Michelle Sequeira: Creating Equitable Experiences for Everyone at Work

The Most Influential Women in Diversity & Inclusion, 2023

Michelle Sequeira radiates energy. It emanates from her determination to impact the lives of people around her.

A colleague of hers at Mercer, where she serves as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consulting Leader, said to her once that they wouldn’t have stayed with the company for so long if it wasn’t for her.

Her colleague’s words are an acknowledgement of the good work that Michelle does at Mercer as well as her inspirational leadership.

For Michelle, it is one of the most rewarding moments of her professional life. And it is not only her colleagues but also her clients who recognize her exemplary work.

One of her clients, a tech firm, felt that she and her team were in the same boat with them, battling away — they were there to help them navigate the choppy waters.

Michelle considers these acknowledgements from her colleague and client as testament to the impact she is having.

In November of 2022, Michelle won her first award. She felt proud and humbled. However, as someone who does not work for awards, she was pleasantly surprised when she found out about the nomination—to date she does not know who nominated her, a client or a colleague.

“I do this work so that the future experience of people is not similar to that of my mother or the one I had. It should be one that is equitable,” Michelle says. “It’s really rewarding to see that others are appreciating it [her work and that of her team] and I can be nominated as such.”

Stepping into the DEI Space

Michelle is a Portuguese national of Indian background. She grew up in Dubai, where she for the first time recognised that there were inequities in the world.

“I could see that in the way my mother was being given the opportunities at work, or in the lack of them, and in the pay inequities that existed,” Michelle recalls.

“So, very early on, I wanted to try and achieve a situation where no other employee has to go through that.”

Michelle, who has studied psychology, knows about all the academic work around what drives behaviours and how bias is inherent. And she has always been interested in making a change that is more sustainable.

When she joined Mercer in 2014 as a Talent Strategy Consultant, they had some “really famous,” longstanding client networks such as the Global Diversity Forum and the Vanguard.

In her initial years, Michelle and her team had good discussions with organizations, and whilst they helped a few clients, there was an untapped opportunity to help solve the issues of many more clients. “I found out that it was my niche in the market,” Michelle says.

She worked with numerous senior colleagues, some of whom were great mentors, and also spoke with a lot of clients to think through what her framework, or approach to solving their problems, should look like. She tested that with a global pharmaceutical Organisation and then took on a few more organizations, and ultimately, she started her DEI practice.

“We started in the UK, and then expanded it across Europe as well as the International region,” Michelle points out. “We already had a strong presence in the U.S., so we are now trying to align our approaches there to make sure we are globally impactful as well.”

Global Consulting Organization

Mercer, a global consulting organization, focuses on three key pillars: Career (the people side, covering rewards through to workforce transformation), Health (covering everything from benefit provisions to wider well-being), and wealth (retirement and investments). Its vision is to help clients around the world achieve the health, wealth, and performance goals of their most valuable asset – their people.

And Michelle’s vision is to ensure that the colleagues of their clients can “inevitably” feel like they can thrive. To achieve that, she says “We fundamentally believe that DEI is in our DNA and embedded in everything we do. When you look around Mercer, you can see great examples of success embedding DEI in our client delivery work”. They collaborate across all three lines of business to make the most impact for her clients. For example, with Health, they determine whether clients have health equity issues and create market leading inclusive benefits offerings to ensure all can thrive.

In Career, they help clients identify and address their pay equity issues; design inclusive employee value propositions to attract and retain a diverse workforce; as well as factor DEI into their talent and workforce strategies. Michelle says that they would also partner with Wealth, when it comes to pension gaps, and more. “We have really embedded DEI into the DNA of all our solutions,” she adds. “I think that has helped us, and our clients, thrive.”

Along with Mercer, its sister companies, Marsh, Guy Carpenter, and Oliver Wyman, too, have benefitted from Michelle’s, and her team’s, DEI solutions. Michelle points out that she and her team collaborate across many of these sister companies to support their clients too. For example, Michelle and her team will join Marsh to discuss business risks with clients, and highlights that key people risks surround inclusion, sustainability, health, and safety. “So, we are bringing in an inclusion lens,” says Michelle. She ensures that DEI enables success within Mercer.

Journey of a Leader

Very early on in her career, Michelle established her brand – both internally and externally – as a Thought Leader. She has spoken at a lot of events and published numerous articles. When she first started, it was alongside her main role in wider talent consulting, and as demand grew, she was able to build a strong business case to hire more specialists.

She also recalls what her manager said to her, “You’re leading our whole practice here, Michelle.” For her, it was a moment of disbelief. “Am I? Great! I didn’t realize that as I thought I was just following my passion” – that is how she reacted.

When others recognised the brand, she had created, Michelle realized her leadership potential. And, then helping other countries develop their frameworks, encouraged her, because people approached her not just to help their clients but also to support them to set up their practices. “That means I must have done a pretty good job,” says Michelle, adding that she often suffers from imposter syndrome, which makes her doubt her potential. However, reflecting on the value of a supportive environment, she continues, “you, too, realize that, ‘yes I’m making an impact and I can do it’.”

Overcoming Roadblocks 

Michelle arrived at Mercer as a racially diverse woman, with huge ambitions for a DEI practice. She remembers a time when popular opinion in the world of business, generally, was that DEI was a nice to have, but clients wouldn’t pay for it. That said, thankfully, her business leaders helped her shape the practice that it is, some being her greatest mentors. Mercer has provided her the space and autonomy to try new products and solutions, and this has inevitably helped her, and the business thrive.

This does not go without challenges. There have been times when the question was raised as to whether a more senior colleague should step in and lead the practice. However, through her hard work and dedication, Michelle earned the trust of her leaders. “So, I think building a credible base has really helped me grow with the business,” Michelle says.

