As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Mirka Wilderer, CEO of De Nora Technologies.
Dr. Mirka Wilderer is recognized as one of the leading executives in the water industry with deep experience in corporate strategies, business transformation, and cross-functional leadership in global organizations. In 2019, Mirka was appointed the first female chief executive officer of De Nora Water Technologies, a leader in disinfection and filtration technologies with a global footprint in the water industry. Mirka’s accomplishments include the esteemed recognition from Titan 100 as “One of Colorado’s Top CEOs & C-Level Executives” (2021), from Diversity MBA as “Top 100 under 50 Executive and Emerging Leaders” (2020), from Global Water Intelligence as “One of the 20 Most Powerful Women in the Water Industry” (2020), the prestigious award of one of the “50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan” (2018), and one of the “Forty under 40” in West Michigan (2016).
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
We always joke that water is in the DNA of my family — we have water running in our veins. Both my parents are scientists in the field, and dinner conversations growing up were all about the latest research in water treatment. In 2003, my father was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize — one of the world’s most prestigious awards for water.
At an early age I came to realize that water is the universal way in how we’re all connected. To me, helping to preserve one of the world’s most precious resources — water — is what makes the difference between just having a “job” and following a “calling.” It gives me purpose and allows me to contribute to something that truly matters.
My personal mission is to create value and generate sustainable benefits for the greater good of society — the way I find myself doing it is by tapping into all available talents. I love scaling access to opportunity. And I find that when we leverage diversity of thought with unity of purpose, we can create disruptive solutions in the water space.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I came on as the CEO of De Nora not even one year before the pandemic hit. Imagine me as the new CEO of the business. All eyes are on me to observe and understand my leadership style, what growth strategies I’m bringing to the table. If that’s not a challenge in itself, just add a global pandemic to the mix.
Unexpected anything gives you an opportunity to run or rise. And what I have learnt is that trust and team must go hand-in-hand. My team and I took the pandemic as an opportunity to pivot, boost innovation and shape all aspects of the new normal. We came together for a greater good, and we were able to achieve the most incredible things!
An example that comes to mind is our pivot from water to surface disinfection. One of our technology lines produces sodium hypochlorite (commonly referred to as bleach) on-site for drinking water disinfection. Now, who else might need disinfectant during a global pandemic to kill a virus? The more we thought about it, the more ideas for surface disinfection came to mind. Offering on-site sodium hypochlorite for surface disinfection became a start-up momentum within our organization, requiring us to reach way outside of our core water markets to serve customers across an entire spectrum of industries. It was incredibly fulfilling and gratifying to be able to contribute to the global efforts of keeping our customers, their families, and communities safe and healthy against the threats of the Coronavirus.
Overall, I think what we have all just learnt that the new business-as-usual is a “Business-as-Unusual.” I am very proud of how my team came together and leveraged the crisis to accelerate our SURGE forward. My motto this past year has been: Expect the unexpected. Plan for the worst; work toward the best. And nurture a culture of resilience and adaptability to boost innovation and shape all aspects of the new normal.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we moved to the US in 2009, we were only able to afford one car. My husband would drop me off at the office in the mornings and pick me up after work. One day, my husband and 3-year-old son had already arrived when I was stuck in a meeting for another 45 minutes. My son, in a moment of impatience and annoyance, watched the afternoon stream of colleagues leaving the facility and asked in astonishment: “Dad, do men also have to work?”
My entire career has been centered in a very traditional work environment. I am the only female CEO of a major water technology provider globally in an industry that generally skews male. By definition that makes me “different,” but I have always viewed it as my superpower. I’ve never tried to become the best possible man in the room. Instead, I stay true to my authentic self and offer the best version of myself. Being “different” has allowed me to disrupt some of the more conventional approaches in the playbook of the industry.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Unquestionably this is my husband, Andreas. With the birth of our son, he and I switched roles: while I pursue my executive aspiration, he is a stay-at-home Dad (SAHD) and supportive partner to me and my career. We joke that he is the “loving mother” and I try to be a “decent father”; he is the primary caretaker of our children, while I am the breadwinner for our family.
