The concept of activation energy is something I learned in high school chemistry. It’s the idea that there’s a certain amount of energy needed for chemical reactions to go forward. There are some reactions that require no activation energy – they happen easily. There are other reactions that require heat (i.e., energy) or a catalyst to happen. A catalyst is a substance that enables a reaction to proceed, at a faster rate or under a lower temperature.

I have been thinking about activation energy because I wondered why some people seem to have an ‘easy’ career while others grind it out and never make it (to the top, become an executive, etc.). The idea of activation energy helped me think through why this is the case, looking at case studies and my career.

At the beginning of your career, your ‘activation energy’ is key

When I started out, I graduated university thinking I had the skills and knowledge to do my job well. But university did not prepare me for my work. Even on my first day at work, I was thinking about how to get ahead. Sometimes you have to play the game in the company. Sometimes you have to ‘compete’ against others who are vying for the few positions you are also vying for. Most of the time, you have to do good work and promote yourself.

If you think about a chemical reaction, one part of it is me, the other part is the higher rung on the ladder. But to make the ‘reaction’ happen, you need activation energy. In other words, that activation energy is:

  • Good work – When I joined Deloitte, I was told to “do good work”. You don’t know what you are interested in. You might know what skills you can bring. But there are so many things you could do that you don’t want to limit yourself to a few things. The best advice then is to do excellent work no matter what you do.
  • Initiative – Likely one of the most critical parts of making things happen is initiative. Seth Godin’s Poke the Box describes this power as incredibly important, likely the most important part of making things happen. Good things happen when you are the person starting and making things happen. People see you differently. You start to become the ‘go to’ person to get things done. There’s certainly value in great thinkers or leaders. But if you aren’t making things happen, your career will go nowhere fast.
  • Self-promotion – You do good work and you are the first person to raise their hand for new projects. That’s not all you need to get ahead. There’s some promotion needed to help others at your company recognize you and the value you bring to the company. No awareness of you and your work means others who are better at promoting themselves get ahead. Even if you created more value.
  • Finding allies – One way to help with self-promotion? Finding allies within the company. These can be executives, directors, project sponsors or business leads that you have worked with. You do good work for them. You take the initiative to help them achieve their objectives. By aligning yourself with people who know you and the value you bring, they will ask for your continued efforts on their projects OR will talk you up to their peers.

These things are things you have control over. They don’t rely on luck or sucking up to people in your organization.

As you rise up in the company, it’s important to find catalysts

Your ‘activation energy’ is always going to be important no matter your level in the company. As you get into a higher role though, you compete with others who have done similar things in their career. They also have done good work, taken the initiative, promoted themselves, and found allies. That’s where the ‘catalyst’ comes in. It’s that special thing, outside of your circle of influence, that can help speed your way up in the company. In my experience, the catalyst can be the following:

  • Your network – Although important to cultivate relationships at your company (i.e., finding allies), it is equally as important to cultivate relationships with others outside of your company. I can’t say I have a great network, but through working at different companies, participating in Toastmasters and sports clubs, I have a wide variety of individuals I can tap into. Of course, there’s a certain amount of time and energy you need to put into building and maintaining your network, but it can be invaluable to advancing your career.
  • Certifications / higher degrees – Spending 10 – 20 years at a company may be a way to become an executive at a company, but one way to accelerate that (i.e., a catalyst) is to get certifications like a PMP, a CPA, etc. or higher degrees such as an MBA or PHD. You can debate the merit of working a couple more years vs. taking a few years off to go to school, but what I see the certifications and degrees doing for you is giving you flexibility. Sure you can work a few more years, earning money during that time and gaining more experience, but any time a job posting requires specific certifications or degrees, you just aren’t able to get your foot in the door.
  • A mentor (or two) – If you’ve been finding allies at work, that’s fantastic. Even better if you have been cultivating relationships outside of work. It means you have a wide variety of presumably successful individuals you can learn from. Out of these individuals, you feel you have a good connection with. And then out of those you feel you get along well with, you can determine whether a mentor / mentee relationship is good for you.
  • Your portfolio/body of work – I’m starting to see more the importance of creating a body of work for yourself. Whether it’s videos you have filmed and edited, podcasts, articles, or other assets, all these items let people know that: you’ve done excellent work, you have expertise in a specific field or topic, promote the value you bring without you having to do anything, and allow people both inside and outside your network to find you.

Summary

I have thought about my career and other successful individuals through the perspective of activation energy, chemical reactions, and catalysts. In the reaction (i.e., how you can become more successful in your work), you can focus on your activation energy (i.e., what you can do), or on catalysts (i.e., what you can leverage) to become more successful and accelerate your career. In short, it’s helpful to think about your career in different ways because it can help you uncover insights – for me, the insight came from realizing that there is a lot I can do myself (my activation energy), but that I need support to get to the next level (i.e., a catalyst).