What business leaders can learn from zookeepers

By Eleanor O'Neill, CA Today

21 June 2016

Award-winning motivational speaker Nigel Risner took to the floor at a recent ICAS event at Edinburgh Zoo to tell us why lions, elephants, monkeys and dolphins are important to the workplace.

A self-declared 'monkey', Nigel helps business leaders improve their communication skills and identify the 'animal personalities' of themselves, their clients and their colleagues.

Speaking at an ICAS event on 15 June, Nigel took an audience of CAs through an engaging and interactive presentation on the importance of being able to understand and interpret different styles.

Nigel Risner

Knowing where you lie on the scale as an individual is also important. Having a clear idea of your strengths and weaknesses is essential for occasionally stepping outside your comfort zone.

Nigel makes the point that people are often too preoccupied with 'playing it safe' to recognise opportunity.

He said: "What would happen to you if you and your businesses occasionally took a risk?

"Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t ever think. But sometimes we spend too long in our left brain, not being as creative as we could be."

Where do you fit in?

Against the appropriate backdrop of Edinburgh Zoo's chimp enclosure, Nigel laid out the character traits of each animal personality.


Monkeys are enthusiastic and creative communicators. They can liven up any meeting or project with bright ideas and a great sense of humour.

They may be seen as unreliable as monkeys can be quite changeable and generally struggle with timekeeping.

Nigel said: "Monkeys go ‘yes’ to everything. Our biggest problem is long-term projects."

Edinburgh Zoo chimp


Lions are single-minded, to-the-point high achievers. They do well in leadership roles since they can make tough decisions and rigid deadlines with confidence.

Unfortunately, this attitude can have the effect of alienating colleagues as lions can come across as stubborn and dismissive of others.

According to Nigel: "Lions don’t really have what you would call ‘social finesse’. That’s not their job, their job is to get things done."


Elephants are precise and analytical workers. They always have a detailed schedule and can be counted upon to do their job with the utmost clarity and timeliness.

Their perfectionism can cause others to perceive elephants as too fussy or formal.

Nigel explained: "Elephants need a process, they need an agenda, they need a programme, they need data, they need proof."


Dolphins are personable and engaging collaborators. They are team players at their core and thrive in situations where building rapport is needed.

Sometimes they are thought of as over-emotional or too reliant on others.

He said: "Dolphins want for all of us to work together. They would like us to leave a legacy."

To get an idea of where you fit in, try the CA Today workplace personality quiz.

Books by Nigel Risner

Becoming an effective 'zookeeper'

"When you write to a prospective client, what language are you writing in? Yours or theirs?"

Nigel's key to success is learning how to communicate in each different style and applying that skill to everything you do.

He said: "The reason zoos work is because the zookeepers know how to interact with all the animals.

"You can’t praise all the animals the same way, you can’t discipline all the animals the same way. You have to embrace their language."

Once you have turned yourself into a regular Dr Dolittle, Nigel's advice is to ally yourself with the people who will help you make an impact and get rid of the ones who won't

He concluded: "You’ve got to be in the room, you’ve got to model yourself after the best, you’ve got to be passionate and you’ve got to surround yourself with passionate people."

Which animal do you think you are? Are you a zookeeper already? Tell us in the comments below.


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