Why Relationship Building Is Important in Leadership: Human First Leadership With Nick Mehta

16 min read
Headshot images of Patrick Ewers and Nick Mehta on a blue background, featuring the text "Human First Leadership" promoting their interview on why relationship building is important in leadership.


This inspiring and insightful conversation about Human First Leadership styles and strategies reveals how you can make a positive difference in your business and life through relationship building.  

Patrick Ewers, founder and CEO of Mindmaven, and Nick Mehta, CEO of Gainsight, discuss the benefits of authenticity and positive feedback in relationship building with employees and customers, where the results speak for themselves.

Nick’s leadership style has been recognized with multiple awards, and his company is considered the number one rated customer success platform. Gainsight earned the number one spot on Glassdoor for 2022, with ninety-six percent saying they would recommend Gainsight to a friend. As Patrick introduced Nick and his achievements, he explained how Mindmaven provides executive coaching to help leaders achieve true greatness through their relationships.

Together, they are excited to share their top tips for helping people build deep and lasting relationships through Human First Leadership. 


Executive Summary: Human First Leadership

“What does Human First Leadership actually mean, in your own words? And why do you think it’s important to startup founders and CEOs?” These are just some of the questions discussed in this insightful conversation. 

In this fire-side-style chat, Patrick shares what he considers to be the most powerful relationship building principles of positive alacrity and the proven benefits of habits.

Nick explains his three “buckets” for Human First Leadership, which involve:

  • Normalize traditions that awaken the human element in our daily routine.
  • Find ways to celebrate the humanity of your teammates rather than just seeing them as employees. 
  • Do it yourself as a leader with vulnerability. If the leader is willing to be human, there’s more permission for others to be too. It creates a positive virtuous circle.

Watch the video (above) and read this accompanying article (below) to discover business leaders’ secrets of success and pragmatic advice for getting the most out of your team through relationship building and people-centric leadership.

Know Who You Are—Your Values

To explain Human First Leadership in his own words, Nick shared how Gainsight created a people-first culture of authentic leadership right from the beginning. 

“So I’ll tell you a story about what we call a human first. We’ve been around for about ten years, and as we were getting started, I knew from the beginning that values in our company were very important to me … The values of our company can really influence the people inside the company and outside. So we started out really trying to be thoughtful from the very beginning, picking values that were very intentional and authentic to who we are.”

“We came up with some zany kind of values from the beginning. For example:

  • Childlike joy, which means bringing the kid in you to work every day. 
  • Stay thirsty, my friends, which is all about ambition, but it’s actually based on a TV commercial for beer! 

So we started with these values that were … authentically who we were.”

Why Do You Exist?

When it comes to purposeful leadership, Nick explains how this developed from an off-site strategy session. Everyone was encouraged to read the book called Scaling Up by Verne Harnish. Nick says it’s “a great book if you’re doing a kind of growth stage startup.” 

They were working on a one-page strategic plan, filling in the goals for the next year, financial targets, and values. Nick explained, “There was a box that said, ‘What’s the purpose of your company? Why do we exist as a company?'”

Nick revealed that they had to think about this for a while: “Why do we exist—it wasn’t just the software we made. 

We make software that helps companies retain and grow their customers. It’s great, we really believe in it … So what we thought about was, maybe it was less about what we do and more about why we do it and how we do it.”

Human First — Why?

“Some folks have probably seen this great Simon Sinek top ten TED Talk Start With Why,” Nick continued. “We thought about that why and reflected on our values, which were a little bit different from the traditional corporate values.”

“From the beginning, we tried to operate as the same person at work that we are at home.”

“We also tried to think of the other person on the other side of the video conference or the table, or the customer or potential customer as a human being too.

One of the things we reflected on is, a lot of the business world’s lessons traditionally have been that the way to be successful is to be less human.”

“Clearly, a lot of great businesses have been built in a way that’s less about the humans.”

“But we said, is there a way to actually win and still be what we call human first, remembering that you yourself are human, the customer is a human (whether they bought your software or not), the employee is a human (whether they’re working for you or just left your company), and our competitors are human beings, too.”

“So, our Purpose Statement that we wrote in this little box was …”

To be living proof you can win in business while being human first.”

We Are All Human

Patrick agreed that people-first cultures that prioritizes relationship building is a key high-performance leadership approach and shared: 

“I am a firm believer that you will not come across anybody who has been able to reach their fullest potential without help from others – it’s a state that doesn’t exist.

“It feels like a somewhat universal truth, this concept of human first, and is probably the fastest way to get to the fullest potential of the vision you’re pursuing,” Patrick stated.

Nick expanded upon this point, saying, “I do think there’s something powerful about it, which is if you are having to be a different person at work than the person you think you really are, and you put on different masks, you are limiting your own potential; whether that’s the employee, or the customer, or anyone. 

You bring out more of the person’s potential the more they can be themselves, and the more we see our peers as also human beings, the more we bring out their potential. It’s a virtuous cycle.”

