are my favorites in the team and I cannot play

favorites as a boss. So this is something that you need to reflect on. How is, how do I, how is

the expectation, or what's the expectation of me and my role now from them also and I think this

helped me a lot. I talked with all of them about the transition.

first with my boss, so we did the first talk together, and then I also had my one-to-ones with the

full team. And I think what really helped me is that I asked them, what actually do you expect of

this new relationship between us, right? So how do you want to play it? How does it feel right for

you how we dive into that? And there were people that said, oh, for me, that's completely fine. I

mean, you were the lead product owner before when it comes to strategic, et cetera. So...

that doesn't change for me. And in the end, there were also people that said like, okay, that's

strange because I wanted the job and now you have it and that's strange for me. No, right? So a

strange situation to be in. And funnily enough, the people who are the most critical in the

beginning were in the end, the best working relationships actually between me and them.

Because I think the people who said like, oh, it's fine. That's completely good. They didn't expect

a change.

or that I will be having them, that I would set goals, that I would criticize them, that I would get

feedback back to them and that things would change. And actually for them, it was later on that

they said, oh, give me a moment, that's different. And I didn't expect that and I'm not sure if I like

it. Right, so this was quite interesting. But the talks helped me with expectations to really ask

about the expectations. And then also like we had a coaching company with us.

Sohrab Salimi (22:25.991)

I'm going to stay there.

Isabella Thissen (22:53.814)

And it was called commitment-based management. And that's like a super specific coaching.

And it was going into what's your responsibility as a product owner, as a head of, as a

leadership person. So what's your responsibility in this company? And people tend in agile

environments to be like, we are all responsible and it's democratic. And.

You know, we decide together and we can try it out and there's no wrong, et cetera. So people

tend to actually go out of their responsibility when it comes to sometimes agile work

environments. And they were holding us accountable for, no, that's your job now. And being

product owner is great because you have the freedom to decide, but you also have to decide.

And you will be measured by your decisions. And if the decisions don't work, it's not your boss


kind of you talk to because you are the product owner, we talk with you then, right? And they

also did that with us in the leadership positions. And that was really helpful to get into this

commitment-based mindset to say like, okay, what's my commitment to my team as a leader?

So how do I want to fill the role? And I think then you also get to know like, sometimes the know

is better for them. Sometimes being hard in that moment is better for them.

but it's harder for me, but I need to learn that because they need that. Right? So this is, this is

where you get into the mindset of what's my responsibility, even if it's uncomfortable for me.

Sohrab Salimi (24:27.683)

Yeah, and I think leadership is really not about the comfortable things.

Isabella Thissen (24:31.395)

No, definitely not. I think you go out of your comfort zone like every day in so many different

ways. Yeah, definitely.

Sohrab Salimi (24:37.563)

And I mean, it is then ultimately, and you mentioned like this agile communities and all of that,

right? I think one of the underestimations that they do is the importance of a leader in terms of

making the bad calls, right? Addressing the tough situations. And because it's not always

rainbow and sunshine and all of that, there are tough situations. There are tough decisions to be

made. And when I look at most teams...

both within my own company, but also outside, if you give them a tough decision to make, they

usually don't make it. They're then stuck in analysis paralysis. And this is the point where if you

want to move forward as an organization, you really need that person who takes the lead. That's

why it's called leadership, right? From time to time, you lead from the front and you address

those tough situations. Now, what I want to dive into is...

You had these conversations with people, right? Early on. And, um, I think this is really

important because then you can also not only align on expectations, you can actually come to

agreements. One of the tools that I have found helpful throughout my career is called manager

on a page where I share with people, what is my preference? And it's not like eat or die, as you

would say in German, right? But it's more like, Hey, this is how I work best.

Now, let's see how that resonates with you and how we can come to an agreement so that both

I get what I need in order to do my best job, but also you get what you need in order to do your

best job. And the more we make this transparent, similar to team setting up working

agreements, I think the more we will benefit from it in the long run. And probably you did

something similar. The other point that crossed my mind when you were talking is,

You mentioned the people where it was initially the most difficult conversation, the biggest

skeptics. It turned out to be the best relationships. I think this is because they didn't

underestimate the change, right? When you underestimate the change, it's gonna hit you even

harder in the future. So you're like, oh, it's all gonna be good. We're still friends and all of that.

And then you have to make a tough call and they feel offended, right?

Isabella Thissen (26:40.657)

Yeah, definitely.

