HR Leaders As Chameleons

January 18, 2016

Adding value to an organization as an HR leader includes a delicate balancing act of applying technical competency, holding a business strategy mindset, and coaching up, down and across the organization.  However, the role is far more complex on any given day simply because companies themselves are far more complex than they’ve ever been.  An increased emphasis on demonstrating a clear value proposition, customer loyalty, finding and keeping the right talent, and risk mitigation are only a few of the focus areas for businesses today. 


Given these unrelenting challenges, the smartest and most savvy leaders must embrace what I’d describe as the role of a chameleon.  Chameleons (the actual ones) are highly specialized lizards with over two hundred species, many of them possessing the ability to change colors as they adapt to their surroundings and/or signal their intentions. 


HR leaders must also adapt to their surroundings, dissecting the environment and displaying the right ‘signals’ to other leaders and stakeholders.  We must understand the broader business climate, strategic context, financial model, real and perceived risks, availability of talent, cultural nuances of our company – and so much more.  Every role in HR, in essence, must serve as a business partner.   In his book, THREE – The Human Resources Emerging Executives, Ian Ziskin describes this type of flexible leadership.  He notes that, “whether it’s handling a situation involving a single individual, or a large-scale organizational challenge, the best HR executives use an array of great questions to understand the circumstances, dissect the issues, prioritize potential solutions, and offer pragmatic advice.  They don’t try to show how much they know about the business until they demonstrate how much they don’t know about the situation.” (Ziskin, 2015, p. 68).  


This means that the best HR leaders don’t arrive to the party with the gifts in hand.  They arrive with a mindset of determining what might their client might actually need, not even what they might want.  It requires high degrees of flexibility and adaptability. 


What does this look like in practice?


Joining forces in service to the business


As you work closely with your CFO or finance colleagues work to understand what’s top of mind for them - then listen, learn and apply those learnings in the context of your own expertise.  Contrary to stereotypes, finance folks don’t wake up with the intention of saying ‘no’ to initiatives that cost money.  They are stewards of the business, forecasters, and storytellers of the company’s current and future business model.  They value your partnership in looking for opportunities to manage expenses which free dollars for the smartest investments elsewhere. 


As an HR leader, you can work closely with these finance partners to find the balance between savings found through position vacancies across the business, and the cost of those vacancies in terms of revenue lost, for example.  The first number can be a useful tool in offsetting revenue shortages, the second is a metric that all HR functions should plan to track as part of effective talent acquisition strategies.  Your finance colleagues are on both sides of this equation and would value creative and thoughtful conversations with you about these numbers.  On the other hand, having the conversation with your R&D colleague about vacancy savings due to open positions is probably not the best idea!


Peer coaching for new leaders


New senior leaders joining an organization need a lot of support and guidance.  They need to understand where the landmines are, the meaning of unwritten culture rules, and legacy issues surrounding their team.  And, they have a relatively short amount of time to demonstrate value – and they know this.


HR leaders must be superior listeners.  They must serve as peer coaches and may have to flex their own natural communication styles in order to support a new leader.  For example, if the new leader is a seasoned and accomplished professional with experience across multiple sectors, they may be less apt to listen for cues needed to thrive in a new culture.  The job of the HR leader is to convey messages at the right time, with the right tone and with the right frequency.  They will have to serve as needed and be adept at knowing when they’re not needed.  If the HR leader has effectively learned the environment, they can serve as the eyes and ears for this new leader in ways that will pleasantly surprise them.


Managing up to the next levels


Whether navigating new terrain or shaping paths established over several years with the company, leaders must effectively manage up to next level leaders.  This is especially tricky if the next level leader is the CEO.  This is where HR leaders, as chameleons, will be most stretched.


HR leaders generally know the strengths, weaknesses, and foibles of leaders across the entire organization.  They have a unique vantage point in that they can absorb information and position themselves to help others manage that information in the best interest of the person and the company.  Helping other leaders to manage up to next levels means listening for nuances in conversations, adapting responses to what is being said and applying the right coaching, if necessary, based on other information which they've stored in the ‘vault’.  HR leaders who do this well are sought after and well known for these abilities among their peers. 

Fully embrace the role of chameleon.  Learn the business.  Marry that knowledge of the business with the needs of the people and find ways to maximize every opportunity in service to the business. 


Finally, as we flex our skills in this area, we should consider two fascinating traits of the true chameleon:


  1. Many chameleons change colors…we know this.  But, the chameleon can also change in as little as twenty seconds.  Sometimes, the change in color allows the chameleon to communicate with other chameleons

  2. Chameleons have a 360-degree arc of vision and can see two directions at once.  They can rotate and focus separately, observing two different objects at the same time


These traits have clear application to the role of the progressive HR leader:  Business partner. Strategist. Analytical thinker.  Analyst. Change agent.  Master influencer. Coach.  And, yes, Chameleon.



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