Without a doubt, his support has influenced my life and professional journey significantly and put me on a different trajectory. Living as global citizens in an unconventional family model, we have experienced the many biases and struggles women in leadership and their partners face every day. Recognizing that gender roles are shifting rapidly, Andreas became an advocate and role model for progressive family models. We are reflecting on many of the experiences we have gained with this non-traditional model in a book we published in October 2019: Lean on: The Five Pillars of Support for Women in Leadership. It’s a play on Sheryl Sandberg’s best seller, we are asking the question: who do women “lean on” as they “lean in?” It’s since become an Amazon best seller!
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Personally, I am a runner. Hitting the trail is my “me time” — my meditation. To me, it is about the regular rhythm of my breath that allows me to clear my mind, “restart” my PC, and reboot my thoughts. I just recently read in a new study by the University of Graz in Austria that the most active people proved to be the most creative. Exercise fuels creativity. I have some of my best ideas during a workout. So, when I look for stress relief, to get unstuck, solve a problem, or need fresh perspective, I go exercise.
Exercise also allows me to challenge myself outside my comfort zone — growth happens when we leave the comfort of the known. To challenge myself, I started horseback riding this year. I had never taken lessons before, but quickly fell in love with the challenge of “learning to speak horse.” It is very energizing to my mind and body.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I am a strong believer that the diverse landscape of market conditions, customer requirements, and workforce needs to be reflected in the make-up of the executive team of an organization. More important than ever, as the new business-as-unusual is a dynamic, unexpected, and ever-evolving environment, we need to look for inspiration and leadership in unconventional places. And, it has been proven that innovation is born through diversity-rich teams.
I encourage all leaders to tap into all available talent and create opportunities — for all people of color, culture, sex and orientation; this will represent your market and boost innovation to solve some of the tough challenges of our time.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
To leverage the cognitive diversity of our global team, I foster the creation of trust-based relationships and nurture a culture of collaboration, teamwork, mutual respect, and appreciation. My goal is to instill a shared sense of purpose and vision in the organization, and then tap into the full potential of all available talent globally as a catalyst for sustainable change. Instead of a traditional command-and-control hierarchy, we have established an entrepreneurial network of cross-functional and international Teams of Teams around our key priorities. This approach requires active listening, the willingness to engage in courageous conversations, bold experimentation with unfamiliar ideas, and an unlimited curiosity to rethink future plans.
Inspired by the #EachForEqual theme of the International Women’s Day, De Nora launched an #EachForEqual workgroup to enhance the degree of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our organization in March 2019. The taskforce is our DEI Council and includes members from all continents, functions, hierarchy levels, and walks of life. I participate in every meeting as the executive champion. We started our efforts with listening and rolled out a global DEI survey to learn directly from our employees. Since then, we have implemented several key initiatives. My favorite effort has been the establishment of a “diversity calendar”, where we make an intentional effort to celebrate all major holidays of our employees worldwide. It’s been so wonderful to not only learn about the various cultural traditions, but to share in these celebrations and bond as a global team. We hope that with this expanded exposure to the various walks of life, we can enhance our culture with mutual appreciation, respect, and help to reduce some of the prevalent biases.
For us, DEI is not a “check the box activity,” but an incremental part of our efforts to establish mindset of resilience, adaptability, and continuous innovation.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A CEO doesn’t exist without a team and product. Guiding a product or portfolio strategy is the easier part. What’s more critical is nurturing the people and the culture — establishing a shared sense of purpose clear and powerful enough to get buy-in from everybidy. It’s equally important to manage the energy of the team. CEOs need to know when to drive urgency and key priorities, but also slow down to celebrate accomplishments and successes.
For me, managing connectivity across teams is where my cup gets filled. Every employee in the organization provides unique and critical contributions to our success. I like to focus on strengthening the key talents of each member, assembling diverse teams where members complement each other, ensure appreciation of their differences, provide opportunities for dialogue, and come together when needed.
In short, I compare the role of the CEO very much to that of a conductor of a large orchestra. You have talented experts playing various instruments; each of these produce beautiful tunes by themselves, but the true grandeur of the music is only coming together as we share the sense of purpose to create a masterpiece, flow together in the highs and lows of the music, and create the piece in a constant interweaving of the various soundwaves of the instruments. That’s when magic happens!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Most people look at CEOs and think they got to their position because they “know it all.” That’s a myth. Nobody knows it all. For me to be effective, I don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. I need to be aware of my strengths as a leader and how to use them, and I need to surround myself with a diverse, resourceful team rich in talent. A successful business is not successful because of one person or leader, it is successful because there are many smart people working together toward the same goals.
