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01 MAY 2015
3 tips for successful leaders

by Mark Royal: Senior consultant within Hay Group Insight.

No, a leopard can’t change its spots. But a chameleon can change its colour to match its environment. Just how has long been a mystery. A new study published in March in the journal Nature Communications sheds light on the mystery. It seems that chameleons are able to modify their colour by adjusting a special layer of iridescent cells within their skin that have pigment and reflect light differently.

In the future, the ability to respond to dynamic business environments will be as important for organisational survival as colour changes are to chameleons. Recent research that we undertook at Hay Group has identified a series of powerful megatrends that are transforming economies and societies. Economic power is shifting from mature Western economies to emerging markets, the world is facing a disruptive combination of climate change and scarce raw materials, and the convergence of different scientific fields is set to spur a wave of powerful technological breakthroughs that will both create new product markets and challenge organisations to stay ahead of the curve.

For companies, it’s a much better time to be a chameleon than a leopard. Unfortunately, while the researchers are optimistic that there may be opportunities to take advantage of lessons drawn from their study of chameleons in product design (e.g., eliminating reflection in appliances), leaders will have to look elsewhere to build a lizard-like capacity to change into their companies.

Why engaging and enabling employees will be critical

Employee engagement is without a doubt a key resource for coping with change. In fast-changing environments, employees are likely to be faced with more and more unanticipated and ambiguous problem-solving and decision-making situations. Those who are energised, motivated and committed at work, and who have a clear understanding of strategy and goals, will be more likely to make the right decisions on their own when asked to adapt to sudden changes.

However, leaders wanting to create truly agile organisations will also need to focus on enabling and positioning their people for success – to ensure that their extra efforts translate into performance and productivity. In times of change, helping employees work “smart” as well as hard is essential if organisations are to respond effectively to challenges or opportunities.


Build clarity and ensure alignment

Little tends to be accomplished if people are unclear where the organisation is going and what’s required of them to help it get there. But confidence is equally important. Unless employees have faith that planned directions will position the organisation for future success, leaders can’t expect to have their full support in implementing them, especially where hard choices are required.

Amid uncertainty, the demand for information from employees often outpaces what leaders and managers are able to supply, which can damage confidence in both leadership and strategic direction. Our employee opinion data, comprising responses from over five million employees worldwide, shows that just 57 percent give their organisations high marks for communicating openly and honestly and for handling communications related to change effectively. And over a third are concerned that their organisations aren’t responding effectively to changes in the business environment.

What can you do?

  • Make sure that managers at all levels are solidly behind you. Help them understand new developments in the organisation and the implications for their teams and job responsibilities. Give them guidance as to how they can reinforce key messages. Consider holding workshops, summits or regular offsite days that help managers understand and communicate strategy and direction to their teams.
  • Assess the way information is filtered down to employees at all levels. Your strategy will have different implications for people in different roles and at different levels. Make sure that communications are tailored to different groups so that everyone is clear on what changes mean for them.

Decentralise decision making

In fast-paced environments, leaders need to begin pushing decisions downward to promote speed and flexibility. But one-third of employees feel that decisions are typically not made at the right level, and 46 percent are concerned about the pace of decision making in their organisations.

It’s important that leaders reduce fear of delegation by viewing decisions – especially those that carry lower risks – as offering opportunities for others in the organisation to develop capabilities and demonstrate their decision-making skills. Building a culture that is accepting of well-considered choices – even when the outcomes fall short of what was expected – is vital.

What can you do?

  • Look at your organisational structure and identify non-essential approval layers that are delaying decision making.
  • Pinpoint common decisions and clarify where responsibility should lie. Incorporate these accountabilities into your performance management framework and operating policies.
  • Assess opportunities for digital tools to aid speedy decision making. Internal social media networks where people can share experiences and learnings can have a big impact.

Make training a priority

Ongoing training is critical to ensure that employee skills keep up with changing work demands. Our research shows that it’s often access to training that presents an issue. Approximately half of employees globally say that they are generally too weighed down by day-to-day job responsibilities to take advantage of the training that’s available to them.

Money spent on developing training programs is, of course, money wasted if employees aren’t freed up to attend.

What you can do?

  • Ensure that managers have a good understanding of the current skill sets of their teams and reinforce the need to invest in staff development to avoid the temptation to let short-term demands compromise long-term organisational success.
  • Consider introducing training targets into KPIs and encourage both managers and team members to take joint responsibility for creating personal training programs. Clear communications to everyone in the organisation regarding what is available are key.

I started with a ‘lesson’ from biology…

…so it seems fitting to end there as well! Charles Darwin famously observed that “it’s not the biggest, the brightest, or the best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest.” Likewise, the organisations that are successful in dealing with the turbulent conditions in brought about by globalisation, pressures for sustainable operations, and technology convergence will be those that are the most nimble and agile. They will need people who are clear and confident about where the organisation is going, empowered to make appropriate decisions, and armed with the skills needed to do what will be expected of them in the future. Consider those the secrets of corporate chameleons.

To find out more about how you can lead your company through change, download our new report, Engaging hearts & minds: Preparing for a changing world.


Korn Ferry
Hay Group is a global management consulting firm that works with leaders to transform strategy into reality. Everything we do supports our mission to ‘help organisations work’ through developing talent, organising people and motivating them to perform at their best. We are proud to be the only consulting firm of this kind in the world. With 85 offices located in 48 countries, we work with over 9 000 clients in 125 countries across the world. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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