Richard Hawkes Of Growth River: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Sara Connell

Sara Connell
Authority Magazine


Pay attention to Leadership Impact. A leader’s focus and mindset can be contagious to their team or organization. All outcomes in teams and companies happen in context of relationships. So, team leaders and members should focus on being self-aware and accountable for the impact of their leadership styles.

As part of my series about “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard S. Hawkes.

Richard S. Hawkes, author of NAVIGATE THE SWIRL, is the 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. He sees purpose-driven, customer-focused, team-based, multi-stakeholder businesses as the best bet for solving the world’s biggest problems. Hawkes received a B.A. in Computer Science and German Literature from Hamilton College and an M.B.A. in Marketing and Organizational Development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For more information, visit:

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

For almost three decades, I have worked as an advisor and guide to plan and implement transformational journeys with hundreds of business teams. Along the way, I have tested and refined ways of working that support change-savvy, purpose-driven, team-based companies. Recently, I wrote a book called ‘Navigating the Swirl: 7 Crucial Conversations for Business Transformation.’

I can trace the starting point of becoming a business advisor to a class assignment in business school in 1993. I was asked to write a business plan for a “dirt cleansing company.” The company’s purpose was to clean-up toxic oil spills from leaking underground storage tanks, aka, LUSTS, by burning dirt in portable ovens. My services were offered through a program in partnership with the Small Business Administration (SBA). It was my first “official consulting assignment.”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that? I was so excited during my “first official consulting assignment” to be working with a senior leadership team that I wrote a 150-plus page business plan that completely overwhelmed the client. They were environmental scientists who simply wanted to save the planet by burning dirt. My business lingo left them speechless. However, my professors, who admittedly were business enthusiasts like me, loved it and I won an award for that year’s best business plan. I’m still an ardent business enthusiast, but thankfully today I have the training and experience to better channel my passion and create more effective client experiences.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Around 2002, three colleagues banded together and recommended that I enroll in an intensive leadership development program. I am especially grateful to them. That program woke me up to people-centered leadership and to the following insights. People will do what they choose, despite what they are told. Teams and companies are not machines to fix, instead they are social systems that need to be led. These systems adapt at the speed of conversations versus communications. And the secret to unleashing performance in teams and companies is driving the right conversations to closure in the right order, which became the basis for the book that I recently authored.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Our company’s vision is “unleashing leaders, teams and businesses to create positive impact for themselves and the world.” In the early days of our consulting company, we wanted to build our organization, but we had insufficient capital to leverage. What we did have was the ability to make commitments to each other in the context of our vision. A colleague dreamed of working with the business team of a global not-for-profit that he deeply admired, so we banded together and made that happen. The outcome was a trip to Cambodia and a breakthrough experience for our company that attracted new team members. In my experience, visions in teams and business become activated when they deliver on the personal visions of team members. This acts as a catalyst for a chain reaction that unleashes phenomenal engagement and positive energy.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

In the name of business growth, I once sold a big complex project and presented it as a done deal, without getting input first from our team. My actions were disrespectful, and my colleagues were right to be upset. The market uncertainty that our business faced at the time was insignificant compared to the uncertainty that I created for our organization through my actions. Although my team was in it together, they clearly communicated that they were less in it with me because of my actions. That was difficult for me to hear. Thankfully, they gave me grace and opportunity to rebuild trust. Leading teams through uncertain or difficult times, requires being accountable for your leadership and being in it as a team member for real.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Naturally, when times have been tough and I have felt upset, I have thought “what if I were to give up and maybe do something else?” However, my team is like family, and my personal purpose is deeply intertwined with our business vision, so giving up on those things would essentially be giving up on myself. What sustains my drive, is my commitment to my team and the chance to realize the vision that I have for myself through our business.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

I believe that the most critical role of a leader during challenging time is to work with their team and organization to identify, develop and sustain those ways of working that enable people to lead and manage change together for positive impact. My book includes a detailed roadmap of the kinds of ways of working that I’m thinking about.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?