Considering the alternatives, Nick explained, “It’s sad actually, some [workplace] cultures kind of hold people down and make them not be who they are. But if you are passionate about this, you can really have a different person show up at work than the one that was showing up at their previous employer – it’s magical!”

Patrick said he felt passionate about this style of empowering leadership. “If you are trying to show up as somebody else at work, and you have to hold up that persona, you can’t reach your fullest potential. I would argue two more things:

  • You end up wasting a lot of energy because it’s hard to be someone else.
  • You can’t be happy because you’re wasting all this energy just trying to be this person that you actually aren’t.”

Patrick summarized, “That’s why a human first culture at least has built in a very defensible advantage—because people can show up being themselves.”

Human First Leadership in Day-to-Day Life

Reflecting on when they first met, Nick said how authentic it had felt, as they were both just being their true selves. “When we first connected, there was this element of authenticity of knowing who you are and being who you are.

I’m the same person – in my home office, out there with the kids, with my wife, friends, brother, parents, at work, and with our customers. It’s like there’s one version of Nick, and it’s this weird mix of all these different things – customer success, SaaS, being a dad, being into pop culture, reading about physics—it’s all one thing. I feel like you are the same. Does that resonate with you? You’re a mix of a lot of different things, and you’re just that one thing, right?”

Patrick affirmed, “Yes. I designed this business that I’m in just to be able to be myself.”

Patrick then shared his personal story about the “Corporate America world.” He said, “I couldn’t play that game, I was very unhappy, and I thought to myself, there must be a better way to do this. Fifteen years ago, I started Mindmaven to find that way and eventually teach other people how to do that.”

To give a little more pragmatic advice, Patrick wanted to discuss how Human First Leadership and relationship building appears in tactical, day-to-day life.


Positive Alacrity

Patrick shared what he believes is one of “the most powerful relationship building principles you’ll ever come across – and it’s not even a principle, it’s a habit: positive alacrity.”

He explained that positive alacrity and the intentional expression of positivity are powerful “Because it’s so simple yet so impactful: 

Whenever you see or become aware of something positive, voice it.”

Patrick explained that almost every leader will have lightweight thoughts of positivity throughout the week, like: oh, I would have never thought of that, or how did they come up with that, or hmmm… that’s an interesting way of putting this.

Patrick described it as anything positive that comes to mind, “slightly north of neutral.”

“These thoughts arise in our consciousness for about two or three seconds, then they disappear again, and we’re not using them. The moment a positive thought becomes conscious, voice it! There may be situations where it’s not appropriate to voice something, so then you earmark it for later.” Patrick shared the following example:


Examples of Human First Leadership

“As CEO, you might see your CFO taking time to sit down with interns, teaching them how to build pivot tables in Excel, despite the fact that you’re about to go live with a new initiative.

Later, you may walk over to your CFO’s office and say, Hey, I don’t have much time, I have to hop off to another meeting, but I just wanted to let you know that I thought it was absolutely awesome that you took the time to do so, because it’s part of value XYZ here that says we take care of each other, and I really appreciated that! But I’ve got to go – bye!

Nick responded, “There is so much wisdom in that – especially as organizations get bigger, there is so much power in a leader doing that.” Nick then also shared a real-life example of this relationship-driven leadership in action. 

“Last week, I was in a meeting with a customer, and one of our leaders, her name’s Caitlin, was going to be in the meeting presenting, but her flight got delayed. So, she recorded this incredible short video for the customer, did an amazing job, and really connected with them, which is very hard to do in a recorded video. So I called her right after the meeting and did the exact same thing. I told her that I really liked what she did and how it connected with what matters at our company.” Nick said.

“It’s a virtuous cycle of positivity, but not generic positivity.”

Patrick offered another valuable tip about interrupting negative responses to feedback. He asked Nick, “I’m curious, when you called her, did you notice if she said something along the lines of “I’m just doing my job”?

Nick said, Yeah. 100% of the time, people try to minimize that feedback.”

“When they minimize the positivity, it actually has a negative impact on the energy they harness from that interaction,” Patrick explained. 


“That’s Why You Have To Hang Up On Them!”

Patrick explained that immediately leaving the conversation is actually a strategic leadership tactic he uses to prevent people from feeling uncomfortable so they can receive meaningful feedback for personal growth and development.

“One way that they have to bask in it is if you send them something physically.” Nick shared. “I’ve got to say, nowadays, it’s so rare that when you get a nice thank-you note about something unexpected, or a little gift in the mail, it makes such a difference.”

Nick continued, “There are a million different examples – I’ll condense it to three buckets.”


