#DiverseVoices: Kerstin Michels (she/her)

It always seems so easy to say that you should be open about your disability and accept it. But it’s also difficult and you shouldn’t be too self-critical.

What are the three most important things we should know about you?

If you want to understand me and my motivations, work with me, or be friends with me, these are probably:

  1. I value transparency and find it incredibly important
  2. Independence and flexibility are important to me.
  3. Sometimes I seem absent and distant, but I am the exact opposite..
You have been talking openly about your invisible disability for some time now - did it take you any effort?

Yes, it took me quite some effort, and it took me a long time to accept that I have a disability – even though I have been deaf in my left ear since birth. Until the end of my twenties, however, I tended to dismiss it as a fun fact. Then, at some point, I also had hearing fluctuations in my right ear, and this was the beginning of my permanently progressive hearing loss. At first, I didn’t want to accept that I would have to live with this impairment from then on. I tried everything I could to prevent the hearing fluctuations from coming back and to keep my hearing: Various diets, osteopathy, acupuncture, cortisone, less work and stress, etc. All with the thought that otherwise, I would not be able to perform, and I would no longer be able to do my job with impaired hearing.

How did you still manage it?

Today I know that the lack of acceptance that I was hearing impaired caused me more stress than anything else. It wasn’t until I started to accept my disability – for example, I didn’t wear a hearing aid even though I needed one for a long time – that I felt better mentally, less stressed, and more productive at work. Most importantly, I realized that I needed to be open about my hearing loss. I often swept it under the rug and didn’t ask when I couldn’t hear something. I didn’t want to annoy anyone with my questions or be perceived as difficult to deal with. People around me usually reacted very positively when I pointed out that I had a hearing impairment. They were considerate and didn’t get annoyed when I repeated things.

On the contrary, they were probably more annoyed when I used to nod in a friendly way but didn’t really understand them. Above all, the people around me helped me to stand up for myself. My friends and family. But most of all my current co-founder Björn Wind. Björn encouraged me to apply for a cure vacation at our old employer, where he was CEO and I was Director of Business Development, he offered me a home office with the idea that it would be a better working environment for me – and above all he always gave me the assurance that there was a position and a role for me in this company, no matter how my hearing developed.

What challenges have you faced in your career related to your disability and how have you dealt with them?

There have certainly been some challenges over the last six years. The first and most important for me was accepting my disability. But then I realized that I had to share my hearing impairment not only with my close team, but really with the whole company.
There were employees who perceived me as a distant founder. Maybe even arrogant and disinterested in them and their responsibilities. A no-go as a founder and CEO, especially with regard to an empathetic corporate culture, which is particularly important to me. But the reason was simply that I often didn’t hear when I was being greeted from the side. I’m just less aware of things around me, and on very bad days I tend to withdraw. I also find it harder to get involved in large discussion groups at team events.

I’m actually the exact opposite, and as a founder and CEO, I find it incredibly important to know not only the status of projects and KPIs, but also the team and how each person is doing.
Now, I do a personal onboarding with all new employees and point out my disability directly. I encourage them to tap me if I haven’t heard them and ask them to understand from the start that there may be days when I need to take a step back. This goes a long way toward avoiding misunderstandings. At the same time, I also create psychological security, because our employees should be able to communicate their needs openly and transparently and address any perceived weaknesses and limitations. This is the only way to create an ideal environment in which everyone can play to their strengths.

Is there a special message from your experience that you would like to share with others?

For a long time I felt that I shouldn’t be sad about my hearing impairment. After all, I’m not that bad off and there are people who have to live with greater challenges every day. That was wrong. Today, I can cry when things get too much for me and I consciously allow myself to do so. Allowing these emotions has also helped me a lot to accept the whole thing. The moments when I’m really sad about it have become very rare. At the same time, I think it’s important to share that part as well. It always seems so easy to say that you should be open about your disability and accept it. But it’s also difficult and you shouldn’t be too self-critical.

What helped you most?

The empathy of my professional and personal environment and my own acceptance. But the two are also interdependent. I believe that inclusion partly starts with oneself. On the one hand, everyone is responsible for communicating their own needs and making themselves visible. On the other hand, inclusion can only succeed with the right environment, because you can only communicate your own needs if you feel safe knowing that there will be no consequences if you open up.

How has your experience influenced your leadership style?

Empathy is a critical leadership trait. I am incredibly grateful that Björn showed me so much empathy back then. I always say today that he could have opened a chip shop and I probably would have started there too. Now we have founded voiio and offer companies a solution to support their employees in every situation and phase of life. This reflects our belief that it’s all about people. Unfortunately, many companies have not yet realized this.

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