Isabella Thissen (26:55.042)


Sohrab Salimi (26:55.643)

But if you address those things early on, and yes, we cannot address everything, given it's your

first leadership position, all of that, but as much as we can and be conscious of the change

happening in that relationship, I think that's gonna make a huge difference for anybody who

steps similar to you into their first leadership role.

Isabella Thissen (27:14.986)

Yeah, absolutely. And I think it changes over time. I think always in your first leadership position,

you're a bit too soft on issues. Maybe I overgeneralize, but I think if you are in your first

leadership position, you are so much into the how do we do it, how do we make it work, and

you're still really in the team, right? So in head of a team lead position. And I think a lot of times

you're too soft on issues, right? You're not hard enough. I think you learn that over time. You

learn that over time how to integrate that.

Sohrab Salimi (27:44.943)

I agree with you in general. I have seen a few people that in their first leadership role, they're too

hard and out of fear of being too soft. Right. And I think, and this is a hypothesis, right? By no

means it's proven, but I think it's due to, well, you remember the personality types that we talked

about in our Agile Leadership course, like assertive and accommodative. I think depending on

where you position yourself, you might turn out to be

Isabella Thissen (27:51.009)


Isabella Thissen (27:55.706)

Yeah, I mean

Isabella Thissen (28:08.407)


Sohrab Salimi (28:13.627)

the other one too much. So I would guess that those human eyes are more on the assertive

end. So when we go into our first leadership role, we try to not be too assertive, turn out to be

too accommodative, and some people are the other way around. But this is again a hypothesis

which probably needs to be proven.

Isabella Thissen (28:16.644)

or compensate.

Isabella Thissen (28:29.238)

Yeah, but with offices, it gives me something to think about, yeah, definitely.

Sohrab Salimi (28:32.871)

Yeah. So, um, now you are in your first leadership role and you, you set it out, you do your initial

conversations with people being the head of product at. Now step stone. You're not only

responsible, if I remember correctly from your introduction for the product owners, which is a

role that you are familiar with where you have also a deep expertise yourself, but you're also

responsible for the UX people, for the SEO people, and probably a few others.

How does leading those people differ from leading the ones that you are very familiar with what

they're doing on a day-to-day basis?

Isabella Thissen (29:13.642)

Yeah, I think, and maybe that's controversial, I think it's easier to lead them and it's easier to

dive into that. And I'll tell you why, because if you're a product owner yourself or a product

manager yourself and you get into the head of product position, you're one of these...

nasty expert leaders that say like, I did your job actually, and I did it quite well. That's now a bit

over emphasized, but you know what I mean? You did the job, right? And you see it, and you're

like, why does he do it that way? Or why does she do it that process? Why did she that

decision? How does she talk with the team? So I think you are easier to judge because you did

the same job. And it's hard to step back and say like, it's okay that people do it differently

and I need to have a different mindset or a different scale. There was actually a bird on our

window. Well, that was scary. And I think that's harder to pull yourself back into the leadership

role, and you're still more in the expert role. You are not in the leadership role, not that fast. And

with people who you never did the job, I was never...

really a UX designer. I did some UX designs in Keynote, right? So I said it was not UX design,

that was like circles and boxes, etc. But I was never a UX designer, I never did SEO. And for

me, it was really easier to get with them into the, I cannot do your job, you're the expert, how

can I support you? How can I support you? Is it with goals? Is it with discussions? Is it with? And

even when they came to me and said, like, I have a problem, it's like, I don't understand

So you have to give me options that you thought about and then we can discuss the options. So

you're easier from my perspective in the leadership conversations, in the leadership role,

because you cannot do the job by yourself. So, and this is why it was easier for me. With them, I

was faster actually in my leadership role than with the product owners. There I was more like the

lead product owner still, right? I was like, how should we not do this strategic decision or this

prioritization? That was harder to pull back. So it helped me, I think, in the first year.

Sohrab Salimi (31:25.299)

Yeah. You mentioned this could be controversial now. Let's discuss it. No, I fully agree. I've had,

I've been in the same situation for many years. And the core of my company's work, I'm a deep

expert in, and I still deliver a lot of the things, right? Be it training services or coaching. But for

example, with my...

to engineers that we have on staff or the designers that we have on staff. I mean, with the

design, you could still argue, right? It could be like, exactly. But, but with the engineers, I literally

have no clue what they're doing on a day-to-day basis. And yes, it depends, it changes the way

I lead them compared to the way I would lead someone that goes into co-training with me, or

does something in terms of sales, sales.

