How to Lead Change Without Selling Your Soul4 min read.
Leading change in a large organisation while staying true to your values and prioritising your own self-care, is no small feat.
Just ask Marisa Williams, Head of Tax & Legal Talent Acquisition at KPMG, who acquired leadership buy-in to spearhead an inclusive hiring mission at the corporate giant in the wake of her own health challenges.
It was a journey that demonstrated how to drive progress by rocking the boat but remaining afloat. Through setbacks and late nights, Williams kept her eyes on the North Stars of diversity, equity and inclusion - while prioritising personal wellbeing against the usual exacting demands of corporate life.
Her story offers lessons for those enacting change from within on how to move mountains at work while staying grounded in purpose and self-care. Progress takes grit and grace in equal measure.
Williams is reflective about her early career in executive search and recruitment, where the "work hard, play hard" culture focused on visible office face time.
She admits: "I was still focused on the external and what success meant, and success meant winning the clients, making the biggest fees, and probably, if I'm really quite honest, what others thought of me."
In her 20s and early 30s at the time, Williams notes that: "Growing up as an Indian female, you were in a culture where being good is the best thing.
Change from within
She hates being called good now, but recognised she had become a people pleaser, seeking approval from others. This featured in the workplace as well, driving her to keep up an “alpha” persona as one of the few women in a senior leadership role.
The demands took a toll, she says: "I ended up having real bad fatigue problems. I was bloated all the time...I used to joke that I looked like I was three months pregnant by the end of the day."
She now recognises that she had moved away from her true self. “So much so that actually my whole body was basically breaking down."
The well-being wake-up call sparked an internal shift, as Williams started evaluating how situations made her feel, not just chasing external success metrics. She began focusing on self-worth, boundaries, and saying no when needed.
She believes the transition helped to shape her and realise that there is no work persona and personal persona. Authenticity became key so she wasn't trying to play a role that was exhausting in the long-term.
In her current role at KPMG as Head of Tax & Legal Talent Acquisition, she faced the challenges of a corporate culture where hierarchy matters, given the many management title levels. She pushed for progress but became frustrated by the pace of change, feeling she wanted to drive the people agenda harder than the existing culture supported.
Early on at KPMG, during a major business transformation, Williams found herself working 80-plus hours a week to compensate for gaps, leading to exhaustion and health issues again.
She reflects: "I went back into that pleasing role. My back literally had to go, it stopped me."
It sparked reflection on priorities and boundaries. As she describes "keeping wellbeing at the centre of mind is the biggest challenge."
To stay grounded with competing demands, she now starts each day with meditation and yoga. She also focuses on authenticity and responding rather than reacting to challenges, noting: "When you are speaking from a place of truth, and it's authentic, people actually believe."
On influencing leaders and changing mindsets, Williams emphasises first deeply understanding the lay of the land through focus groups and fact-finding. She highlighted bringing others along on the journey early as key, rather than going it alone, to create "a little army that's helping."
Securing early supporters provided credibility to get buy-in to shape an inclusive recruitment mission and process. She aimed to open the talent pool, noting "the next phase is about us working on a proactive basis" to become a true employer of choice. While targets existed, she found statements around fixed diverse quotas too "optical."
While parts of the journey have been challenging, from scepticism to budget changes, Williams kept diversity and inclusion as North Stars. She focused on "how we can work together effectively so everyone's doing what they should be doing" to reach the end goal.
Collaborating across teams, she pulled all the pieces together into a cohesive candidate attraction campaign that included paid media activity including social media; exploration of jobs boards and communities, and onboarding new channels specifically for the tax and law department, exploring other diversity-based job boards; new creative assets and authentic stories and videos featuring KPMG team members.
The work continues to evolve, but the foundation has been laid for a more proactive, employer of choice brand.
As Williams says: "Utopia is when every search follows the inclusive process."
There is still room for progress, but the strides made in hiring, engagement and process are guiding KPMG's employer brand into the future, focusing on authenticity, and bringing others along with care and clarity.
6-point to do list to drive organisational change
How to get buy-in and keep well...
Do your due diligence to understand the lay of the land. Conduct focus groups and gather data to arm yourself.
In executing your vision think about what it looks like from a big macro level, but then what that means for the next level. Have clarity on mission and steps.
Involve as many of the key people as you can as early as you can. Get support to shape hearts and minds.
Learn to know when you need to flex based on shifting priorities. Pivot gracefully.
Keep talking about it to keep leaders focused amid competing priorities.
Have people that can support you and guide you. You can't do it alone. Lean on others' wisdom.