My experience has been that a leader’s ways of being are contagious to their team. A panicky leader will create a panicky team. Conversely, an intentional accountable communicative confident leader will develop a team that is able to navigate uncertainty and have fun. So, the best way to create and sustain positive morale in your team is to pay attention to your leadership impact.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

All outcomes in teams and businesses happen in the context of leadership and relationships. Tough messages can be opportunities to demonstrate leadership and strengthen those relationships. Words matter because they create context for action. More specifically, how you frame the challenge or problem at hand will set expectations, define the solution set, and create the “possibility space.” In short, the right setup is the key.

So I think about communicating difficult news as two steps. First, carefully choose the right words to craft your challenge statement. Second, and this part is very important, create the time and space for a thoughtful response. Here is an example of a bad challenge statement because it sets the stage for failure — “we just lost our biggest customer and now we will probably need to cut costs — so much for my bonus.” In contrast, here is a better statement because it creates the space for a thoughtful and positive response — “we just lost our biggest customer and now I believe we need to think about a positive path forward, how we will need to lead, and what questions we will need to ask.”

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

The trick, in the face of an unpredictable future, is to plan (and replan) around event horizons, which are points in time beyond which you cannot yet know what’s coming. Examples include, becoming a parent for the first time, getting a new boss, implementing a major new process.

Nothing can bond a team quite like intentionally navigating the uncertainty together from event horizon to event horizon on an unfolding transformational journey. So it is important to understand what event horizons are and how they work so that your team can construct its transformational journey plans around frameworks of event horizons. Before an event horizon, there are two sources of uncertainty, what to do before and what could happen after. During this period, the leadership challenge is calibrating how much energy to invest in speculation. After an event horizon, the source of uncertainty shifts. It becomes how to make sense of and adapt to the new context. The leadership challenge becomes calibrating how much energy to investment in analyzing, designing, and aligning new capabilities and ways of working.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

For me, the “number on principle” is that a team, business, or company can never sustain performance higher than that of its leadership. This principle is known as the Law of the Lid, which is a phrase coined by the thought leader and motivational speaker John Maxwell. I like the Law of the Lid because it provides a sobering reference point for leaders and a reminder that leadership cannot be haphazard or accidental or half-hearted. Nor can it be overbearing or an excuse for the random exercise of power. In my work guiding teams on transformational journeys, I often begin with the law of the lid as a cornerstone way of working because it is a great way to set a context for a culture of accountability and trust.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Mistake one is “placing too much emphasis on just getting things done.” “Just get it done” implies prioritizing activity over value. It is a symptom for a lack of shared vision or purpose. When teams face complex problems, ones that require deeper discussions and alignment to solve, a “just get it done” mindset can get in the way.

Mistake two is “focusing too much on Directive Leadership.” Directive Leadership is when a single leadership team leads an organization with the goal of nailing and scaling one business model. Functional capabilities are organized to support this business model.

Organizing in this way is usually a very positive step forward in the evolution of a business, especially for startup businesses. Performance can increase greatly as leaders make decisions around topics including incentives, compensation, strategic priorities, and who plays what role. However, once a company has an established business model, there are many situations in which directive leadership starts to become dysfunctional as an organizing structure. Directive leadership doesn’t have to mean that executives make all key decisions, but it is often interpreted that way.

Mistake three is “prioritizing financial returns or operational scalability above market potential.” To understand why this is a mistake, please take look at the following list. It includes Four Metrics for Competitive Advantage. Pay particular attention to the sequence: (1) Market Potential, (2) Operational Scalability, (3) Business Model Sustainability, and (4) Financial Returns. In this sequence, market potential comes first and financial returns are last. Now here is the key point: if a team prioritizes these in a different order, for example if they put Financial Returns first, the inevitable result is for business growth to stop. This specific sequence is a path to performance, while any other sequence will be a path to stagnation.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

In my experience, the most common reason for instability or underperformance in a business is that the members of a business team have yet to develop a shared way to visualize how their business should operate. Sometimes in workshops, I ask people to jot down their best definition of a business. It is revealing. People’s answers tend to be strongly influenced by the roles they play. A marketing person might say “a business is a system for winning in the marketplace.” Whereas an operations person might say “a business is configuration of resources for delivering quality products.” People naturally tend to focus on the deliverables, metrics, and priorities, that are their responsibilities. However, too often they don’t have a clear picture of the relationships between different aspects of the business and how they all should fit together. In high-performing teams, there is a cornerstone principle and way of working known as ‘visualizing shared work.’