Isabella Thissen (31:57.486)

Everybody has an opinion on design. Designers love that. Yeah, yeah, definitely. Yeah.

Sohrab Salimi (32:17.927)

But I think it also depends on how we define leadership. And for me, leadership, it has multiple

facets. One is what you just mentioned in your conversations with the SEO people. Hey, right? I

don't understand what you're doing on a day-to-day basis. And now I engage with you as a

sparring partner, you bring up ideas and you lead them through a different way. Another facet of

leadership for me, and I mean, the people that watch this show, they know I have a medical

background, is...

how we are trained in hospitals by more senior doctors. And of course you can only do that,

right? The development of people enabling them to do their job well, if you have a certain

amount of expertise in that space. I fully agree with you. If you initially move from being the lead

product owner into the head of product, you probably tend to be too much of an expert leader,

right? But I think this can also be so beneficial because probably the SEO people

didn't learn that much from you as the product owners could learn from you in terms of the craft,

right? Not in terms of, in terms of the craft.

Isabella Thissen (33:25.11)

The craft, right? I would agree on the craft, true, true. But I think it also depends on how mature

are the people that you lead, right? Because I think if you're a head of a department, it's super

important, if you have a junior team, that you have somebody who actually knows how to do the

job in a leadership. That's what you said, right? So you can be a role model, you can help them

through problems because you did the job, because you have the skill set, right? And once you

lead a bit more...

mature team and they know how to do their job, I think they still learn something from you

because most of them are experts in their field and they need to get to the point where they are

a bit more themselves like also lateral leaderships. So they are more senior, they lead projects

and then they get into the roles of oh I need to do all the decisions and I cannot be that

democratic and I'm not just a sparrings partner. So they get into, I think they learn other things

from you.

And I think it really depends on, especially in head of positions, I think later on it's not that

important anymore. But I think in this, in this first leadership level, you, you need to really select

the leader based on the maturity of the team. Right. So what's their background and what does

he or she bring to the team? And I think that's really important. I had a really mature team. That

was my, my benefit, like in all the positions that I, that I left, they were quite mature. They are,

which is different difficulties to be, to be honest, but

Sohrab Salimi (34:23.28)


Isabella Thissen (34:52.566)

but still I think I didn't have to train a UX designer because there were senior UX designers. If

there was a junior joining, they would develop them with a craftsmanship. And I would rather

lead with goals and with different things, right? So I think it really depends on how much of your

team is.

Sohrab Salimi (35:10.463)

Absolutely. And I mean, you mentioned it yourself, if a junior would have joined, you had more

senior UX designers who could support that person. And I think this is another thing that at least

I learned on my leadership journey is I don't have to be the enabler, the trainer of everyone.

Right. And I mean, I don't have to be alone all by myself so I can bring in others who can

support doing that.

part of the job where I'm probably not as good at, right? And it could be other people within my

company. It could be people from outside of the company. So for example, I asked my two

engineers that they find mentors in their field of work outside of the company, because we're not

a big company. So there is no one who could be their mentor in terms of craftsmanship. And

they've gone on and have tried and done that and it has helped them, right?

But bringing up these ideas, I think, and giving them the permission to do so, I think that's the

important piece. So you don't have to do all of those things alone.

Isabella Thissen (36:10.19)

It's difficult, I think, when you're in a leadership position and you're first, to actually give into the

idea that you cannot be all for everybody, right? That you don't have to do it all by yourself

because the conception of you is, oh no, I have to do it now all by myself. The whole pressure is

on me. And I cannot give it to other people because it's my job, right, to train the people and to

mentor them. But I found like your mentor, if you're really lucky, it's your boss or your direct


But probably most of the time it's not. Probably most of the times you find mentors like in

different lines to you. So I think that was, at Stepson I was really lucky that it was my boss, but I

think most of the times I think it's more powerful to find a mentor that's not your direct leader.

Well, things that you.

Sohrab Salimi (36:56.551)

Yeah. And you can have multiple mentors, right? Now, let's go into this because I wanted to talk

about the role of mentorship anyway. And as you mentioned, you joined StepStone specifically

for that one leader, because you believe that could be someone that helps you go to take it to

the next level, which you also did with your role. Now, what kind of role have mentors played as

part of your career?

Isabella Thissen (36:59.824)


Sohrab Salimi (37:25.487)

And you can start with that person, I don't remember his name, but yeah, Torson, I think, right?

And then also probably with others.

