Kimberlee Williams built her career on intelligently navigating business change—significantly, as the leader of Merck’s global change management program, which helped save the pharmaceutical company $3.5 billion—and all of her experiences contributed to launching her leadership company, Ignitem. “If I were to bring one thing to educational institutions,” she says, “it’d be to teach the basic tenets of how human beings change and innovate. If we can teach people how to make changes in their organizations, the next generation of leadership will be phenomenal.”
Can you distill Ignitem’s core offering into a single phrase or sentence?
We deliver online training in change and innovation leadership, which includes things like e-learning, assessments, webinars, advisory groups for senior professionals and other resources, like quarterly live workshops in New York City. We’re about online training in change and innovation leadership.
How has a volatile economic landscape, with employers hiring less frequently and employees frequently overworked, affected your services?
When companies are trying to adapt to the economic environment, it increases the need for our products and services. Leaders are scrambling to adapt. They’re trying to come up with new products and trying to grow their businesses. Or maybe in addition to that, they’re trying to grow their bottom line, which means they have to reduce costs, lay people off, all those kinds of things. All those things add up to leaders having to make a lot of foundational shifts internally. That means change—change in structure, in launching new products—and a lot of leaders don’t know how to do that.
But it’s good for us, because in dramatic changes in the economy, leaders are much more aware than they’d normally be that they need to speed it up. They can’t wait. They need to figure out the ins and outs of change right now. It highlights us as a resource.
Do you primarily work with executive or rank-and-file employees?
It’s both. We have offering for leaders, which is where most of our offerings are focused. What we offer for average employees is how to initiate change in their own job, change that’s linked to and supported by their company changes, change that’s also adaptive, so you can begin to have a normal work-life balance where you’re not constantly knocking yourself out. That’s how we focus more on the rank-and-file.
Speaking of having a normal work-life balance, why is that so difficult for many people?
So many variables go into this. Relative to what I do, my personal opinion—and this is tough for people to swallow—is that people are working much harder than they need to. They’re trying to adapt to their work environment, and they can never really catch up. Just when they get things under control, when they get stability, more work comes along. There’s some new product. Their leader moves. Their department is reorganized. I don’t believe we’ve done a good job helping an employee adapt to that.
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen that aren’t just overwhelmed and overworked, but they lose their jobs—and this is terrible and sad—because they didn’t realize their job isn’t relevant anymore. They were working on reactions, not results.
So it’s teaching everybody that it’s their responsibility to simplify their work and make necessary changes to reduce their workload.
This is really about cherry-picking: Taking things that are higher-value and simplifying them and knowing how to do that, having conversations with leaders, and in the process, you clear up time for yourself to do other things. But it’s tough message. [Overworking is] definitely part of our culture. There’s a lot of bosses that expect more and more and people to work harder and harder. But that approach doesn’t get better results. It takes a mindset shift.
But I’ve seen organizations that have done it very successfully, and those organizations have the highest engagement skills on the parts of their employees.
It’s about everybody taking accountability for their own efficiency. It’s about not asking your boss how you’ve added more value; it’s about you taking accountability for that. You know your work best. Go to work on that.
I think many bosses, and many workers, still uphold a factory-style working ideal.
We’re starting to see that mindset shift. Younger generations are more distanced from that factory mentality. They’re more knowledge-based workers. I think that the new generations in the workforce are helping to some extent. But part of the problem is that still, so many organizations’ systems, with the way people’s performance is evaluated, are old and outdated. They don’t energize or help you as an employee. They’re set up to control you. As a result, people don’t take the initiative. No one is going to give you permission. You’re going to have to give yourself permission.
How could high schools and colleges better prepare students for satisfying careers, rather than simply providing specific skills?
I’ve been thinking a lot about where Ignitem can play in that stage.
I’ve worked with recent college graduates: young people that are either coming into the workforce, or they’ve been here for a couple years, as well as college interns or those with less work experience. Be they engineers or MBAs or financial people, their functional skills and technical abilities are tremendous.
What they lack is the ability to practically put that into use. They don’t know what the change process is. It really is a basic tenet of human behavior that everyone should know. Unfortunately, for a lot of people coming to work, it takes years of trial and error and frustration along the way to learn how to make things happen inside companies.
If I were to bring one thing to educational institutions, it’d be to teach the basic tenets of how human beings change and innovate. If students knew these things, they could navigate politics and generate ideas and mobilize people to their causes. These are known principles. They’re formulaic. They’re infinitely teachable. If we can teach people how to make changes in their organizations, the next generation of leadership will be phenomenal.
How did you get into this field?
I’ve been in organizational development-, human resources-, change-based projects for most of my career. Seven years ago, I moved over to Merck; a few months after I got there, Merck had their voluntary withdrawal of Vioxx. It was a very difficult time in our history. We got a new chairman who made massive changes in how the company operated—not because of Vioxx, but that really set the stage for change. He proceeded to make changes in every aspect of the business. And I was the leader for the global change management office at Merck. I built the company change capability; this capability supported taking a few billion dollars’ worth of costs out of the operation, which got the company healthy again. And then I ran the Strategy and Program Office for Global Services, a 5,000 employee/$4 billion division. I had a lot of experience. But at a certain point, I thought, “If it’s possible to do something like this at one company, maybe I can do it across companies and across the world.”
So I left Merck last year and started Ignitem to deliver change and innovation capability to leaders virtually.
Right now, I’m taking everything I know from one great company and taking it much bigger. I offer high-quality advice. I mean, I wasn’t a consultant. I was accountable for executing on the inside of a company that attained great success through transformational change, and I can teach others how to do it in their organizations.