I learnt how to become a chameleon at a very young age.
I was born on the west coast of Sri Lanka in a fishing town, and when I was two, my parents decided to relocate to a place where there would be better opportunities than there were there in the 1970s. They decided on Central Africa, which was a risky choice for that time and a place they knew nothing about. It was such a risk that they made the difficult decision to leave my six-month-old sister home with our grandmother while they figured out if the gamble would be worth it.
We spent six years in Zambia and four in Nigeria and I finished high school in Papua New Guinea. Over the years I’d been involved in a carjacking, a home invasion and I’ve had a gun held to my head twice, but that was life where I grew up. I didn’t in any way have an unhappy upbringing, but it was just what life was; it was where we were. I learnt to appreciate and have perspective on what life was about and what was important and not important.
Everyone who is different is often a chameleon working hard to blend in. That is not something that chameleons do because they get joy out of it. It’s a survival mechanism.
When it was time for me to decide to leave home, it was natural that if my parents could take risks and start over twice, with no possessions and four children in tow, then I could do it. I arrived in Australia on my own as a 17 year-old, not knowing anyone and had to find a job and start university. This was long before the infrastructure was available to support international students. I had to figure it out on my own.
In every place I went since childhood, I was different. I didn’t feel part of the community in which we were living. Everyone who is different is often a chameleon working hard to blend in. That is not something that chameleons do because they get joy out of it. It’s a survival mechanism.
Some cultures and personalities believe that if you keep your head down and get the work done, then the work will speak for itself.Nick Fernando, EGM Everyday Banking
These people need to learn how to advocate for themselves, and we need to help them because it doesn’t come naturally.
#Building bridges and capabilities
I did a PhD in engineering at university and started my career building bridges and buildings. Eventually, I got bored of solving technical problems and wanted to solve business problems so I reached out to a few people and asked if they could give me a go. I joined Bain and Co as a strategy consultant and then spent 15 years at Commonwealth Bank and a further three years at Westpac before joining Suncorp a bit over a year ago. Now I build capabilities rather than buildings.
I've been very fortunate to have had mentors and sponsors that saw something in me and gave me a go. I didn’t fit the mould of a standard senior leader in this country, but I found sponsors who were willing to take a risk and help me grow.
As a leader, your role is to build capability and help your people thrive and be the best that they can be. Leaders need to advocate for talented people in whatever form they come in.
#Drawing out chameleons
So many people took risks and gave me a go that I feel compelled to pay that back. I want to help those chameleons who are blending in, because I have been one my whole life and I know how much energy that takes. Just imagine if that discretionary energy and loyalty were to be deployed into the organisation instead.
How do you build those capabilities for chameleons? For people who are wasting their energy trying to blend in and in the process becoming invisible? We don’t want to leave good talent behind, but the trouble with chameleons is that they are trying so hard not to be found, that they are becoming invisible in our talent pipelines. An organisation’s talent processes need to take this into account. People need to feel they can bring their whole authentic selves to work and stay true to who they are.
Leaders need to advocate for talented people in whatever form they come in.
Some cultures and personalities believe that if you keep your head down and get the work done, then the work will speak for itself. These people need to learn how to advocate for themselves, and we need to help them because it doesn’t come naturally.
I realised that I didn't just need to be great at what I did, but people needed to know about it and advocate for me.
#A winning team
Suncorp is a company that cares very deeply about its people and champions a diverse and inclusive culture that values every perspective and inspires people to think differently.
The best thing about diversity and inclusion is the different ways of thinking and solving a problem that can be unleashed. Think about a soccer team. If you have a lot of good strikers in the team but no capable midfielders and no defenders, you will most likely lose.
Teams with lots of people who are really good but think and work in the same way, may do well, but an equally good diverse team that respects each other’s different capabilities and collaborates — will win.