Isabella Thissen (37:28.95)


Isabella Thissen (37:33.622)

Yeah, definitely. I think it's really hard to define which one of them was a mentor and which was

just a person that I learned something from. I think it's really, you have to be open for the latter. I

think that's really, really important to learn because I think you learn most of the conversations

or like the interactions with like everybody in the company because you see and say, I like that,

that he did right now, what she did right now. And I want to...

do the same or be able to do the same. And there's another person who said like, that's

something that I don't want to do at all. I don't want to be that way, right? And then you kind of

find your distance to that and say like, how can I work on never doing it that way? And I think

you learn a lot from that. And this is why it's hard to find like, okay, who are the people that I

learned from the most and who are my mentors? It's not always the same people. But I think like

the, they are like,

One, two mentors, like in my career, it was definitely Torsten that helped me get into

professional product management because he was like super professional in leading product

teams. And I think I learned a lot from him when it comes to leading product teams, like the

whole methods that you have to have, like OKRs, I learned OKRs back then from him. So how

to set goals, how to work in Scrum, how to...

make decisions, prioritize, etc. So all the things that you just said, like you can only learn from

somebody who did the job by themselves, right? So I learned like a lot from him, like with the

craftsmanship of product management, really. And then there was also like a mentor in my life,

which was a woman that helped me and was not even like in my company, but she helped me

with the

Sohrab Salimi (39:02.941)

The craftsman's shift.

Isabella Thissen (39:25.822)

And it's not that I feel like they don't respect me or that they think like, what is she doing here? A

lot of people tend to report these things, right? Like they don't feel comfortable. It's like, no, I'm

comfortable there, but I think so differently than them. I act so differently, I lead so different that I

always feel alien in these rounds and like I cannot join the conversation because they look at

me when I say something like, I don't understand what you're talking about, you know? So this

was really hard for me. And

I had a woman that was helping me through these conversations, right? And how to address

that and how to work through that. And she was not part of StepStone. She was a coach, like an

external coach that did help me quite a lot. So this also helped me and was kind of a

mentor-coach-ship. And I think then there are also people who you can learn something from,

but I think the most part of the relationship is sponsors in an organization.

this role is really underrated to find a sponsor in a company. Because there are people that don't

do your job. They do something completely different. And that happened to me at RTL. That

was Matthias. So we get to know each other. And I'm at a completely different occasion. He

does sales, and I do product. I think it doesn't get any more far than that, like from the

craftsmanship. It's completely a different craftsmanship, to say the least.

I think he said like, I like your leadership style. It's completely different than mine, but I like your

leadership style and how you develop your people, how you work with your team and how you

think and how you do your job, right? I think you might be a strong manager, like a really, really

strong manager. And I believe in you. And I will find opportunities for you and I will talk about

you. And I will, if there's something, I will think about you to fill that position, right? And I think

that's really underrated because it's not that I'll...

I probably also learned something from that relationship because he had other skills, but it was

rather about the, there is somebody who sees the way you do it. It's completely different than he

or she does it, but he believes that this is helpful for the company and starts to find opportunities

and to mention your name when you're not in the room. And you need people, especially in big

corporates, that mention your name when you're not in the room, because that's how you

progress in your career. That's basically almost the only way, I think.

Sohrab Salimi (41:49.471)


Sohrab Salimi (41:53.019)

It's really nice how you how you broke that down, right? Because initially when I started this

conversation with the topic of mentorship I was okay. She's gonna talk about people that she

has learned from right, but they're like No, there are people that you learn from right how you

want to do things and how you not want to do things You don't have any former or informal

mentor mentee relationship with them It's just you observe and you decide and in order to be

able to observe you need to be there

And those people don't have to necessarily be hierarchically in a higher position than you. Right.

You can be in any meeting and you can learn something based on the observations that you do.

And I think this was a very powerful statement that you brought up. The other piece was the

mentors that you had as part of the different jobs that you've done. And this, and I, at least my

interpretation is you mentioned the term mentorship specifically with regards to certain crafts.

the craft of product management that you learned from Thorsten, the craft of being the alien in

the room, in your case, the woman, but still not feeling alien and being able to navigate through

that challenge. And I wanted to explore the topic of being a female leader a bit later in our

conversation anyway, right? So you learned that from another woman who probably had similar

experiences in her life or had supported many other people. But then you brought up the topic of

a sponsor. And for me,

And when I would be asked about mentorship, I would say a mentor is also someone who takes

interest in your career. But you make that distinction. For you, the sponsor is the person who

has an interest in your career for the benefit not only of you, but also for the benefit of the

organization. And you brought up Matthias as an example, which I find is incredibly important

that you, through the interactions that you have, you build promoters, you build sponsors.

of yourself because having people mention your name, as you put it out there, when you're not

in the room, that's really important. And that's both important internally, but I mean, all the

referrals that we get are basically people mentioning our name when we're not in the room. And

I can say the conversations when you are referred are completely different than when you are

out there making a pitch and all of that. So I fully agree with what you've said so far. Yeah.

