How to be a Catalyst and Other Transformative Stories

by Roben Allong, CEO, Lightbeam Communications, New York, New York, robena@lightbeamnyc.com
Annalie Killian is vice president, strategic partnerships at Sparks and Honey in New York City.

Over a bottle of champagne and a plate of New York style BBQ ribs, Annalie Killian, vice president, strategic partnerships at Sparks and Honey, a premier New York cultural consultancy and recognized innovator, sat down with Business Matters Feature Editor Roben Allong for an informative interview focused on driving strategic transformation.

In 2020, the increasingly loud buzz in the business world is around reinvention and innovation. How does one go about reinventing a company? A brand? Your research practice? Yourself? The quarantine that we were all forced to endure has led us to ask interesting questions of ourselves, our attitudes, our values, and our future outlook on what we’re going to do next given this new normal. COVID-19 has granted an unusual opportunity to reset. What should this new normal look like?

Everyone’s been in a holding pattern since the start of 2020. In order to leap into 2021, we need to seek “fire starters” who will help us catalyze or light fires that get us moving in the “right” direction. A fire starter can be considered the apex of the “catalyst spear.” It is the opportunity moment, person, and/or connection that when we recognize and optimize, can lead us to new thinking, processes, pathways, and ultimately successful transformation. In this interview, Annalie spills the tea, in her own words, with what I call AK Catalyst Tips: ways to spark catalyzation, how to recognize catalyst moments, and hone skills needed to become a fire starter, whether as part of a team or as an individual. She ends the interview by sharing her most rewarding catalyst experience; I guarantee you’ll want to read it.

AK Catalyst Tip: See the opportunity for change. Influence the conditions so others can be the change.

Roben: What does it mean to be a catalyst?

Annalie: I didn’t know what a catalyst was until I was much farther down the track in my career. But when I grasped what a catalyst does, I kind of intuitively knew, “Oh wow, I’ve been doing this all my life.”

Looking back, the first evidence of that behavior for me was in high school where I saw kids had little freedom of expression to try things they should be allowed to experiment with, rather than just following the orders of adults—often functional, and devoid of imagination and playfulness. This results in sameness, and lack of energy, excitement, and building future innovators. Over time, I remember thinking, “What if we tried something different? Could we get a different outcome as opposed to always repeating the same actions?” So, I would experiment and literally start little revolutions.

Let me give you an early example. In my high school years, I was elected as a cheerleader for our sports house team. This was during apartheid in South Africa, and we had a very conservative school run by card-carrying members of the Nationalist party. I was already a bit of a nonconformist and at that time, the band KISS was just popping up on the music scene. So, I suggested we channel KISS for our cheerleader outfits. The girls wore green satin sashes (the color of our sports team), pinned together with giant safety pins, and torn fishnet stockings with massive black platform boots, and the boys wore studded leather outfits. We all painted our faces with the distinctive black and white face makeup of KISS, which I’m sure you can picture. Our sports house loved that we were loud, edgy, and right on trend with the cultural zeitgeist of teenagers. We intuitively catalyzed the rebelliousness that all kids that age felt toward the conservative establishment. But our principal was furious. Even though we hadn’t broken a single rule, and were less scantily clad than other cheerleaders, KISS was equated with “the devil,” and that was what freaked him out the most. He ordered us off the field to go and don our little green school uniform skirts, which made an even more outrageous statement over the fishnet stockings and boots. Suffice to say, upon returning, we brought the house down; our team won the game hands down because the incident catalyzed the rage of the teenagers who got so fired up by the incident that we didn’t have to work hard as cheerleaders!

It was a moment of powerful realization of how reactants work in culture, and how to read the cultural zeitgeist and mobilize the sentiment of a crowd. The principal overexerted authority with a culturally unintelligent response to an innocuous act in the context of a school sport. The teenagers loved rock icons, no rules were broken, and there was no harm done to anyone—but his reaction fueled a massive pushback and a movement.

What I found interesting was the activation it created in other people. When people see somebody standing their ground in the face of excessive authoritarianism, it builds courage in others and creates a wake of safety that other people can move into. In the catalyst process, this is how corroborating evidence and community works.

AK Catalyst Tip: Look for the tension between status quo versus new potential.

Roben: How do you recognize a catalyst moment?

Annalie: These moments abound all around us. All moments for change are catalyst opportunities. The difference is in the approach you take—do you lead from the front with a defined and pre-determined plan to change people (our traditional approach to change), or do you lead invisibly from behind and enable people to change themselves?

AK Catalyst Tip: Observation, empathy, and patience are key.

Roben: What are the key skills needed to become a catalyst? Is there an attitude that you need to adopt, or can anybody do this?

Annalie: Well, I think there are many things that come together in a catalyst moment. I believe everybody has the innate capability to be a catalyst, but it’s something that you can become better at. At the heart of successful catalyst processes is an appreciation of systems. Catalyzing change requires many things:

  • empathy
  • careful listening
  • observing the interconnectedness of things
  • understanding the barriers that prevent people from making the changes they are capable of
  • creating space for personal choice, freedom of expression, and ownership
  • trust
  • patience

But the most important task is learning how to lower barriers and allowing others to step into the change themselves.

