Being Catalytic • Interviews with CEO’s, Directors and internal change agents

  • Are you in an organisation that wants big change in what you do and the way you do it to meet the needs of a changing world?
  • If you’re at the top, how can you spot, nurture and develop the catalysts who create, challenge, inspire, lead, deliver and innovate to make the vital change happen?
  • If you are a catalyst, what do you need to know to be more effective and succeed in delivering what you passionately believe in, without burning out or being ground down?

Our ‘Being Catalytic’ series features in-depth interviews with CEO’s, Directors and internal change agents to explore and answer these questions. You’ll love the insightful, honest, and sometimes challenging findings. 

The series begins with ‘The Grit in The Oyster’, featuring an interview with Ian Rogers, Director at Arup, an independent firm of designers, engineers, architects, planners, consultants and specialists working across every aspect of today’s built environment.

The Grit in The Oyster • Part One of the ‘Being Catalytic’ series

The Grit in The Oyster • Part One of the ‘Being Catalytic’ series

Ian Rogers is a Director at Arup, an independent firm of designers, engineers, architects, planners, consultants and specialists working across every aspect of today’s built environment. From 2009 to 2018, he was an officer to the UK Middle East and Africa board, becoming the region’s Sustainability Director in 2012. Since 2013 he has led the firm’s global venturing initiatives developing ideas for products (physical and digital), and new businesses (equity ventures). He is currently Head of Intellectual Property and Technology Law.

There’s no doubt that Ian is a true catalyst – initiating and accelerating change. When I ask about examples of change that he’s proud of, his answer ranges across geothermal sourcing of electricity for the firm, a scheme for high efficiency cooking stoves in Africa and developing new business models.

But what becomes clear very quickly is that it’s not simply about the change that’s catalysed. It’s about the human elements.

Understanding The Catalysts

“You’ve got to be the grit in the oyster,” Ian explains. “And be inventive with the internal workings too. Organisational systems everywhere tend to be designed more for consistency, safety and conformity rather than radical change.”

In catalysing change, Ian describes how you will have “discouraging voices, and those who are agnostic, and those who are broadly supportive but not in an active way, as well as a hard core of supporters.” As an example, he describes where a catalyst, at senior level, was investing £100k/month on a speculative project concerning electric vehicle infrastructure. It didn’t make him popular. And he couldn’t guarantee any exit date. But after £1M invested, the venture was sold for £25M. The business had a 30% stake. They weathered the storm and came up with a result.

This grittiness, stubbornness and self-belief with the bigger picture in mind requires catalysts to have a range of qualities. Ian names them as including:

  1. Being able to be extravert when needed (“Because a lot of it is about influencing and enthusing people.”)
  2. Resilience, being prepared to be ‘shot down’ and get up again and have another go, and to keep going with it despite the setbacks
  3. Not being cowed when people ask, ‘Why are you wasting your time with that stuff?’
  4. Believing in a different future
  5. Not simply criticising, but coming up with solutions
  6. Knowing where internal rules have some flexibility, and when you are overstepping a mark and will fail to carry the Board

Ian describes how non-conformists drove the industrial revolution. For reasons such as religion they were excluded from universities and the usual structures of society. “So they came at problems from a completely different way. They were dissatisfied with the status quo. And their brains were not wired to address issues incrementally. They looked at things in a radical way.”

Ian recognises how that’s reflected in his own catalytic work, and the world of other catalysts. And also the shadow: “It can drive other people crazy!”

Which means needing the support and empathy of others. Including:

The role for Leaders at the top:

The importance of someone at the top, understanding and encouraging, is clear. For Ian, a particular Group Board member played a key role. This support can take the form of steering what happens in the meetings, and wise words outside of them.

Ian also describes how Ove Arup, the firm’s founder was ‘the ultimate catalyst’. So for Arup it’s in the DNA of the business. Nevertheless, keeping that empathy for the people who do things very differently is constantly under challenge; the business experiences increasing numbers of rules and needs for compliance. But “as long as people can demonstrate that they are really adding value to the firm by doing the ‘not fitting in stuff’, then we are in good shape.” Key to this is “a strong set of values, that are written and regularly explored.” So top leaders need to keep nurturing the ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’, the values and beliefs and how these are made real in the everyday actions of the business, as well as the catalysts themselves, if they want big change to happen.

The importance of Non-Exec Directors:

Ian also stresses the times when outsider’s perspectives and support is vital. “If you’ve got NEDs from other industries, who have been through massive transformation, they can see how thinking about new business models and ideas is essential.” They can have insight where the business has blind-spots. They can be great supporters of the catalyst that’s talking about something different.

The tolerance of local leadership and managers:

In some places the catalysts who bring the change a business needs can be seen as trouble-makers. “You need local leaders who can tolerate or quietly encourage people who go against the grain.”

The complementary energies of the Pragmatists and Doers:

Ian’s background and respect for engineers has carried into his recent work. He cites an example about sharing know-how on recycling and renewable energy. “If you get two engineers from competitor organisations in the room, they will see the bigger picture, and know how important the issue is, and work together to develop solutions. They are usually straightforward people. They are not political people.”

And a final word to catalysts from Ian? “Find the right organisation to be in. If you’re not getting anywhere where you are, ship out to where you can.”


Coming in July

It Takes Two: The importance of the catalyst – top team member relationship, with 10 top tips for both.

An interview with Matt Sexton – Chief Strategy Officer at Futerra, the global sustainability change agency devoted to Imagining Better and Making it Happen.