Isabella Thissen (44:06.378)

Right, yeah.

Isabella Thissen (44:18.838)

Yeah, that's great.

Sohrab Salimi (44:21.327)

Yeah. So now as we did this slide segue to the topic of mentorship, let's go back. You, you leave

StepStone, um, because of leadership change, et cetera. You mentioned this in your

introduction and at RTL, you immediately start in that head of product role, but soon, but in that

case, not soon in that case, the role is a bit different because you're working now.

with smaller business owners or owners of like individual products that are like individual

businesses and at some point after several years you get promoted, I think we can use that

term here, to being the COO at Ad Alliance. Which is now my understanding you still lead

product managers or product management is still within your domain but there are a ton of other

areas in your domain and suddenly

leadership space or the number of people that you manage is also significantly higher. Now

what were the challenges that you initially experienced a year and a half ago, almost, when you

started in that role?

Isabella Thissen (45:29.534)

Yeah. So I think the biggest challenges are that you... How do I phrase that? I think it's really not

the challenge about... Because back then it was, I think when I was head of product, I had the

luxury to build my own team because I was the first person there. And I said, back, hire your

team. And I think that's luxury because you can find people that you are able to work with great.

And I had a team of 30, 35 people in the end when I left like one and a half years ago my role.

And back then I was, I think it was called senior vice president product and innovation. So that

was already a step that I did in that role, right? So it was easier to do the second step for me

than now in Ataliance. But I think what I haven't had before was I didn't lead

leaders that led leaders. And I probably have to dive a bit more into that. Because before I was

leading product owners, product leads, experts. And then in the role of head of product at RTL, I

also started to lead head-offs.

So there were then first time leaders that I could help into the role because they were also first

time head-offs. I just had the experience like some years ago, so I could help them with the

craftsmanship of being like a head-off, first time head-off, right, a first time leader. And that was

really interesting. And then the step for me was like from leading just leaders then in Atalines, I

think it's not the amount of people that really changed it for me. It's now...

roughly 250 people in my whole department. It's rather, I have three levels of leaders between

me and experts, right? So this is one of the biggest things that changed for me. And the biggest

challenge was really, how do I become an effective leader when I work with three levels?

Isabella Thissen (47:40.406)

until there are people who do the expert decisions, who actually build our products, who actually

bring the company forward, right? So how do I work with three levels of leadership? And I think

this is really hard because like, this is a bit like, in German you say stille Poste. I'm actually not

sure how it's called in English. I was just thinking about it. Maybe you know it. Silent Poste, that

like this children's game when you tell like a sentence to the other person and the next person,

and at the end, there's something completely different, right?

And I think with having three layers of leadership between you and the managers, like the

expert managers in the company, it's really hard because everybody filters what you say

through their lens, how they see leadership, how they understand what you just said, right? And

it gets developed and delivered like through all these decisions. And then you have to decide

when do I want to be the sender to everybody?

because everybody needs to hear it from me and understand how I mean it. When do I lease,

when do I use and take one of these leadership levels to work with me? And when do I work

with my direct reports? Because in like this normal mindset of a hierarchical company, you think

like you only work with your directs. You don't work with everybody else, right? You just work like

with your next level. This level works with...

their next level, et cetera. So it's like a cascade and this doesn't work at all from my perspective,

it doesn't work at all. So you need to understand what's the role of every leadership level and

what's their job, right? So the direct reports of me, they are like mostly strategic. They do the

strategic projects, they lead leaders, they build organization parts. They need to build teams that

work, right? Like and leadership teams that work with them. And they are like the most strategic.

people in the company. It's called general directors in our terms, right? Then you have directors

and they are more like into one topic. They're not into one full area. They have one topic that

they lead, but also strategically, right? And then you have head-offs and they lead the teams

that do basically the work that makes us all survive in a company, right? They are the people

who are the backbone of our company. And I think it's every leadership level has different

Isabella Thissen (50:04.058)

and different skills and depending on what they do, I think about to whom do I talk, right? And in

which rounds do I do? And which meetings do I want to do? Because like if you're such a big

organization, if you let it happen, you just have a calendar of eight to six, you're just in meetings

and most of them are meaningless. You sit there and you just sit there because you're the boss,

you know, and they...

talk to you and you're just like nodding and say, like, it makes sense. And this doesn't help the

company at all. Right. So, and to find out how can you help the company throughout all these

levels, through this complex organization, I think that's a big step in the mind to how do I work

with that? Because it, it extrapolated so quickly, right. From like one level to three levels. Right.