AK Catalyst Tip: Get buy-in, share the responsibility, and trust the process.

Roben: How can one be successful as a catalyst?

Annalie: So, how does diffusion of ideas carry through? You have to cultivate the early adopters and nurture a posse of collaborators. Often, they are not the mavericks. The catalytic process requires members of a community to engage and collaborate, to provide the evidence to the silent majority that it’s safe, that the change works, and that their fears are not a reason to maintain the status quo.

Here is an example of how to engineer change from a past life. When I wanted to get a radical idea moving across a risk-averse executive team, I’d say, “Okay, here are three options.” I knew one option would be a bridge too far for them, and they would never go for it. Then there would be an option that would be acceptable, but one they knew wouldn’t represent progress. Then there would be the option that I want them to choose. I’d set it up in such a way as to create some kind of scarcity, like a time-bound option, but give them the power to actively and consciously choose between the options—in a very public way—often with a lot of discussion. Let them decide and then trust the process. That’s an important thing, trusting the process.

Now that may seem simplistic for very big consequential things, but you can break down big change into a series of smaller steps. Catalysts ask, “What is the first step you can take, or what is a minimum viable change that starts the journey and allows people to leave the safety of the harbor? What are a series of small asks that can keep the change moving and build momentum? Think about creating stepping stones that they could be comfortable with, or an option they could choose out of a set of alternatives that builds evidence of progression. It’s a great way of getting buy-in.

Next, ask your group members to each take on a task or a role in terms of realizing the choice they just made, so that you don’t own the responsibility for making it all happen—they are all in it together; but where possible, let them choose. Each person should own a piece of the puzzle to make change happen. I also advocate that where possible, these commitments need to be made through a public process so peer pressure and personal brand can help maintain accountability.

AK Catalyst Tip: Change can come from anywhere, anytime. It’s about a willingness to lead and leap. 

Roben: Is there a difference between being a catalyst as an individual versus being one as part of a team?

Annalie: There was a fantastic slogan turned into a catchy jingle by a South African alcohol brand made from sugar cane, called Mainstay. The slogan became a meme in the culture for choosing to change. It went like this: “You can stay as you are for the rest of your life or you can change to Mainstay” (https://youtu.be/u1jh9uMy2eA). Essentially, it represented an invitation to change.

In the broader context, you can stay as you are for the rest of your life, or you can come to a moment of truth where you realize that if you don’t make this move now, this is what destiny looks like. I call it a catalytic moment.

Sometimes, for an individual, it’s called a midlife crisis. Some people realize this when they retire. They served “the man,” made the pension and Social Security money, paid for the family’s education, etc. So the barriers to making a big personal change are lowered when these extraneous factors come together. They realize, “Okay, the house is paid, the kids are educated, now I can take risk. Now I can go and follow my dream.”

I just think, “Why wait that long to live?” To be a catalyst means assessing risk and working with it rather than being paralyzed by fear. Fear makes us think about what we might lose. It doesn’t help us think about what we might gain. We err on the side of caution, rather than on the upside of what we might gain, when we believe doing nothing has no cost. Risk isn’t destiny; it is simply something that can be managed.

Many of the world’s textbooks are littered with case studies of how change happens in large organizations. Are they always led by the same team? Very seldom. Change can come from anywhere, anytime. It can come from a catalyst in the buying department who says, “You know what, we see the environmental footprint of our buying decisions; we’re going to change our supply chain.” They can lead a revolution in terms of sustainability that eventually changes an entire brand. It doesn’t have to come from the C-suite.

In other situations, it can start in the marketing department. It can be an insight such as, “Wow, we have all of this digital data about our customers’ preferences, but we’re not using it to design precision products at a personal level.” That could lead a revolution and start the digital transformation of a business.

It could be a smart CTO, it could be the chairman of the board, or it could be somebody in the rank and file. Catalysts are often driven by conviction and passion, and this makes them willing to stick their necks out, because they see a better future and a role for themselves in stepping into the gap to enlist others and make it happen.

AK Catalyst Tip: Step up and take the challenge.

Roben: What is your most rewarding experience as a catalyst?

Annalie: I don’t get to tell this story often. I’ve now worked in New York and in Australia. I’ve worked in China and in South Africa. By far, the single most amazing catalytic experience I was part of came about during South Africa’s transition from apartheid in preparation for the first democratic elections in 1994. I was living in the KwaZulu-Natal region which was a region fraught with civil war. The Zulu people were polarized between monarchists and traditionalists and those working in industries that had been unionized. The trade unions were progressive—literally the force behind South Africa’s liberation and ultimately, the end of apartheid, because of their economic power. So, KwaZulu-Natal was split in the middle politically and experiencing a lot of faction fighting. I worked in organizational development for BHP Billiton’s very large aluminum smelter with 6,000 people on-site, many of them involved in or caught up in these political faction fights after hours.