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

One: Pay attention to Leadership Impact. A leader’s focus and mindset can be contagious to their team or organization. All outcomes in teams and companies happen in context of relationships. So, team leaders and members should focus on being self-aware and accountable for the impact of their leadership styles.

In Navigate the Swirl, I recommend that leaders apply the following questions to explore this principle: What is your personal purpose? How strongly does that purpose frame your focus and mindset? How self-aware are you personally around the ways in which your focus and mindset drive your actions? How do those actions enhance or limit your relationships with other people? How do those relationships enhance or limit the outcomes that you are to sustain (or not)?

Two: Alignment Is Required, Agreement Is Optional. Navigating turbulence requires team members to align as a unified force, even when individually they don’t necessarily agree and might have done something different on their own. To create that kind of alignment, leaders must become skilled at breaking complex issues down to the key choice points and breakthrough experiences.

In Navigate the Swirl, I recommend that leaders apply the following questions to explore this principle for your team: Has the expectation been set that team members will choose to align as a unified force, even when they might not agree? Has the expectation been set that all team members will engage to resolve conflicts at the source, across functional or hierarchical lines as required? Has the team leader (or some other leadership mechanism) been given final call authority in situations where team members are unable to resolve conflicts at that source? Have key decisions been driven to resolution, with the expectation that team members will actively engage to align those decisions in their areas of responsibility?

Three: Lead Through Narratives. In times of turbulent change, it can be easy for team members to lose the plot. So, leaders and team members should draft and refine narratives to clarify logic, test thinking, and drive alignment.

In Navigate the Swirl, I recommend applying the following questions to draft a change narrative for your team and to explore this principle. What statement captures the core challenge or vision that you want your team to focus on solving? Why is it important and urgent? What solution path do you suggest?

Four: Versioning. Modern organizations and companies are like big spider webs, where each strand is connected to countless others. That’s why team members should iteratively prototype, test, and validate in a way that is consistent with agile principles.

You can apply the following questions to find the solution path: What strategic decisions will we implement? What capability gaps will we need close this year to implement those strategic decisions? What changes will we make to our system of roles this year to close those capability gaps?

Five: Write a Team Charter. To be effective, especially in times of turbulence, teams require a clear definition of purpose, one that gives them a basis for organizing and managing shared work. A team charter is a document in which team members clarify a team’s purpose, outcomes, and in-team commitments. Different types of teams will have different types of purposes. In an effective team-based company, the charters for different types of teams should fit together like puzzle pieces, enabling an overall system of teams.

I recommend applying the following questions to explore this principle: What type of team is this team? There are five basic choices: enterprise team, business team, channel team, functional team or other. What operational purpose statement describes the shared work of this team? What in-team commitments are required for team members to play full out for this team success, as defined above?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I really like the quote: “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.” — Kurt Lewin. Over decades, my colleagues and I have tried to change numerous organizations and companies — from small startups to well-established mid-sized businesses to massive multinational enterprises. It’s not the most elegant way to learn, especially when starting out, since the true nature of an entity is often revealed as it resists efforts at transformation. But it’s only when you start trying to move the pieces that you see how they’re all connected, what keeps them in place, and what animates them. And what you discover forces you to rethink your approach. I’m still learning, to this day, but what I can say with confidence is that the more I’ve learned about what teams, businesses, and companies are, the more effective I’ve become as an agent of change.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Look for my book, to be published by Wiley in April. Navigate the Swirl: 7 Crucial Conversations for Business Transformation. Also, check the Growth River website for upcoming events:

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!



Sara Connell
Authority Magazine

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