And how do you work?

Sohrab Salimi (50:56.119)

I think what you just laid out, it requires a lot of clarity to really understand, right, where do I

provide value, value in a way that only I can provide, and not only thinking about this as the

COO, but having everyone in a leadership position think that way, right? Because if it's only you,

okay, you don't have that full calendar, but all of your general directors have that full calendar.

Isabella Thissen (51:06.998)

Yeah, definitely.

Isabella Thissen (51:24.734)

Well, Carolina, right, yeah.

Sohrab Salimi (51:25.895)

Right? So, and this requires that clarity, I think, requires a lot of self-awareness, right? Requires

in general a lot of awareness about how an organization is run effectively. And I think very few

people, if not zero, are born with that level of awareness. So, that level of awareness is

developed. What helped you as you go through your career?

increase your level of awareness of how the organization runs or should run and what kind of

vital role you can play in that.

Isabella Thissen (52:00.438)

Yeah, I think you learned that really, really the hard way, because in the beginning, we talked

about that when you were head of, you think like, I do all the starting of initiatives and it's my job

to kind of push the organization or pull the organization into the direction that it needs to go,

right? And I think we talked about you start like as an expert, then you go more into this pulling

role of, I pull you all in the direction that I think is the correct one.

And I was also going through that stage that happens, I think, naturally, that you think like, okay,

now I have goals and now I need to pull, you know, because otherwise they would not run. But

they are the experts. I give them that. So, and, and I think you need to run through that stages.

And then normally you come to a stage where you think like, and I was that at RTL interactive,

so the role before I was more like this coaching. Leader, right. To say like,

I'm just here as an enablement. And I think I really fell into the trap of, I'm just here if you need

me, otherwise you are empowered. You can make all the decisions. You can lead yourself

basically, right? And I think that's really a trap of these servant leadership models of this

misunderstood agile principles, right? Because as a leader, you still have a job to do. And I

remind that then my training back at Stepstone when somebody said like, you have a job to play

as a leader. You cannot be like, it's not my role anymore, right?

And I think what now helps me is to integrate all of these things and think like, what does the

organization right now need and who does need what, right? And for me it was like with my

general director, sometimes I'm an expert leader where I say like, you know, I also had a full

calendar and that's not how you can manage healthily, like for a long time. You need to find

space to think.

because your job is mostly strategic and you need sometimes two hours in your calendar where

you just think. And people have like this inherent fear of if somebody sees that in my calendar,

there's a gap of two hours, they think I don't work. I don't work, you know? That's like a

corporate thing that people look at a calendar and think like you're busy, you must be good. And

I think it's the opposite, right? And there I'm more into the expert leader role where I say like,

Isabella Thissen (54:24.882)

I did this job and I worked like that and it doesn't work. Please make your calendar free. And

these are the tools that help me. It's like super expert, right? And sometimes I'm more like in a

coaching situation with younger colleagues, et cetera. Then there are some mentees in the

organization that I have that have nothing to do with me, right? So they are just people in the

organization that see one skill in me, it's the other way around, right? And say like, I want to be

able to do that, right? Like being the only female like in a super male organization or something.

But I think like what helps me most is talking with all of these people. I think the first two, three

months, I talk with almost every team and definitely every leader in my organization, right? And I

start to get the feeling of what do they need? Where are they in their journey? And how can I

help them and their team? And sometimes it's as simple as I get into a team meeting and I talk


what actually is on our minds right now as the managing board. Sometimes it's just listening to

the problems and think like, I can help you with that, but with that, I cannot help you, but you as

a team could do that. And sometimes it's like I set in all hands why I talk about the strategy. So

with all of these conversations, you get the feeling of, where can I have impact right now? And it

changes. And this is something that I think is really stressful in the beginning.

