Navigate the Swirl: 7 Conversations for Transformation


Create the Best Team

Too many people live with a gnawing feeling that their team and, indeed, their entire organization could and should run more smoothly, more purposefully, and more effectively. But they are unable to actualize it amidst the daily Swirl, contends business and strategy expert Richard S. Hawkes, CEO of Growth River.

In his new book, NAVIGATE THE SWIRL: 7 Crucial Conversations For Business Transformation, Hawkes shares what he has learned guiding hundreds of organizations, large and small, on their growth journeys and lays out a playbook for leading transformative change, applicable at any stage of a company’s development.

I recently spoke with Richard Hawkes, founder and CEO of Growth River, about his concept of the Swirl and how to overcome stagnation to build highly engaged, high-performing teams and organizations.



What is the “Swirl”? You have observed it in hundreds of organizations. Why is it so common?

Years ago, I noticed, when we started working with clients, that they often complained about being trapped in a Swirl in their workplace. They said it felt like being caught in a churning river.

Questions like, “where are we going, how do we move forward together, and what does that mean for me?” got drowned out because managers and team members were just too busy keeping up.

Today my definition of the Swirl is “an absorbing state of inertia in an organization” that causes people to experience a busy purposelessness in their jobs and keeps leaders up at night feeling ill-equipped to resolve the social Swirl around business decisions.

In NAVIGATE THE SWIRL, I discuss the many complexities that cause this state of being and provide a blueprint for moving beyond the Swirl to create high-performing teams and companies.



How can people tell whether their companies are caught in the “Swirl?”

From talking with hundreds of leaders and employees about the Swirl, I’ve discovered it is a confluence of four things. The first is that people sense that there is always another urgent problem to solve or drama to address. But all the talk and activity seem to be going nowhere. When you combine this with people’s innate desire to connect to a compelling purpose, you get the Swirl, because people end up feeling trapped and unsure how to proceed.



We hear a lot about toxic workplaces.  How does workplace toxicity connect to the “Swirl?”  Why is it a mistake to put up with “toxic rock stars”?

Toxic workplaces are stressful work environments with unchecked rumor mills, gossip, and people positioning themselves at the expense of others. They are places where the Swirl is really out of control and harmful.

Toxic workplaces are also environments in which “toxic rock stars” tend to thrive. These are individuals who play critical roles in the success of a team or organization, but also have a negative impact on others and on organizational culture.

Sometimes, toxic rock stars can seem like a necessary evil. I have people tell me, “Yes, this person doesn’t work well with others, I know they’re not creating a healthy environment around them, but they’re responsible for half my business! How can I possibly let them go?”  Maybe they are important to the business. However, if you want to create the type of higher-performing teams that will be a much better foundation for the company’s growth and success, you must either compel them to shift their behaviors or invite them to exit the organization. It’s a hard truth, but if you want the power and benefits of distributed leadership then you have to root out toxic mindsets and behaviors at all levels.



You point out that many of the approaches to getting companies “unstuck” treat businesses like machines.  What’s wrong with this approach?

“Treating businesses like machines” means managers are expected to be the expert decision-makers and influencers (they are the engineers), while everyone else is expected to play narrowly defined roles (they are the machine parts). You can see why this might be very appealing to the managers. However, it has two significant weak points. First, centralized decision-making by managers inevitably becomes a bottleneck, causing teams and companies to stagnate. And second, when team members are pigeonholed in narrow uninformed roles, they are often left with only one option, which is to resist change as a way of demanding respect. This dynamic causes organizational change efforts to fail.



If organizations are not machines, what would be a better metaphor and approach to leading change?

I’ve concluded that the best way to see—and lead—a business or company is as an “adaptive social system.” The old adage “culture eats strategy for breakfast” directly makes this point. Effective leaders in a changing world enable teams and business to become more than the sum of their parts. They equip themselves and others to resolve the social Swirl around business decisions.



Tell us about the Seven Crucial Conversations in your book.

Imagine a piece of rope. At the bottom, I tie a knot. It represents “Activating Purpose” because the path out of the Swirl must connect to a shared purpose, and in that context to your own personal purpose or why bother?

At the top of the rope, I tie another knot. It represents “Implementing Initiatives” because you and your team must create results in the real world or again, why bother? The Seven Crucial Conversations is the sequence of the knots leading from “purpose” to “implementation.”

It is the rope that team members can climb together out of the Swirl. The key inflection points on this journey include:

(1) Activating Purpose

(2) Driving Focus

(3) Shifting Mindset

(4) Specifying Capabilities and Roles

(5) Streamlining Interdependencies

(6) Aligning Strategies, and

(7) Implementing Initiatives.

My partners and I have applied the Seven Crucial Conversations to guide hundreds of business teams on transformational journeys. These conversations align members in teams and networks of teams in companies on performance journeys.



What are some of the most effective ways you have seen leaders build trust in a team?

Creating the key conditions for trust is the part of the Seven Crucial Conversations that I call “Shifting Mindset.” Trust is essential to team and organizational performance. Without it who would want to take the risks required for conflicted downstream conversations around capabilities and roles, interdependencies, strategies, and implementation.

There are two core ideas in this conversation that leaders should apply to build trust in teams. The first idea is that trust is actually two things:  it is the residue of promises kept and also a self-fulfilling prophecy. The second idea is that broken trust can only be restored through demonstrating coachability and through giving and receiving constructive feedback. I’ve seen these two ideas help to transform toxic team cultures into trustworthy ones.


Is there one conversation you find leaders struggle with more than others?

The most challenging Crucial Conversation is the one in the middle. It is the conversation I call “Specifying Capabilities and Roles.”

When teams and organizations specify roles, they are inevitably distributing power — to some degree or another. You may have noticed that some people tend to be highly reactive when it comes to gaining or losing power, or even the perception of doing so.

Many efforts at transformation fail at this point. That is why, leaders and teams are very glad when they have spent productive time on purpose, focus, and mindset, building a healthy culture of trust that can support transparent, real, and honest conversations that aren’t derailed by concerns over the allocation of power.



I often talk about alignment versus agreement. Talk a little about that and how leaders can use this effectively.

A critical underlying mindset is that team members choose to “align” as a unified force with team or leadership decisions, even when they might not personally “agree” or would have done something different on their own.

That mindset is fundamental for members of business teams or networks of teams to resolve creative tensions and conflicts in the direction of competitive advantage. Without it, teams and organizations are unable to pull in the same direction and get free of the Swirl.


How has the response been to your book?

The response to my book has been very positive. I feel grateful for being able to contribute. Enabling teams and organizations to achieve so much more than individuals can on their own, has been my life’s work. Penny Pennington, a leader who inspires me, who is the managing partner of Edward Jones, a hundred-year-old financial services company with more that 50,000 associates, kindly wrote the forward for the book. And Hank Izo, the GM and CMO of Mars, Inc, another leading company, generously endorsed it as “essential for leaders navigating an ever-changing environment.” My hope is that people use this book to get free of the Swirl through effective alignment conversations in teams and businesses.


For more information see NAVIGATE THE SWIRL: 7 Crucial Conversations For Business Transformation.



Image Credit: dan cristian padure

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