Nick’s 3 Buckets for Successful Relationship Building


1. Normalize Traditions Where People Can Open Up a Little Bit.

“A very simple example involves this world of hyper-productive video meetings, which many of us live in,” Nick explained. “In modern video meetings, even more than in the old world, there’s less of a chance to chit-chat. In the old world, you’d meet in the conference room, talk in the hallway, chit-chat if someone is late and the meeting is delayed, and have more of these opportunities. In the new world, everyone says, let’s just get down to business and jump into the agenda, so there are few, if any, chances to connect outside the agenda.

One thing we do at Gainsight in almost every meeting is an icebreaker.

It sounds trivial, but because we do it all the time, it really has an effect. The icebreaker can be simple things like what’s your go-to karaoke song, or it can be something deeper, like talk about a time when you were moved recently.

Nick explained how this one item on the agenda can “Change the entire tenor of the meeting.” He revealed, “We don’t just do this internally, we do this with clients, and people open up so much. For example, one of our Customer Service Managers and a very creative person, Nate, had a meeting with me and several senior executives from the client. Nate’s icebreaker was, What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?

After the meeting, he sent everyone a Spotify playlist with songs from each of the concerts. Are we all going to listen to the playlist? Who knows? But does that create a different vibe for all of us? For sure!

The point of normalizing traditions like the icebreaker is to wake us up to the human element in our day-to-day routine.”

Patrick reacted with his thoughts, saying, “With respect to whether or not anyone listened to the playlists: 90% of the value that a human perceives in a gift is the intent, and not the actual consumption of the gift. That’s why you don’t have to worry about it being that meaningful – it just has to be north of neutral.

“90% of the value that a human perceives in a gift is the intent.”

2. Moments of Truth in the Journey of a Customer or Employee.

“A great book on this topic is The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath,” Nick suggested.

“I’ll tell you an example of a moment if you’re an employer – there is a big moment where people screw up, and this moment is when your teammate tells you they’re leaving,” Nick explained.

“Most people screw this up because they make them feel guilty or betrayed, or they don’t talk to them, and it’s horrible because then that person leaves with this horrible ending memory, even if it was five years of great stuff.

So what I try to do when someone tells me they’re leaving is:

  • First of all, thank you for everything you’ve done here because, most likely, they’ve had a big impact. 
  • Number two, congratulations!
  • My third response is to ask, how can I help you in the future?

I try to congratulate them when they post about the new job on LinkedIn. Sometimes I send them a bottle of wine. I try to stay in touch with them at the next job, and I feel privileged when they call me for job advice.”

This is a perfect example of compassionate leadership creating a positive workplace culture, even against employee retention. Nick said, “Although we’re going to be bummed that they’re leaving, they’re excited about something new. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be leaving, right? They’re on the beginning of a new journey; why are you killing the buzz of their new journey versus being excited for them?”

“Think about the moments that are most human, whether it’s a new employee, a person leaving, a death in the family, a baby born,” Nick advised for a more empathetic leadership. “Find ways to celebrate the humanity of your teammates versus just thinking of them as employees.”


3. Vulnerability: Do It Yourself as a Leader

“My third bucket, the biggest way to really show what humanity is to yourself as a leader, is all about vulnerability,” Nick explained and shared a personal story to illustrate. 

“Years ago, we had a company event, with everyone together, and I gave my typical presentation, but then I closed with a moment of vulnerability. I talked about being lonely as a kid and how that’s still with me today, and I wonder whether people like me even though I speak to big crowds. That created this positive virtuous cycle where everyone else is opening up at our event. So then I started doing it at our customer events and I close every customer event with a moment of vulnerability. I’ve talked about loneliness, depression, my dad having dementia, and all of these things, because it causes us to open up.” Nick summarized:  

“If the leader is willing to be human, there’s more permission for others to as well.”

Nick recommended Brene Brown’s TED talk as a great example of “the leader of all vulnerability.”

Patrick said the great thing about this style of leadership is that “You can do it in any walk of life. You can do it on the stage, but you can also do it in one on ones, and it almost always works.” 

Referencing how Nick’s company, Gainsight, earned the number one spot on Glassdoor 2022, Patrick concluded, “If you don’t believe [the power of Human First Leadership] from us, believe the people who have worked there – it does work!”


Experience the Benefits of Relationship Building In Leadership.

Try some of these relationship building ideas for yourself and see the difference it makes to your team’s well-being and client satisfaction.

Relationship building through Human First Leadership can improve team member engagement and job satisfaction, help with employee retention, and create a positive workplace culture. Your ability to prioritize relationship building also directly relates to customer success as it’s also customer-centric leadership. This visionary leadership style not only creates high-performance teams and creates more collaboration through relationship building, but it also creates a better customer experience and ultimately successfully fuels growth-oriented leadership.

We’d love to hear from you. Connect with Patrick or Nick on LinkedIn or get in touch with Mindmaven below if you’d like to learn more about how we help leaders achieve true greatness. 

If you’d like to experience customer success leadership for yourself, Mindmaven is currently offering a chance to apply for a free 30-min consultation to help business leaders unlock their superpowers through relationships.


Get in touch now to apply for a free consultation. 

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