MP recently spoke with Richard Hawkes, author of “Navigate the Swirl, 7 Crucial Conversations for Business Transformation,” published by Wiley.

Where do leaders typically go wrong when clarifying team purpose, and how can these mistakes be avoided?

I’d like to point out that the purpose is a team’s North Star. It inspires people to align with leadership and team decisions so that everyone together acts as a unified force. It accelerates a team’s recovery from setbacks. It increases engagement, pride, trust, and loyalty. It creates a context for smart goals, surfacing and clarifying strategic tradeoffs. It improves hiring and retention. It enables new members to onboard quicker. And it enables stakeholders of all kinds to align as authentic brand promoters.

The biggest mistake leaders make is thinking they can simply tell their team members to be inspired by a shared purpose. It doesn’t work that way. People must choose. Millennials and Gen Z are today’s most purpose-driven and leadership-aware demographics. And when they are told what to do, without choice or context, they tend to feel distrustful and demotivated. The daily grind especially takes its toll on them when relationships are transactional and the focus is short-term.

So, to meet the challenge of planning and leading high-performance team journeys – which cannot happen without having a shared purpose – leaders must become skilled at structuring and aligning the right choice points in the right sequence. High-performing teams are built by design. They don’t happen by accident.

I present a roadmap for high-performance team journeys in “Navigate the Swirl.” The roadmap structures choice points around seven leader-led conversations, including:

1. Activating Purpose

2. Driving Focus

3. Shifting Mindset

4. Specifying Capabilities & Roles

5. Streamlining Interdependencies

6. Aligning Strategies

7. Implementing Initiatives

Unsurprisingly, organizations on high-performance team journeys outperform traditional functional ones in almost every way. They focus more on customer value, innovation, scalability, and profitability. They navigate and manage greater complexity with greater decisiveness and speed. They function well in the distributed virtual work environments that are becoming common. And they create greater employee satisfaction and loyalty, especially with purpose-driven millennials and Gen Z’s. As a result, I believe that purpose-driven organizations are one of humanity’s best bets for solving our biggest, most complicated, and nuanced challenges.

What is a team charter, and why is it important to have one?

A team charter is a written document that defines the team’s purpose, leadership, outcomes, and in-team commitments. These everyday agreements define how the team comes together to fulfill its purpose. It is important because it formalizes a team’s purpose so people can choose and align.

By activating purpose, people can create a team charter. They need to ask themselves questions like: Does the team serve the clear needs of stakeholders and customers? Has the team’s operational purpose been aligned with the purposes of other teams, the business, and the organization?

Richard Hawkes
Photo courtesy of Richard Hawkes

How can leaders visualize the performance journey of the team, set priorities, and energize team members? 

Leaders can visualize the performance journey, set priorities, and energize team members using the Driving Focus conversation mentioned above. Using this conversation, leaders and their teams ask themselves questions like: Are team members aligned around a shared transformational journey, including:

1. A vision for an ideal future

2. Urgent need for change

 3. Today to tomorrow priorities

4. Breakthroughs to the future

And as a result, are they effective at balancing, communicating, and leading priorities around short-term team deliverables — within the constraints of how things currently work — with priorities around future breakthroughs — disruptive changes that create uncertainty and require learning both within and beyond the team?

What best ways can leaders build trust with their team members and others within the organization? 

Every day, difficult issues will arise that trigger team members against each other and easily lead to mistrust. Being coachable and giving and receiving feedback is how that trust is repaired in teams. The shifting mindset conversation encourages teams to ask themselves: Does our team feel like a leader-led accountable team, in which team members are in it together, as a unified force, and have each other’s backs, giving and receiving direct and transparent feedback? It is less about what a team does or will do and more about who they are.

Identifying clear roles and capabilities is often very difficult in startups. Leaders source talent with the ability and willingness to wear multiple hats while they bootstrap the company’s initial success. How can leaders identify such roles and capacities in startups with limited resources?

The Specifying Capabilities & Roles Conversation asks questions: Are all key capabilities and roles represented in the team by accountable owners? Is the team effectively leveraging natural creative tensions between roles as innovation and leadership development sources? A word of caution here, when teams specify roles, they are also inevitably distributing power, and you may have noticed that people tend to be reactive about that. So, the first three upstream conversations, Activating Purpose, Driving Focus, and Shifting Mindset must be sufficiently driven to resolution before engaging in this one. When your team gets stuck, return to the first three conversations.

Sometimes, especially in smaller organizations, team members must play multiple roles. A great trick for making this work is to declare the hat you’re wearing. For example: “From my role as a business leader, I think this isn’t a good strategic direction for us.” “As head of sales, I propose we discount that product to move inventory.” “From my role as VP of finance, I’m concerned that we don’t have the budget for that project.” This encourages others to respond from the perspective of their roles rather than from their reactions. And it enables smaller organizations to emulate the expertise of bigger ones.

What if this initial identification is incorrect? 

Hiring opportunities or decisions are rarely perfect. Nevertheless, high-performing teams are essential because they create a powerful context for developing people. So, if this initial identification is incorrect, address it as part of the high-performance team journey through the Crucial Conversations One, Two, and Three.

How can leaders create alignment, not necessarily agreement, to implement new strategies? 

Members must seek alignment but not necessarily agreement. If a team operates on seeking agreement, major decisions will require a consensus. This means getting everyone to agree through persuading, convincing, alliances, or voting. In response, team members seek to satisfy their individual needs and want before they can endorse the decision. Decision-making inevitably bogs down.

On the other hand, seeking alignment relies on team members’ commitments to the shared purpose and having an effective, agreed-upon leadership mechanism. Alignment includes negotiating critical needs for team members but doesn’t necessarily accommodate individual wants. The negotiation is focused on reaching a decision that will lead the entire team toward higher performance and business towards competitive advantage. And decision-making is less likely to bog down.

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