My role is to understand who I need to bring together to solve a particular problem, address a specific or novel task, or drive innovation by addressing some of the complex challenges we are currently facing. In fact, just recently, one of my team members provided me with the feedback that he had never met a CEO that so openly admits and expresses the words, “I don’t know — let’s find out.”
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
As human beings, we all live with unconscious biases. These develop as we grow up to help us become functioning members of society. In general, these are valuable to help reduce complexity in everyday situation. However, they also cement stereotypes. I believe it is these subconscious gender biases that still pose some of the biggest challenges for female executives. What if we don’t fit the mold? What if the mold doesn’t fit the expectations on the role as a CEO?
Historically, CEO has been synonymous with male. So being a female CEO, I have learnt not to strive to take on the male leadership attributes in order to fit that traditional executive profile. However, it requires self-assurance to stay true to your female qualities and shape your own female leadership style.
On the other side, it takes clarity to break from the expectations that typically come with more traditional female roles. It requires a thick skin to “disappoint” others when you neither meet their expectations of female attributes nor CEO stereotypes. I have heard many times that I am too bossy, while male colleagues are praised for being determined. I have heard many times that I am intimidating, while male colleagues are viewed as ambitious. Why should a female CEO be less driven and strong-minded than a male counterpart?
To me the challenge is that female CEOs don’t quite fit the mold of the stereotypes of either female or CEO. We each have our own personalized leadership approach — to me the challenge is to evolve to more gender-neutral qualities and expectations on the role.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I did not start out my professional career with the clear goal in mind to become a CEO. Instead, I was always driven to solve the challenges ahead of me with excellence, learn what was required to be successful in the task, and win.
By the time the goal to lead the organization verbalized in my consciousness, it was driven by the desire to tap into all available talents and help others to accomplish their best for unstoppable success. It was driven by the ambition to establish a modern-day organization that drives innovation to solve some of the most pressing challenges of our time. It was inspired by observing some of the shortcomings of traditional leaders. I thought to myself, “I can do better than this.” We all can do better than this if we can just tap into the expertise and strengths of all available talent. What if we build an organization as amazing as the people inside of it?
Reflecting back on some of the differences, I certainly realize now how naïve I was in starting out. How do you inspire transformation and make traditional stakeholders part of the journey? How do you inspire innovation in leveraging the strengths of legacies? I don’t believe these are ends of a continuum, but need to be brought together with an AND. It’s not an either-or, but the future lies in combining apparently opposing schools of thought.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
In general, there is a trend to romanticize the role of an executive. It is not desirable for everyone. Instead, every job provides equally important contributions to an organization or society overall.
I also don’t believe that there is a particular set of strengths or personality traits that is better suited for an executive role. The key is to become the best version of your unique self, and then surround yourself with a team that can complement you on your blind spots and weaknesses. It takes the collaboration of a diverse team or tribe to solve the challenges ahead of us.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
My advice to female leaders to help them thrive:
- Authenticity: Don’t strive to follow mainstream but stay true to your authentic self; become the best possible version of yourself! For a woman, that also means to not trying to become the best man in the room, but to stay true to your female qualities.
- Self-clarity: Instead of trying to fit in, take ownership of your personal journey, invest in your strengths and talents, and strive for opportunities outside of your comfort zone.
- Connection: Take time to build value-rich relationships, leverage the guidance of mentors, and harness the power of networks. Seek out role models that provide you with both inspiration and a safe space for learning and exploration.
- Agency: take control and actively shape your life and career. Instead of looking for shortcuts of immediate gratification, push yourself — not because it is easy, but because it is hard. We can do hard things!