From a gender perspective, Michelle says her area of expertise, consulting in DEI, allows for more equitable experiences compared to if she perhaps worked in another area of the business. Clients have appreciated the experiences she brings as a racially diverse female millennial. To that extent, a client once explained that, whilst Michelle and team had the best solutions, she lost a piece of work when she allowed her senior male colleague to do more of the pitch. That made Michelle realise that her voice needed to be heard more. She took coaching on gravitas and to learn how to speak to stakeholders with impact.

She was able to overcome each and every challenge and grow the business. And she now believes that they have helped her grow as a DEI leader.

Success: Health, Time, and Impact

“To me, success is twofold,” says Michelle. First, it is knowing that she has been able to impact the lives of her clients as well as her colleagues through the work she does and the leadership she provides. “It is really important for me to know at the end of the day that I have made a difference,” Michelle says. For her, this is not just her definition of success but has always been her purpose and mission.

Michelle also defines success in terms of time and health. She feels that she will eventually be successful when she is able to do what she wants with her time and with her life. For example, as someone who is recently married, she wants to spend more time with her husband and her family.

“We have a very limited time on Earth, and I often say I can’t spend all of that time at work, which I will never get back,” Michelle says. “That is one aspect, and the other related to it is health, which I have often taken for granted.”

Michelle feels that she will feel successful when she is able to master health and time, in addition to impacting the lives of others.

Role and Responsibilities

Michelle’s workday varies drastically from one to another. Her role and responsibilities at Mercer require her to primarily focus on five key areas. Michelle points out that she spends a lot of time generating new business: by leveraging current client relationships across the lines of business and sister companies, or by liaising with Client Managers. For example, when Mercer works with Company X, she tries to see if she can speak to them about a lens to inclusion. Michelle and her team also identify new clients. She points out that a huge chunk to ensure sustainability involves generating new business.

The second area of her focus is: delivering quality work. Michelle typically provides the peer reviews to the team’s deliverables and joins client workshops and stakeholder meetings to challenge client thinking and share some market practices.

Growing the practice is her third responsibility. Michelle has done a lot of work to enable, empower, and upskill her colleagues, both for project delivery and prospect-lead conversations. She has leveraged the success of her model to help other countries too.

Another responsibility is to ensure visibility and brand presence. Michelle also leads a lot of thought leadership, whether that be authoring numerous point-of-view papers, and blogs, or speaking at events such as global conferences and webinars. She and her team do a lot of research to showcase the experiences of employees and what companies should prioritise.

And, according to Michelle, her focus is on the internal, people side, as well. She ensures that her team is happy and feels like they can thrive.

“I support my team and will have conversations with them and try and make sure they are delegating effectively, trying to make sure they have got the right work-life balance,” Michelle says. Her responsibilities also require her to support Mercer more widely.

Michelle also mentor’s people. “I try to make sure that my team and my future talent are feeling engaged and upskilled too,” she says. She continues, “We do have differences in our experiences as employees, and I choose my mentees very carefully to ensure that the ones I’m mentoring get the most impact from the insights I’m sharing.”

Michelle’s workload is intense. So, it is no surprise that she says maintaining a work-life balance is a challenge. However, she is now trying to prioritise this and has made it one of her goals. She and her team derive their motivation from the same purpose: “we are influencing the lives of our clients.”

Michelle’s team is also super-motivated by the team they have. “Being able to constantly collaborate, share ideas, write those point of view papers, and challenge ourselves to be ahead of the game, I find that really inspirational,” she says.

Plans for the Future

Michelle points out that ultimately, clients are more successful at DEI when it is truly embedded in the employee experience and across all talent processes. So, she often finds that when they just have a standalone DEI initiative or strategy that is not linked to the people strategy, then it becomes a silo that is not going to be as impactful. However, if equity and inclusion is embedded into the whole employee experience, right from the attraction and recruitment phase, through to how people are being rewarded, or promoted, to when they have a significant event in their life – whether that be bereavement or birth – then “that’s when it is truly successful for an organization,” says Michelle.

“We aim to have a cohesive set of solutions globally to ensure that we can help any client, irrespective of the industry, size, or maturity,” Michelle says. She also reveals that they are working on a solution set that fully appreciates different countries and their varying maturity levels. According to her, different things would resonate based on different cultures within those countries and different maturity levels. “So, having the ability to tailor to local nuances from that global solution set will make us a lot more effective and impactful,” Michelle says.

She intends to help those countries that are newer to DEI, enabling them to get there. And she feels that they can influence companies that have huge presences in certain countries so that they can focus on inclusion.

And, personally, Michelle wants to see people having the psychological safety and courage to challenge more. “I think we are getting there, and the generations that are coming through are more vocal, and I would like to see that continue,” she says. “Moreover, not just having their employee voices heard, I would like organizations to actually continue to change to meet those needs.”

Message to the Next Generation of Aspiring Leaders

During her sessions for junior colleagues, Michelle tells them to challenge themselves by asking “Why not?” to opportunities that arise. And, if someone does not have a good answer to that, she tells them to “just go and do it.”

Once Michelle listened to a meditation talk delivered by a Paralympic runner, Blake Leeper, around adversity being a strength.

“Mr. Leeper called on all of us to look for opportunities to see our challenges as strengths. And the way he spoke really encouraged and inspired me to apply his advice.”

“As women coming into leadership, you will have adversity. It will come at you,” Michelle points out in her message. “But let’s use it as our strength – to be stronger in our outlook, to be crisp in our conversation, and to be more impactful in the solutions that we are presenting. I think we will have far better ideas and far better impact through it.”

“Adversity can motivate us to do more, do better and have a bigger impact in this world and in this society. Let’s be the change we want to see in this world” she concludes.