Sohrab Salimi (55:47.987)


Isabella Thissen (55:52.642)

This changes every day. There will be yesterday, I thought this was the priority. This is what the

organization needs. This is what these teams need. There comes one new development, like

from external, from internal, like, two people who don't get along, they just had a fight and like

my whole priorities need to change. My whole calendar needs to adapt. And I still need to be

able to do my job. Right. And this is.

something you learn is this, you need to be so adaptable to other needs. You're not really

self-driven anymore. You cannot decide your own calendar anymore, like completely. You have

to be there if there's something people need. And you only can do that if you have your task

somehow aligned in a way that you can do it and still have time left, right, that you can play with,

right. And this was like a huge...

huge step for me to be able to manage that complex organization is to have space, have time

for conversations, because conversations help these great organizations a lot. And you

underestimate that because you think like, oh, there's a cascade of communication should work.

There is a strategy, look at it, then you can do it probably. But it's the individual conversations

with a lot of people. They see something that I don't see. And that's so valuable to have their

perspective on.

topics, teams, teams that work together. And I think this helped me the most to have these

conversations and time for these conversations.

Sohrab Salimi (57:24.147)

I think the aspect of time is really important as you were speaking, right? In a lot of

organizations, I mean, sometimes we ourselves, we look at our camera like, oh, I can squeeze

in another meeting instead of saying no, no.

Isabella Thissen (57:36.759)

15 minutes, no problem to talk about the strategy of this client. Like 15 minutes, put it in.

Sohrab Salimi (57:43.287)

Exactly. But instead of like, hey, let's block that out. If you want to see your calendar full, OK,

block it out. Put in there thinking time. And maybe you want to even add what do you want to

think about, right? What is it that I want?

Isabella Thissen (57:55.822)

I think that's important actually, because if you just have blockers in your calendar, you're so

easy to go over them, right? I always write down in this part, I want to think about that or do that

or finish that. That's so important for me. And I think another thing is like to have one hour in

every day to just get shit done, because like you and not go over that, right? I have like a GSD

blocker in my calendar and people ask me always what's GSD? It's like get shit done.

I still have administrative tasks as a leader that I need to do throughout the day. And my days

get crazy and they change. But I need this hour to be able to not do it in the evenings, to not do

it at the weekends, because I think that's my personal value. I don't want to work on weekends

and I don't want to work in the evenings. Like, I have to work. I want to think about work. I will

not cut it off, right?

But I want to be creative. I want to be more in the mindset of just being able to think. But I don't

want to do like one hour of just excel at the weekend because I need the energy in the week like

for being able to focus, be there when I'm there.

Sohrab Salimi (59:07.931)

Yeah. And I mean, you mentioned earlier how important it is to set up things in a sustainable

manner, right? And as a leader, you're also a role model. If they see you working every evening,

every weekend, they believe that this is the expectation that you have from all of them as well.

And being really conscious about that, I think, I think is really important. Now, one thing is

having that time to think.

But I think in terms of like raising your level of awareness about certain topics, it's also having

time to reflect. And what I do on a regular basis, I block out time for myself. I think, okay, I want

to reflect on, right? How did I handle that situation? Or after a meeting, after a conversation like

this one, sit down, immediately note down like what went well, what didn't went well, and all of

these multi-reflection sessions, they helped me tremendously to increase my level of awareness

and by that.

become better and better and better over time. Now, being conscious of our time, Isabella, I

have a final topic, maybe two, that I want to address with you. You already mentioned being the

only women in a group of men you feel like an alien, right? They don't understand what you are

saying. You probably understand really well what they're saying because you're used to the

language. As you go, you're like, okay, I understand you. You don't understand me.

Isabella Thissen (01:00:27.502)

I think that's the only reason I don't get up.

Sohrab Salimi (01:00:34.835)

So what were some of the biggest challenges that you faced? Because you mentioned that

some of those things that a lot of other women bring up were not the things that were part of the

challenges that you faced. Doesn't mean that they are wrong, right? Everybody experiences

challenges in a different way, but I want to specifically focus on you as you are today on the


Isabella Thissen (01:00:55.67)

Yeah, definitely. Yes, so I think what a lot of time gets mentioned is that women come into, I

think today it's a bit different because there are a lot more women like in product management

roles and tech roles, et cetera. I think it developed over the years, but like 10 years ago, I had

the feeling that there were not that many, right? So, and, but I never had the feeling that I was

coming to a round and there were only...

white males than also to be honest, right, because it was what was then also like lack of

diversity in both dimensions, right. So there was like a group of people who were so similar in

their backgrounds and how they think and how they were raised probably and how they

managed throughout all the years. I never had the feeling that they saw me coming into the door

and said like...

