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Richard S. Hawkes


Navigating Organizational Growth, Part 2

Building high-performing teams: A shared transformational journey

Published: Thursday, June 2, 2022 - 12:03

All articles in this series:

In my work helping to build high-performing teams at a diverse range of organizations, I have found that there is nothing that bonds a team quite like being on an authentic transformational journey. It’s invigorating to experience a continuous improvement journey with others on the same team, and to feel the joy of camaraderie and shared aspiration.

Leading organizational growth as a transformational journey

There is a delicate dance of leadership that is required to steer a team’s transformational journey. At this juncture, a leader needs to plant a stake in the potential future—what I call the “ideal future state”—a shared vision for the upper reaches of the team’s potential. This is not a static point in time; the future is open, flexible, and fluid. This may sound paradoxical. But the open-ended, unformed nature of that ideal future state doesn’t in any way prevent you from bearing witness to its potential and actively calling it into being through everything you’re doing in the present.

The leader’s job, therefore, is not to “know” that future in a literal sense. Rather, it is to help it evolve and emerge, and to help others on the team to see its potential even as they work to bring it into being.

This is true both of a leader of the organization and of the high-performing team. Leaders, in a sense, need to co-create this vision with those around them. This is very different from providing the answers or even simply giving direction. It is more about making sure that the team is collectively committed to an authentic journey of growth to reach for higher potentials. A leader who can engage the group in that conversation has the raw materials for a truly high-performing team.

I agree with Otto Scharmer at MIT, whose work calls on leaders to put aside the structures of the past and to “sense” and “presence” what the emerging future holds. This inevitably involves passing through a period of not knowing, or emptying one’s mind (as well as the collective mind of the team culture) of its preconceptions and hidden assumptions. Only then can you truly embark on a journey of authentic transformation whose future is not largely determined by its past.

This may be anathema to some leaders who feel responsible for having most of the answers, but there is a great power in not knowing, in not having all the answers, which is quite different from the usual authority we reserve for those who seem to know exactly what to do all the time. It’s only when a leader is to some degree able to embrace this vulnerability, this uncomfortable absence of certainty, that they will paradoxically discover the ability to understand the meaning of a transformational journey. It starts with clearing away some of the accumulated debris of the past. Indeed, the first rule of any transformational journey is not to tether the future to the ballast of the past.

When you authentically recognize that you don’t know how things will unfold, and short-circuit the pretense that you do, you can begin to envision a future that is genuinely new. Not only that, but you can also actually co-create it with others. It’s the space from which to envision the conditions of an “ideal future state” in which the team (or organization) is fulfilling a new, higher potential. That vision doesn’t have to be perfect or exact or detailed. It will never be. Reality will always surprise, hopefully on the upside. But the point is that a leader’s job is to plant a stake in that possibility, and to inspire the team to continually co-create, discover, and enact it.

Adapted from Navigate the Swirl (Wiley, 2022) by Richard Hawkes, CEO of Growth River.


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.