Want to spur growth? Hire catalysts

Companies need catalysts: people who give the firm new dimension and competitiveness. Catalysts are market studiers, creative risk-takers, and legacy builders. Especially for professional services firms and any organization in the intellectual capital business, catalysts are vital change agents and innovators, as well as the glue that holds an organization together long term. You absolutely want them in your organization. And they are becoming more critical as professional services firms move from a traditional advisory-based approach to an outcomes-based approach.

Without catalysts, the best case for a company may simply be stasis due to lost opportunities. “The worst case,” says Michael Poulos, managing director, president, and head of client advisory services at Marsh Risk Consulting, “is that you become irrelevant over time, living in some sort of nostalgia for a golden era while the world passes you by.” Catalysts enable a company to reinvent itself and constantly evaluate its strategy and goals. Why? Because they have a unique perspective. Many firms make the mistake of using self-referential hiring: they hire people who went to similar schools, obtained similar degrees, and have worked in similar firms. But in our experience, pursuing hires that fall outside this familiarity—catalysts—leads to better results.

But here’s the rub: it’s hard to identify catalysts, and it’s even harder to hire and retain them. To position your firm to keep pace with recognized innovators—such as Amazon, Google, Netflix, and Tesla—you have to understand how to spot these difference-makers, give them what they’re looking for in a company, and, critically, keep them around for the long haul.

Finding catalysts

To find something, you have to first know what you’re looking for. When it comes to talent, this task can be tough because you never know exactly how someone is going to perform in your organization. Professional services firms are all seeking to attract the brightest, most creative minds. Keeping in mind that focus, drive, and passion are a given, a few exceptional traits are a sure sign that you’ve identified a catalyst.

  • Catalysts are intimately aware of the market, both in terms of strategy and personnel. They are excellent networkers and able to gauge and adapt to market shifts. They see patterns and constellations where others just see stars.
  • They have a plethora of ideas, and they aren’t afraid to try and fail. Catalysts understand that avoiding risk is sometimes the biggest risk of all, and they thrive on change and uncertainty.
  • Catalysts have a magnetism about them—people want to be around them. They have an elevating effect, encouraging people to learn, imitate, and transform. In short, catalysts have a presence that lasts.

Appealing to catalysts

All of these qualities, and especially their magnetism, can make hiring away catalysts from other companies terribly difficult. Beyond offering a competitive compensation, you must make a strong appeal to a catalyst’s values and interests.

  • Catalysts crave interesting, transformative opportunities and challenges. They need to see that your organization values improvement and will support and trust them in pursuing it.
  • Not only do they need interesting opportunities but also a great culture—one that they can shape, influence, and feel comfortable in. Since catalysts are in demand everywhere, they can be selective and are unlikely to lower their quality of life. When courting catalysts, emphasize how they would fit and the organization’s esprit de corps.

Retaining catalysts

In the right setting, catalysts can contribute for years and even decades. How do you create the foundation for that to happen? To retain a catalyst, you must:

  • Strike a balance between the company and the change agent, ensuring he or she meshes with the company. Not everyone can change direction and adapt as fluidly as catalysts can, and that can create tension. Organizations benefit from a fresh perspective, not a revolutionary one, so you must ensure the catalyst and your company complement each other.
  •  Create a culture of mutual respect within the organization. A catalyst won’t want to stay, and you won’t want them to stay, if they don’t or can’t respect the other talent in the organization. Setting the right tone starts at the top: executives who show respect for all talent will help to ensure that catalysts do the same.

For an organization that’s struggling or even merely standing still, a catalyst can make all the difference—a difference in the company’s short-term competitiveness as well as its long-term relevance. “Catalysts are more than just rainmakers or business leaders,” said Dave Kuhlman, partner at Axiom Consulting Partners. “They can change the trajectory of a firm.” Look for leaders that other employees want to be around and who are interested in creating their own legacy. With the right support, they can help transform your organization.

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