Oh, maybe you bring me the coffee like these memes that you always see on the internet. Like I

never had the situation that somebody thought like, what's she doing here? Or probably she

should not be here or questioning my capabilities, et cetera. It was never that. It was rather this

that these people talk with each other and they understood each other in a language that I didn't

speak, that I didn't understood. Right. So they were just saying one or two words to the other

person. And I was sitting there. It's like.

I don't get what she's saying. The other person nodding and I'm just like, I just don't get what

you're saying. And I was the one asking, what do you mean? Can you please elaborate? Can

you please explain that and your viewpoint? And then people looked at me and was like, why

doesn't she get it? I, we all don't understand why you don't get it, right? Or, or you have to be

harder with your teams. They need a bit more, a bit more, a bit more stealth, you know, as it's,

and I think.

you get a lot of comments, et cetera, based from a mindset how they evaluate if you're a good

leader, if you're a good manager, if you understand the topic right. And for me, this was really

mostly the issue. And then I think it changed a bit when I came to StepStone, because there

were two parts of StepStone, right? There was this German part of the organization, and this

was quite similar. Everybody was quite similar, a lot of males, a lot of people from consulting

companies, also some very similar background.

Isabella Thissen (01:03:10.114)

and they had a really similar way how to work. And there was this international part of the

developers that I worked with that was spread throughout Europe, like in Poland and in the UK,

in Belgium, et cetera. And I think in this group, I felt the way that nobody understood anybody,

right? So it depended sometimes on the English. There was also sometimes the problem that

somebody didn't speak English that well, right? So you had to ask. But I think it was also like

everybody had a different background.

everybody had a different country that they came from, everybody had a different education,

and you had to listen to somebody, and you had to ask the questions, and everybody felt it

natural that somebody asked the questions because half of them also didn't get it, right? So it

was natural that everybody was different, and I think this is the power of diverse teams that

sometimes gets forgotten. It's not that everybody has a representation and you have the feeling

that you can make it, et cetera. It's rather the feeling of...

it's okay to ask questions and we don't understand each other, but we talk about it and then we

understand each other and then something great can come from it. Right. And the, in the other

rounds where I was the only female and only men in white and blue shirts. And literally, I, I'm not

joking. Really. I was the only one wearing another color than that already. So, um, for me, it was

really about feeling that people didn't want to get into my mind and understand how I think.

and I had to push that on them. And I didn't feel comfortable in, I want to be the one pushing my

opinion all the time and another standpoint the whole time, I wish somebody else did that. But

I'm the only one who thinks different, so I have to do it the whole time. And it's exhausting to be

the only one having a different standpoint the whole time, right? And I think this is what drained

my energy the most when I was the only female or the other, the only other thinking person in

the room.

And mostly in tech, it's the only female, oftentimes, right? But sometimes it's also, you're

probably the only person with a different cultural background in a group of people. Then you

also think a bit differently, right? So, and I think that's what's hard for me. And it was what's most

hard for me and not the female thing. Now actually I benefit from being the only female and the

tech industry are one of the few females. There are a lot, but I think there are...

Isabella Thissen (01:05:35.634)

really few on this level, on a company leading level. And we are right now too, from the big two

broadcasters, there is one female from both broadcasters, and we get invited to every panel

because they need to fill the quota, right? And I think somebody else would be better there

because they are better in the topic, but still I get asked because I'm the only female in the area,

right? And this is where it turned around. So I think it has difficulties in both directions, right?

I think we really need to work on mixing, just mixing, different opinions and backgrounds. And

female and male sometimes have really a different background, but we need to start there. It

just doesn't need to stop.

Sohrab Salimi (01:06:05.628)

Don't cite and benefit.

Sohrab Salimi (01:06:18.063)

Yeah. No, it's really interesting. I could talk to you for hours as we've done in the past, but being

conscious of our time, of your time, and also the length of this episode, I would make it, I would

make a cut here. Isabella, it was really interesting. I think there were a lot of nuggets of advice.

And I specifically say nuggets because they're, I believe they're like golden nuggets for advice

for people that are just starting out in a leadership position or have been in a leadership position

and want to take that next step, both men and women. I think there's anything, there's

something for anyone in there. And I want to thank you for taking the time out of your busy

calendar. This was probably one of those blockers like from six months in there, don't move that

one. Hopefully we can make it. We both turned out to be healthy today after.

Not feeling that well over the past few weeks, but again, thank you so much for being here.

Isabella Thissen (01:07:13.442)

Thank you for the talks. It was really inspiring always to think about the ideas together and find

new ideas out of that. So thank you. Thank you so much for that.

Sohrab Salimi (01:07:24.607)