Becoming a Professional Chameleon

By Mandisa Ntloko-Peterson, Founding Member of Wired4Women at BCX.

For many, entering the world of work can be difficult. Even as a professional, being able to thrive when you don’t understand the workplace culture is challenging, this is because the world in which we are raised and the one of work are different. It doesn’t matter if you’re an entrepreneur or a mother, if you’re from a big city or grew up in a less urbanised area, different worlds have different cultures and, at times, the things that are acceptable in the working world are not acceptable in the world in which we’re raised. So where does ‘chameleonship’ comes in?

Personal mastery

Similar to a chameleon that changes colours for protection but keeps its authenticity, one of the ways women can bring their true selves to the workplace is by becoming professional chameleons. “There’s nothing wrong with changing colours, as long as you’re in charge of that,” says Kedibone Mooi, the author of The Professional Chameleon. The idea of chameleonship relates to the concept of personal mastery. As you move from one point to another during the course of your career, it’s important to retain control and know where you’re going and why by creating a deliberate career strategy.

In the corporate space, you’re continuously learning (and unlearning) and chameleonship can be seen as a strategic approach where you’re aware that you’re changing and adapting your colours as you grow your career. Masa Kekane, a Carte Blanche presenter and journalist, sees chameleonship as putting on a raincoat when it is raining – you’re not compromising your authenticity, you are being you, but you’re adapting to the circumstance.

Allowing a culture of change

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” — Alwin Toffler

At the bottom of chameleonship lies a cultural seed – this is your heritage, the words you grew up hearing and how you were raised. And while this could easily be a motivating factor, for others, their cultural seed is disabling and requires reframing. This is where intentionality comes in – acknowledging that the messages you’ve been brought up hearing may not work for you today. “You have to define your authenticity. And define what you would like and how you’d like to show up for you,” writes Mooi.

Authenticity is important and shouldn’t be seen as superficial. We change our clothes and mannerisms depending on the circumstances in the same way a chameleon adapts to its surroundings. This is why Mooi in the book compares chameleonship to a peach tree. It may look different in spring, summer, autumn, and winter, but it is still a peach tree – its core remains the same.

Imposter syndrome and intentionality

Mastering the art of chameleonship can also help with imposter syndrome. By getting to know yourself, your capabilities, your competencies, your emotional settings, and everything about you, you’ll be able to use what you have as tools in the workplace.

A second antidote to imposter syndrome is developing a powerful personal brand, becoming someone who is intentionally courageous. Bravery is a muscle that can be trained – the more you push yourself, the better you get. In Seth Godin’s book, Tribes, he writes: “Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead… It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle.”

Chameleonship isn’t easy, but a deliberate career strategy can help. If you’re a woman in the workplace, outsourcing is often the best way to make things work. Learn that there is a network of powerful women around you who can consciously assist you in finding the solution you’ve been looking for. Finally, adapt to circumstances without compromising your authenticity – by embracing change and evolving when needed, you’re already on your way to becoming a professional chameleon.