The first democratic election was coming up on April 27, 1994. It was a very, very difficult period leading up to this moment. It had taken years. Nelson Mandela had been in prison for twenty-seven years. He was released in the early ’90s, and it took a few more years for the first elections to be called. The independent electoral commission that was appointed to run this election had never run an election before. There wasn’t much due diligence and oversight over all of the processes. Six weeks out from the election, there was little to show by way of planning and infrastructure, or accounting for the resources provided to run the election in the Zululand region. The local Chamber of Commerce learned about this and was mortified because they knew if on April 27, 1994, there wasn’t an election happening in this highly-polarized region, it would have a domino effect on the legitimacy of the elections everywhere.

So, the business community gathered a meeting of the local elders and all the candidates—something like seventy-six candidates running in this election, most poorly educated around electoral processes, and understandably so as they had never voted! And somehow, I got nominated at the age of thirty-four and five months pregnant with my first child to lead the parade. I had never organized an election myself. So, really, all of us had on training wheels. It was very complicated to be able to navigate through all of that conflict and bring people on board in unity. It was a huge learning and leadership lesson in the hardest of moments.

I thought, “We have six weeks, we’ve got to produce an election, there’s no money left in the kitty.” But because many businesses in Zululand were in the export market, they couldn’t afford chaos and anarchy if the elections failed. So they agreed, “Okay, we will foot the bill.” We finally delivered an election, which we had to extend by two days because people queued for miles through the night to cast their first vote. South Africa had a free and fair election, and the first democratic parliament was elected. For the first time in my lily-white privileged life, throughout those six weeks, I was confronted with the raw hopes and dreams of people who had so many expectations of what could and should happen at the end of apartheid and the beginning of the dawn of a new era.

I’m not a religious person, but I remember the Bible story from the book of Daniel where a hand appears during Belshazzar’s feast and writes on the wall that his days are numbered. For me, in that situation, it was like I saw the writing on the wall. The days and ways of before were numbered, and I needed to be a catalyst—to be an instrument—for creating opportunities for people, so that their hopes and dreams could be realized. If not, there would be no peace in a post-apartheid South Africa. That became my catalytic moment and my mission for the next four years.

The business community had gotten fat, wealthy, and successful on the back of apartheid’s exploitation over many, many years. And whilst there was now a democratically-elected government, the new government had no hope of ever being able to deliver on all those hopes and dreams that I had witnessed. That’s when I had a really big insight, in terms of how to speak to the business community around what had to come next. What role they needed to play in giving back and enabling opportunities so people could help themselves now that they had the freedom and a constitution that enabled them.

AK Catalyst Tip: Understanding the environment and the levers you can control or influence is imperative for success. 

Roben: In your experience, what’s the most important part of the catalyst process?

Annalie: The election wasn’t the most catalytic event in my story. I had a functional role to make it happen, but it was just an event, and its outcome was certain and defined at the end. The catalytic event was that, being in that situation, it awakened me to what we needed to put in play for a peaceful transition after the election. It’s what happened afterwards that would determine whether or not the hopes and dreams of people were realized.

My purpose was born in that moment. You have a flash of insight, and then it grows within you and you start pursuing your hunch with urgency. Then things start falling into place, and the more you scratch, the more you start seeing opportunities. In that particular case, the problem was enormous. How do you fix the ills of apartheid? That was the catalytic challenge I had to figure out. “Okay, where do I start?” For me, it was assessing what part of the environment I could control and the levers that I could influence so people could own their own destiny. And so I started there. You can’t boil the ocean, but you can ask yourself what you can do that is immediately actionable.

In my case, I mobilized the relationships and trust I had built during the elections project with business leaders, community leaders, and the newly-elected political leaders, and led the establishment of South Africa’s first community college and first endowed community foundation. I persuaded my employer, BHP Billiton, to lend my services to establish and implement this vision as a second CEO into what became the Zululand Chamber of Business Foundation (ZCBF) and the ZCBF Community Park, which is still operating today.

We built a broad base of stakeholders consisting of executives from the large corporations operating in the region, influential leaders of NGOs, representatives of local and regional government, and community influencers.

We also worked with the movable middle. One of the critical successes was asking the large corporations to pool their corporate social responsibility teams, projects, and resources under the umbrella of the ZCBF. This immediately eliminated pointless duplication of initiatives—often for the sake of virtue-signaling—and allowed the ZCBF to secure matching grants from international donors for every dollar we could prove we raised. This created exponential lift for the ZCBF brand and influence, and accelerated the catalytic forces for job creation, education, opportunity-making, and real social impact. But that’s a whole story in itself for another day.

In conclusion, for me, catalyzing change isn’t about heroic leaders or just about responding to a crisis. It’s about creating thrivability amidst changing conditions and engaging the power and accountability of others in working within those conditions. No company, country, or individual can tackle systemic challenges and create lasting change alone. We need to work together.

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