Matt Sexton is Chief Strategy Officer at Futerra, the global sustainability change agency devoted to Imagining Better and Making it Happen. Prior to Futerra he was Director of Sustainability for B&Q and a member of the senior leadership team that developed the ground-breaking Kingfisher Net Positive Strategy.
Several things strike you immediately with Matt; his energy, his clarity and his experience.
As we start talking about catalysts his response is immediate: “These people are pretty brave. It’s much easier not to stick your head over the parapet. It’s much easier to be an active implementer of the mainstream rather than sticking your oar in and coming up with something new.”
This being disruptive was a realisation from his own working experience. He explains, “What really struck me was that in 20 years before getting into sustainability I was only ever arguing about the ‘How?’ Nobody ever questioned that basically we just wanted to sell more stuff, more efficiently, whilst making bigger margins. When you get into sustainability you get right into the ‘Why?’ before you talk about ‘How?’. It’s a very different space.”
That ‘being brave’ is not about imaginary fears. “If you look at Sustainability Managers, the more adventurous ones have a higher casualty rate,” Matt observes.
So, organisations recognise they need to change, they need people to spark and drive change, but it carries risks for those who can bring the new disruptive elements that the organisation really needs. What needs to happen?
In the unfolding conversation, it becomes clear that the relationship between the catalyst(s) and someone at the top is vital. “They always have some form of path to the CEO,” Matt explains.
In creating that relationship, I ask if catalysts tend to be seen by the organisation, or do they make themselves known? In Matt’s experience “They make themselves known.”
However, this isn’t just about pushing. “CEO’s are required to talk about this sort of stuff, so they go to the person who knows something about it,” he describes.
Matt adds “We are living in an era of change that is far more profound than most people realise.” But good leaders get it. “They use their catalysts to raise ideas and topics that have the potential to make the business far more successful in the mid to long term.”
So what are the lessons and tips for the catalysts, and the people at the top? Here are a few gems from this conversation:
Top tips if you are a Catalyst:
- Remember that you job is to ‘Blow on the embers of the nascent idea, and turn it into something compelling and attractive’
- Have one foot 10 years out. And one foot 3 years out. And somehow find another one in the ‘now’ for the people you are talking to
- Be prepared to knock on the door, saying to yourself, “I don’t care
, I’m going to have a chat, I think there’s something in this.”
- Nurture your sense of being collaborative, purpose-driven and impatient
- Hone your skills in prioritising
- Strike the right balance between being seen as adventurous, far-sighted and interesting, whilst also being credible, trustworthy and stable
- Make sure your audience understands that you really understand the organisation, the business objectives, and the short-term imperatives. And that you’re not going to do anything to derail those. Then your credibility is far greater, and you have earned the right to talk about your exciting stuff. Walk in with something ‘too starry-eyed’ and you will lose your audience
- Understand the risks, barriers and constraints that people will face
- Learn how to mount your argument, with a single compelling idea which gets people’s attention. You can backfill the detail later
- Give people the context for them to succeed in. Don’t go in with all the answers even if you know them. The more you can do to excite people about the potential of your idea/subject to make a positive difference whilst allowing them to come up with the answers, the easier your life will be. You need to let them take the credit
Top tips if you are at the Top Table:
- Think about where things are going
- Be inviting to catalysts
- Do not be worried if initially they seem disconnected from the day-to-day business realities as you see them
- Give them space to breathe
- Be prepared to support and nurture them.
- Coach them appropriately – they can get burned
- Find the right way to keep them relevant for the top table conversation. Ensure they know what’s in the minds and hearts of the audience
- Using your knowledge and experience, help the catalysts to work out how they can excite, inspire and challenge people without losing them
- Give your catalysts air-time and face-space with colleagues to allow everyone to connect and conject
- Stand by them during the tough times
Image courtesy of Byron Stumman on Usplash.com