In short, find the answer for yourself: Become the pilot of your own life in an authentic way, based on your strengths, creating value-rich connections, and strive to accomplish amazing things!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In addition to my dedication to sustainability, my personal mission is to create value and generate sustainable benefits for the greater good of society by tapping into all available talents. As such, I am finding myself increasingly “consciously biased” toward people from the most different walks of life. I realize I have a role to play in providing opportunity and fostering a world that celebrates diversity.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Disrupt yourself: When graduating from high school, I was tormented with the question of what I should study. It was my belief that once I had made this one decision, the rest of my path in life would be perfectly laid out and clear. Little did I know that I seem to be asking myself the same fundamental question every 2–3 years: “What is the next challenge in life?” What I have come to realize is that we don’t just have one life, but the opportunity to shape and reshape our life continuously. Decisions in the past do not limit the opportunities ahead of us.
- Marry wisely: After a fair share of failed relationships with potential suitors that fit all my dating requirements, I started dating my now husband. We were best man and maid of honor at a wedding, which came with the responsibility of planning for the big day. At the time, I was based in Thailand, he lived in Germany, so our friendship began as daily phone conversations planning a wedding. He fit none of my dating requirements, and yet, I said yes when he proposed after only seven weeks. Since then, he has been an incredible supporter of my career and has made it all possible. So sometimes it is less about fitting a mold and much more about breaking the molds together to shape a life.
- Find your tribe: There is the powerful saying “surround yourself with people who have dreams, desire and ambition; they’ll help you push and realize your own.” I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to surround myself with truly inspiring peers as part of the networks I have joined. In each of the opportunities, I only applied reluctantly, not feeling quite worthy of the group. Yet, in each of these networks I have been inspired by the accomplishments, goals, and drive of the peer members. They have inspired me to reach further, dream big, dare, and accomplish my full potential.
- Trust your people: Early in my life and career I was under the belief I had to accomplish success all by myself. However, I have learnt over the years that I do not need to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders alone. There are amazing people with incredible talents that can help me solve the big challenges. If I can only tap into the strengths, passion, and expertise of all available talent, we can accomplish great things!
- Make a difference, one day at a time: While studying the names of famous generals in history class in middle school, I remember asking myself, “What were the names of the thousands of foot-soldiers dying on their battlefields? What were their stories?” I was anxious that to become worth mentioning in history books, I would have to become one of the great generals. In the meantime, and over the years, I have learnt that I, too, can have an impact. Maybe it is not by winning the great battles of our times, but maybe it is one person at a time — one day at a time. If I can make a difference in someone’s life by showing them respect, celebrating their successes, and recognizing their accomplishments, it will cause a ripple effect that sets victories for the greater good of society in motion.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The industry that I work in is the water space; for a while now, I have played with the idea of starting a movement of “Diversity in Water.” The idea is to create an inclusive network for executive and emerging leaders in the water space to connect, learn, empower, and champion and advance diversity. The objective would be to address topics of relevance in the water space, showcase the accomplishments from emerging talent, and provide visibility to diversity in water. I have a rough concept mapped out and hope to be able to dedicate time in standing this up in the future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A number of quotes have inspired me along my journey. One that is particularly relevant and that I live by is “average is boring.” A story that comes to mind is that when I was starting University, I hated it when people asked me where I was from. People just wanted to hear a city name and move on, but I had a hard time committing to a label. Growing up we moved between universities in Germany, international sabbaticals and spending the summers with my grandmother in communist Czechoslovakia — as dual citizens we were able to cross the border despite the Iron Curtain. I currently live in my 35th address in life. Ultimately, I learnt to say Munich, which is where I graduated from high school. But I also learnt to embrace the status of a “third culture kid.” Interestingly, I am passing along this same principle to my kids — Dominik is 14 and living in his 7th address, Viktoria is 10 and lives in home number five. Life for me and my family has been anything but average…or boring!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Michelle Obama. She has been an inspiration to me for a long time and I admire how she has shaped her own path, prevailed in the face of adversity, and stayed true to herself. One of my favorite quotes from her is, “If you can think it, you can do it.”
As a funny story, I was listening to her audiobook while recovering from a small procedure a few years ago. She does such a wonderful job in sharing her story and narrating her book herself. By the time I was done with the audio book, it felt like she had spent the time of recovery by my bedside sharing her stories and we had become best friends. Of course, I have never met her in person, but she is a beacon of inspiration to me.