• Sree Kunnath, Author |
4 min read

It’s not easy to open up about the vulnerable times in your life, especially on a public forum. But I have a story to tell, and I owe it to my KPMG team to tell it.

It’s a story that is both extremely difficult and very easy for me to share—difficult because of how I feared it would end, and easy because of how it did. It is a story about family, about trust, and about the power of the team. It is therefore a story about life, both personal and professional, and about how much richer it is when we live it together, with purpose.

It starts, simply enough, with a new job.

The discussions, the interviewing, the negotiations were over. It was July 2019. I'd reached a major professional milestone and was brimming with excitement: I was joining the KPMG partnership! Part of the excitement wasn’t just that I was new to KPMG, I was also a relative newcomer to Canada. Originally from India, I left home after high school and further studies when work took me across continents. I’d been in Canada for only about five years and didn't have an extensive support network. I was, however, blessed to have been able to bring several long-time colleagues across my travels globally and my own company to join my new team at KPMG.

“Team.” It matters to me a lot. I used to play soccer professionally and have thought about this a great deal. When you play as a team, what matters most isn’t each player's individual skillset but the way everyone integrates their unique abilities and strengths. When team coordination is the priority, everyone is supported to perform their best. The sum, in other words, really is greater than its parts. This is true in sports, and it’s just as true in business.

So, there I was, two days into a new adventure. I’d been assigned an office and had just about gotten it set up, most importantly with pictures of my little ones. Then came the devastating call. My daughter had been diagnosed with a rare, one-in-a-million illness—an unbelievably terrifying and disorienting situation for which I wasn’t the least bit prepared. All I knew in that moment was I needed to be with her and my family at the hospital, not at the office. But added to the fear was uncertainty: how would my new colleagues react to this sudden crisis?

To my great relief, they scarcely blinked. "Shut off your laptop," they said. "Go. Be with her. Find out what's happening and let us know how we can help." It’s impossible to put into words exactly how reassuring it was at that heartrending moment to have my new colleagues’ unquestioning support.

What surprised me even more was the support that immediately flowed in from the national leadership team and from people across the firm. They sent emails with well wishes. They sent flowers. They checked in to see how we were. They assured me everything at work was taken care of and that I need focus on one thing and one thing only: my family. This outpouring of support and assistance from every direction—KPMG partners, staff, even clients—was overwhelming. Their kindnesses sustained me. They sustain me still.

It soon became clear that I'd need to be absent from work for an unspecified length of time—weeks, maybe even months. To be closer to the hospital, we moved into the Ronald McDonald House. And then the next unexpected thing happened: colleagues and others started coming to the House on weekends and holidays to volunteer and to spend time with us. I almost couldn’t believe it. Then it hit home: these extraordinary people weren’t trying to maintain a work relationship—they were trying to maintain a life. Make that lives. Mine and my daughter’s, our entire family’s. Which, as far as I was and am concerned, they were now a part of.

I think I've always felt that colleagues are like family, but this experience was unique, and it touched me deeply. When I was most in need, my team showed me that they saw me as family, too. From the day my daughter was taken to the emergency room, our whole life was revolving around the hospital and her treatment, which meant my team had to step up and deliver, mostly without me, and everyone did exactly that. I could barely connect with the team during the daytime, but they worked around my schedule and, with very minimum inputs, all of them were driving exceptional work and delivered above and beyond. Again, this wasn’t couple of days or weeks but months, and seeing them perform at such high levels was almost the greatest feeling—second only to the good news we would eventually get that my daughter was going to be ok and that we would soon be going home. Home now, too, of course, was bigger—it included all of KPMG in Canada.

I was away from work a long time—nine months in total. But the strength and support I was shown throughout gave me the uplift I needed to return to work in March 2020. Just in time for the next crisis: COVID-19. But that’s a subject for my next post. Hope to see you here.

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