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Richard S. Hawkes


Navigating Organizational Growth, Part 1

Activating purpose: Step one in building high-performing teams

Published: Monday, May 2, 2022 - 12:02

All articles in this series:

Adapted from Navigate the Swirl by Richard Hawkes, CEO of Growth River

How many meetings have you been in that caused you to ask yourself, “Why am I here? What am I doing? What’s the purpose of this meeting? Are we accomplishing anything?” I call this “The Swirl.”

High activity, low focus. Intense motion, little direction. And it’s exactly what the experience of a high-performing team (HPT) should never be. Activating purpose is an antidote to precisely that kind of organizational drift. In an HPT, we know why we’re meeting, why we exist, what we’re seeking to accomplish, and how we are doing it. All of that begins with clarity around purpose and leadership.

Great teams are animated by purpose. It doesn’t have to be a world-changing purpose—some high-minded or altruistic ideal. It can be straightforward, simple, even functional. But HPTs have a clear raison d’être, and it’s important that the purpose is explicit and understood by everyone on the team. Perhaps it goes without saying, but that purpose is not freestanding; it should have a clear relationship to the larger organization.

In order to identify its purpose, a team should create a team charter. This written document clarifies the team’s purpose, leadership, outcomes, and in-team commitments—the everyday agreements that define how the team comes together to fulfill its purpose.

For example, is the team being clear and explicit about how it will meet—timing, style, method? Also, are the skill sets needed to fulfill the team’s purpose present on the team? Are the team’s members clear about the language being used around purpose, leadership, and alignment? These building blocks are part of a strong foundation. Understanding exactly where the team sits in the larger organizational matrix and identifying these elements is part of the process of clarifying the team purpose.


An HPT not only has a purpose; it also has clear leadership. The leader, or leaders, on the team are responsible for making sure that there is general “buy-in” to the team’s purpose. In other words, people are committed to being a part of the team’s journey. This is not about forcing anyone; it’s about requesting the free choice of authentic alignment. If people can’t align, they shouldn’t be on the team.

For team members, activating purpose is about understanding the team’s mission and making a choice to align with—and in so doing, accept—the team’s leadership mechanism. Whether members perfectly agree, they are fundamentally aligned with the team’s purpose and ready to move forward together. This may require the temporary suppression of personal opinions, preferences, or desires. Of course, HPTs are not little dictatorships; there will be opportunities for each team member to contribute with all of their energy and ideas. But that should happen in the context of healthy leadership and deference to the decision-making mechanism of the team.


Decision-making is an activity every team must undertake. A significant part of activating purpose is about the team’s capacity for making healthy decisions on its journey. In some types of teams, there is a naturally strong leader who takes over the decision-making functions independent of any clear, collective decision. This autocratic approach may get certain things done, but it also lacks important input from the team and can alienate other team members. Ultimately, it will prevent high performance and the type of buy-in and distributed accountability that makes an HPT stand out.

Higher performance, in teams and organizations, occurs only when individuals are expected and encouraged to exercise agency and choice. When people are allowed to simply comply without explicitly making the choice to align, sustaining higher performance is unlikely. If you don’t choose, you lose. And most important, the whole team loses. Authentic alignment always trumps rote compliance.

Alignment doesn’t mean enforced agreement. It can even include disagreement. But it does mean there is a shared commitment to moving forward on the same pathway as the team and the team leadership. A command-and-control leadership is ineffective for creating high performance because it fails to consider most people’s deep need to exercise their own agency and choice, and it fails to respect people’s need to pursue their own developmental journey.

In contrast, HPT members expect each other to actively engage in a journey of growth; explicitly “choose in” to the shared perspectives and ways of working that the team identifies as contributing to its forward momentum; and demonstrably align their actions and behaviors with the team’s trajectory of transformation.

For team leaders, respecting and expecting agency from team members is critical. Effective change leaders communicate authentically, engage meaningfully, and create compelling choices for people. People may buy in to their leadership, but not out of coercion or fear. Those leaders demonstrate empathy and trust; as a result, they evoke the same in others. This leadership style creates the conditions that enable people to “choose in,” align, and bring their creativity. Authentic buy-in by team members allows agency and independent thinking to thrive in the context of team alignment—and that is a sweet spot for a high-performing team.


About The Author

Richard S. Hawkes’s picture

Richard S. Hawkes

Richard S. Hawkes is the author of Navigate the Swirl: 7 Crucial Conversations for Business Transformation and founder of Growth River, an international consultancy that guides leaders and teams to create higher performance in businesses and organizations. Hawkes helps companies identify and resolve constraints to success. Clients include Edward Jones, GENEWIZ, Hitachi, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Mars. Hawkes received a B.A. in computer science and German literature from Hamilton College, and an MBA in marketing and organizational development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.