The Catalyst: A book review by Bob Morris

CatalystThe Catalyst: How You Can Become an Extraordinary Growth Leader 
Jeanne Liedtka, Robert Rosen, and Robert Wiltback
Crown Business (2009)

Note: I read this book when it was first published and recently re-read it. If anything, what it offers is even more vakuable than it was then.

How to grow leaders who will grow the organization 

Jeanne Liedtka, Robert Rosen, and Robert Wiltback completed a three-year study sponsored by the Batten Institute at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. They share what they learned in this volume. Their research focused on better understanding the role of operating managers in achieving organic growth. Eventually they assembled a pool of 255 candidates, then selected 25 to be interviewed in depth, later increased the number to more than 50, and by the time they concluded their study they had accumulated more than 3,000 pages of transcripts of their conversations with the managers. They also asked them to take several psychometric instruments, and interviewed their subordinates.

As Liedtka, Rosen, and Wiltback explain, “We wanted to know, first of all, if these leaders could be identified by a particular set of traits that would help C-suite executives identify and recruit them. Even more important, we wanted to know if the behaviors that these people exhibited could be learned by other managers…What we wanted to find out was whether their techniques and strategies could be [begin italics] taught [end italics] to other managers…What we learned exceeded our wildest dreams.” The title of their book was a word that they chose very carefully to describe their exemplary leaders. “Catalysts drive action. But there’s more. In science the term catalyst refers specifically to an agent that is required to activate a particular chemical reaction. In other words, chemical catalysts don’t just make things happen; they make things happen that wouldn’t, couldn’t happen at all without them. They accomplish this by reducing the barriers that would, under normal circumstances, prevent a reaction. That is exactly how the growth leaders – our corporate catalysts – overcome growth gridlock [i.e. an entrepreneurial initiative is neutralized by administrative skepticism] and the terror of the plug [i.e. an arbitrary, often unrealistic revenue target] in their organization.”

After first identifying the WHAT of leading extraordinary growth, the authors devote most of their attention throughout the book to explaining the HOW and WHY of it. There is minimal but sifficient provision of theory and hypothesis in their narrative. (However, the co-authors do offer some excellent advice about translating a sound business idea into a sound hypothesis on Pages 209-213.) Wisely, they focus on real managers in real-world situations, allowing their core concepts and insights to develop and emerge organically. Their material provides answers to questions such as these:

o Why do most growth initiatives fail?
o What are the “unnatural acts” that Catalysts commit?
o Which is the best “path” to producing growth?
o What is the “virtuous cycle” and why is it important?
o What are some of the myths about entrepreneurs and why are they wrong?
o How do Catalysts test their new business ideas?
o What are the seven formulas for reframing and how to apply them?
o Why are learning launches so important? How to achieve success with one?
o How to lead a high-performing growth team with “pragmatic idealism”?
o How do Catalysts use speed effectively to achieve high-growth?

These are but a few of the questions that Liedtka, Rosen, and Wiltback address. They even provide a Postscript, “Advice to the C-Suite on Growing Leaders.” Once again, the material is rock-solid and presented with uncommon clarity. Of special interest to me are a set of goals and “a kind of manifesto” of six strategies formulated by 45 senior managers in Westinghouse Electric’s Engineering Services (WES) division, now owned by Toshiba. The goals and strategies are best revealed in context, within a frame-of-reference, and can be found on pages 228-230. The importance of the WES example is that it suggests what almost any organization can do to help individual leaders to create top-line revenue growth. The WES example also suggests some “interesting directions for senior executives thinking about kick-starting the growth engine in their business.” Liedtka, Rosen, and Wiltback identify six initial steps to accomplish that worthy objective on pages 240-242.

In “the best of all possible worlds,” an organization will have Catalysts at all levels and in all areas of operation who achieve and then sustain extraordinary growth. Even in an ideal world, however, not everyone involved at any one time will be a Catalyst. Hence the importance of a workplace culture that attracts high-potential Catalysts and in which it then “grows” them, with Catalysts serving as mentors centrally involved in that developmental process. I really do believe that there are many such organizations now at various stages of an admittedly long and perilous journey to fulfill all of their potentialities. Will any reach that destination? Perhaps not but at least everyone involved will have achieved personal as well as well as organizational goals that would not otherwise be possible. Those thinking about “kick-starting the growth engine in their business” and are in need of guidance and encouragement would be well-advised to read this book and do so with appropriate care. The value of what Jeanne Liedtka, Robert Rosen, and Robert Wiltback offer is incalculable.

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