Skip to main content

Five things that made me

How David got to where he is now

Five things that made me’ shares stories of senior leaders at Deloitte. This time, we sat down with David Wallis, our Audit and Assurance IT specialist community lead, and who has sponsored the firm’s Black Action Plan. Buckle up, because we’re taking you on a journey.

Meet David

David grew up in Southern Africa, surrounded by a multitude of influences and perspectives before moving to the UK. In his continuous search for learning and opportunities – both for himself and those around him – he ended up as a partner in our firm. From his earliest role models to those who carried him through tough times, here’s his story.

1. Proud to be me

“I was born in Lesotho, a small country surrounded by South Africa. My father is from the British Isles, and my mother was from Ghana, in West Africa. My formative years were mostly in Malawi, in East Africa, before moving to the UK as a teenager.

My mother was one of the key role models in my life. As a Black woman with mixed-heritage children, she had to deal first hand with apartheid – the only way to get to Lesotho was via South Africa. As I grew up, seeing how she held herself in certain situations and overcame aspects of adversity imprinted the foundation for who I am today and the person I’ve always aspired to be.

I wasn’t one of those children that had a set career in mind, like an astronaut or pilot. There were always many things I was interested in. But I did know I wanted to do something that involved people, something that involved making a positive impact and something that allowed me to be myself.

We moved to the UK when I was 14. After growing up in a multicultural environment, it was the first time in my life I felt different, both in terms of outlook and background. Unfortunately, discrimination and racism came to the fore at school, too. But again, having someone like my mother and the values she instilled in me helped build my personal resilience and navigate those challenging situations.”

“My mother taught me to be proud of who I am and my background. It’s what I look to impart on the teams I work with and in the mark I can make.”

2. Lifelong love of learning

“My father was a teacher and impressed on me the importance of education. He reinforced it as a passport that opens doors and delivers opportunities, and that’s stuck with me. At university, I couldn’t make up my mind as there were so many things I was interested in. I ended up taking computer science and chemistry with a bit of French on top.

In the modern career, being adaptable, flexible and seeking inspiration from different fields are becoming ever more important. When an opportunity at Deloitte crossed my path after graduating, it seemed like the kind of organisation that would allow me to explore that, and I have not been disappointed.

The early years were all about absorbing as much as I could. I worked with some fantastic people who really helped me set the foundation of my career. Over the next 20 years, I’d find myself in different situations where I had to continue to develop, learn about myself as I took on different roles, working with different people and honing different skills.

For me, continually challenging and learning is fundamental. But I was on to something with my computer science studies… I’m now part of Audit and Assurance, leading our IT specialist community in London. We work with colleagues to assess technology and digital risks and support our work in the public interest."

“The opportunity to continue learning is one of the key reasons I’m still with the firm. It’s something I seek both for myself and for the teams I lead.”

3. Authenticity is everything

“As I became more senior in my career, the lack of diversity was obvious. There were instances when I would present myself in a client situation, only to hear comments like, ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting you as David Wallis.’ I take my surname from my British father and wear locs. People were perhaps a bit more overt than they would be today.

Not having many direct referential points and role models who looked like me was a challenge. I didn’t initially consider staying at the firm to become a partner. But that’s when the roles of sponsors and mentors came into effect. Two partners, now retired, really took me under their wings and ensured I had the opportunities to fulfil the role of director, then partner. They supported me not only to want to raise my aspirations but to navigate where I was and help me think about what I needed to do to achieve that.

Initially, I grappled with my leadership style. When I looked around me, there were certain styles, and not all of them felt comfortable to me and how I do things – I prefer to work in a collaborative, transparent and inclusive way.

My sponsors’ support, as well as the research and reflection during my MBA, helped me see there’s no one size fits all. What it means to be a great leader in the UK may be very different in Japan or when leading cross-generational teams. We need all types of leaders, and everyone brings their own strength to the table. Being able to adapt as an organisation and a modern leader is so important."

“My sponsors helped me understand and demonstrate how my collaborative and transparent leadership style could fit. They gave me the confidence to see a way forward for me without compromising who I am.”

4. You can be what you can see

"Since I started my career, one of my yardsticks has been whether I’m comfortable with what I’m doing and who I am. Have I felt pressure about being seen as different at times in my career? Yes, absolutely. Earlier in my career, I was asked if I wanted to cut my hair off to accelerate more quickly, but that wasn’t me.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been a sponsoring partner for the firm’s Black Action Plan, which we introduced after the death of George Floyd. I was very keen for it to be a collaborative effort, involving people from all grades across the firm – making sure we took time to listen to their experiences and inputs.

The importance of that is really ensuring whatever we come up with is actually going to be effective and addresses the problem. We can often rush in headfirst with a solution, but it doesn’t quite address what we need to address, creating in a vicious circle. Ensuring people understand the decision-making processes and can effectively input keeps everyone aligned to a common objective.

[Editor’s note: one of the key things we learnt from our Black Action Plan was the importance of sharing stories featuring diverse role models from all walks of life. It was the inspiration to start this series. You can also listen to David talking about his experiences of being Black in Britain on this episode of The Green Room podcast.]

“I’ve always wanted to feel comfortable and able to express myself authentically, so I want to help others to feel that support too.”

5. Be kind to your mind

“As you get older and progress in life, there will be difficult moments – things you can control and things you can’t. For things I can control, like a challenging client interaction or a problematic team dynamic, I just see them as part of life. I’ve always found that, with a bit of perspective, they are learning opportunities that help you move forward.

The most testing things will be out of your control – and they teach you lessons the hard way. For me, it was bereavement – I sadly lost my close brother and then Mum more recently. They were a real blow, and you have to take things a step at a time to move forward. Looking back at how I dealt with those circumstances, particularly from a mental health perspective, my approach today would probably be very different.

One thing I love about the younger generation is the focus on things like mental health and self-care. It’s something I haven’t always had at the forefront of my own mind as I’ve navigated my career. I really appreciate how that narrative has changed over the last few years. We need to continue the journey and keep that momentum.

A final piece of advice I share with my teams is to find something outside work to provide a balance – physical or otherwise. For me, that’s capoeira. It’s an Afro-Brazilian martial art that stems from times of slavery and is associated with resistance. I’ve practised it for the last couple of decades, and it’s always helped me find a different view on whatever problem or challenge I’m having.”

“Looking back, I’d probably cut myself a bit more slack, be kinder to myself and focus more on my mental health. Because that’s what I tell others to do.”

Five things we learnt from David

1. Be proud of who you are and where you come from. It makes you, you.

2. Possibilities are everywhere. For everyone.

3. Find your style. You don’t need to emulate someone else’s.

4. Listen carefully before jumping into action.

5. Look after yourself. Be kind to you so you can be kind to others.

Did you find this useful?

Thanks for your feedback

If you would like to help improve further, please complete a 3-minute survey