By Frank J. Rich
The work of a manager is said to consist of planning, organizing, coordinating, and controlling. The role is usually that of the doer in organizations, leaving the vision and ideation to leaders. Clearly, good managers are also leaders, but the distinction applies, especially to the catalysts in organizations.
A catalyst is defined as a substance that increases the rate of chemical reaction without itself undergoing change, or somebody or something that makes a change happen (in someone or something) or brings about an event.
Among the most common chemical catalysts are enzymes, whose “activation” energy is responsible for causing change in a process or other chemicals and compounds by it—a kind of organic synthesis. As with humans, catalysts that increase the rate of reaction are called positive catalysts or, simply, catalysts, while those who decrease the rate of reaction are negative catalysts or inhibitors.
Consultants and coaches, for instance, are such catalysts, causing something to happen without change to them. Their positive “activation” energy causes catalysis, or the effect of making something happen that would not have happened without them. To be sure, catalysts in organizations have a way of getting involved just enough to spur others to achievement, to their credit, while remaining in the background.
They are influencers, but not authority figures, under most circumstances. Increasingly, consultants (as catalysts) are moving from the so-called doctor model to the partner model. The doctor model positions the client as suffering from a disease or ailment and needing expert advice to cure it. This approach has a number of failings, not least the tendency to make the client an expatriate in his own affairs. The partner plays the role of a friend, philosopher and guide. As such, he is more involved in the business and can act as a provocative thinking member of the client’s team and help avoid likely problems.
A good catalyst is always thinking about how to bring people and processes together to multiply their effect. They are the collectors and connectors of people, the “deal makers,” the “banners and buttons” types who see hidden gains in the obvious and whose desire is to help. When there is a catalyst present, things start to happen by the natural tendencies of the role. And, like most good managers, after gathering the necessary elements for a reaction to occur, the catalyst gets out of the way.
Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, in their book, The Starfish and the Spider, describe the catalyst as one of the keys to decentralization that is integral to any open system. In their preferential model, the starfish represents the quintessential open system, where decentralization of the key elements of organization act both to guarantee continuance and to provide necessary succession of those key elements. It is the reason that such social networks and websites as Facebook and Wikepedia can continue without hierarchy or the authority of anyone in command.
In their view, the absence of structure, leadership, and formal organization has given way to a model of decentralization that had lain dormant for millennia. Much like the starfish, the catalyst figures prominently as one of the five legs of organizations necessary to achieve decentralization.
To succeed, the catalyst must have tools. He may be the progenitor of good things, but he cannot lead the implementation. This must be accomplished by others, independent of formal leadership. That is, the catalyst causes a reaction, and workers must then exercise their self-leadership to make the changes necessary to achievement.
The Catalyst’s Tools
Genuine interest and investment in people and things—To the catalyst, all information is lined with opportunity. In it, and the people who carry it, are nuggets that have been hidden in plain view, things that most just do not see. When we are genuinely interested and invested in others, the information they have starts to flow. A catalyst combines it with information he has gathered from others to form an idea that brings people and ideas together for productive gain. But we must see real value in others and meet them where they are. It’s never about the catalyst.
Cataloging of people and experiences—When was the last time you looked for a felt pad to deaden the sound of a door closing? You knew you put it somewhere, but where? Catalysts depend on their ability to collect people and experiences and map their contributions to form opportunities for all. They move easily along these interconnected highways, creating new connections and forming fresh opportunities with them.
A sincere desire to help—What is the first question to ask another at a networking meeting? “How can I help you?” We are social creatures, quick to form with others who demonstrate sincere interest in us, in our abilities, in joining to make something happen. Things happen on byways—two-way streets. We participate because we benefit from membership in something. It’s what Maslow called “belonging,” the third level on his hierarchy of needs.
Emotional connections first—Most catalysts are clever people, but they tend to lead with emotions; it’s what forms real bonds between people. It’s also what helps form decentralized organizations, that sense of belonging to something larger than the individuals tending it. A shepherd loves his flock, and they are devoted to him—but is a servant above all.
Trust and tolerance for the unknown—Things happen best when from any direction. A basketball team depends most for its success on different members stepping up at various times in a game or season. The team is often led by surprising contributions. Not knowing something is better than knowing everything. In the latter there is no opportunity for growth.
Getting out of the way—After putting the key pieces of a venture together, the catalyst steps aside and ultimately leaves.