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The Three Most Effective Ways To Lead Change

by Richard S. Hawkes, CEO, Growth River

I have worked with leaders and teams as a consultant, coach, strategist, trainer and change leader all over the world for more than 25 years.

I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. This includes amazingly high-performing teams (the good), really dysfunctional toxic rock stars (the bad), and organizational cultures that crush people (the ugly).

Here’s what I’ve noticed: too many leaders get stuck.

Under pressure for results, they mistakenly believe that pushing themselves and others harder will get the job done.

But what they can’t see (or are unwilling to see) is that their current leadership mindset – their current relationship to leading change – is more transactional than transformational.

They lack transformational thinking and language. They lack transformational tools.

And that has them and those they work with trapped. Welcome to ineffective culture – stuck in ways of thinking and acting that are less innovative and less scalable.

Getting Unstuck

Getting unstuck requires learning the art and science of leading change. It means creating experiences for people that get them excited about creating the future.

The path to this future may include such initiatives as building a new team, revamping a value proposition, developing NextGen leaders, redesigning an org structure, transforming culture, aligning strategies, or integrating an acquisition.

Leaders who try to go it alone, who are unwilling or unable to shift from a transactional to a transformational mindset, will not be able to influence others in order to begin the climb, much less reach the summit.

Three Ways To Lead Change

I’ll share three basic approaches to leading change. All of them focus on not going it alone. Note that one leads to the next – leading change is a transformational journey, initially for you, then for the people around you, and ultimately for your organization.

There is much to say about each of these three approaches. And the details matter. Yet I can’t cover all of them here. But I will share an overview here.

Here are the three ways to unlock your potential to lead change:

  1. Influence others and build a coalition for change.
  2. Develop your team towards high-performance.
  3. Align with your team to drive your organization towards high-performance.

Meet Jane, Our Protagonist

Here I’ll tell a story of how a leader ascended through each of these approaches in turn, building both momentum and success.

I’ll call her Jane. She is a second-tier executive in a large, mature organization. There have been many serious challenges. She is faced with change leadership challenges that she doesn’t know how to solve.

Her journey begins with developing first her own capability to lead others, then developing her team to lead change, and then her team’s capability to influence across the whole organization.

The First Challenge: Influencing People To Engage In Change

Jane’s current situation is barely okay. The trends are clear. It is going to become increasingly uncomfortable going forward.

And although the best path forward is not yet completely clear, one thing is: Jane believes that unless key leaders come together to create a shared solution in her organization, meaningful change and a better future is unlikely.

That is when she encounters the first challenge. The challenge is that she doesn’t yet have the authority, formal or otherwise, to bring key players together.

So she makes a make a courageous choice: to stop waiting.

Rather than waiting for someone else to solve the problem, she chooses to directly engage and influence.

She begins to formulate a compelling case-for-change. She develops allies and builds a coalition. The breakthrough happens when she makes a highly visible presentation to a group of key players.

In that presentation, Jane lay out a brief analysis of the current state, of a desired future state and some of the steps that will be required on the journey to close the gap.

She gains confidence. Her influence in the organization begins to grow. She gets the green light to drive toward her vision.

The Second Challenge: Building a High Performance Team

Then the second challenge begins. Jane needs to get her team pointed towards this better future.

To accomplish this, Jane applies two frameworks:

  1. The Seven Crucial Conversations for Leading Change℠, to identify the team’s primary constraint to leading change.
  2. The Business Triangle℠, to identify the primary constraint to growth in each business in her enterprise.

(See below for more on these two frameworks.)

The team discovers a shared approach to setting priorities. They learn that resolving primary constraints is the highest return investment of all possible investments.

In sum, the team discovers a shared framework for precision.

So, they begin to attack primary constraints – as a team – with conviction and creativity. When one constraint is resolved, they identify and focus on resolving the next. In this fashion, over the next five months, the team reaches one breakthrough after another, while maximizing growth, development and ROI.

Watch what is happening here:

Jane’s team is making the highest return investments in both team performance and business growth.


There is a lot to say about the potency of this approach.

Bottom line, developing team culture and optimizing business performance at the same time is the most important ingredient for becoming a high performing team.

The Third Challenge: Transforming An Organization

Then the third challenge begins. Jane’s team is working at such a high level that team members have to compensate for lower levels of effectiveness in other parts of the organization. They can’t resolve constraints without driving higher performance among teams they have no authority over.

To realize their goals, they set about developing a high-performance organization comprised of high-performance teams.

The team begins to develop and execute a plan to influence their parent organization. They identify key targets. They build coalitions. And they identify influencing currencies that they can leverage. And they begin to develop and deliver a series of targeted compelling requests.

As a result, the CEO takes notice. He chooses to use The 7 Critical Conversations and The Business Triangle to structure and drive the thinking of his senior executive team. His goal is to bring greater alignment and precision to their work.

Again, these tools reveal critical gaps in the ability of a team to lead change, and the current primary constraint to growth in a business model – and in this case, the primary constraint in every business in the enterprise.

That’s powerful intel.

The senior executive team decides to close the gaps and drive higher-performance. They commit to strategically align the entire organization toward a culture of personal accountability.

Specifically, they focus on:

  1. The primary constraint to leading change on each team (and what is being done to resolve it).
  2. The primary constraint in each business (and what is being do to resolve it).
  3. And where the primary constraint will move next (and what ahead-of-the-curve investments are being made).

In short, the CEO, following Jane’s lead, is developing the capability of the entire leadership to identify and make the highest return investments. He is building a highly effective business culture and optimizing results across a portfolio of businesses.

The Storyline For Creating A High Performing Organization

It began with Jane pushing a vision. Knowing she couldn’t do it alone, she placed her team on the journey to high-performance. She shifted from being a transactional leader to transformational leader, resolving constraints in the team culture and the business simultaneously. Her team’s brand and credibility rose, smartly influencing and picking up allies along the way. The CEO took notice and began the process of driving higher performance working together towards a better future.

As a result, the entire organization is currently on the journey to higher performance:

  1. The entire leadership now shares a common language for accelerating business growth, leadership development and ROI.
  2. The business culture is aligned with the business model, and vice versa.
  3. Priority setting and budgeting are becoming a bottom-up, creative process instead of a top-down control process.
  4. And the organization grows at maximum speed, because resolving the primary constraints to change and growth are now simply a function of how fast the organization can attract and develop talent and resources.

Appendix: A Brief Overview Of Two Frameworks For Identifying Primary Constraints

I. The Seven Crucial Conversations for Leading Change℠

This framework is used by leaders and teams to identify the primary constraint to a team’s ability to lead change. Note how the Seven Crucial Conversations are arrayed across both business culture and business models. And note how they cascade (e.g., if team’s purpose is unclear, it’s hard to establish focus, an effective mindset, etc.).

To use: Answer each question, specifically describing the current state, a desired future state, and the gaps. In the resulting Gap Analysis, one of these principles will be the weakest, the biggest gap, and the least optimal.

That is your current primary constraint to leading change.

PURPOSE − Are we a strong team with a clear purpose and do we hold high expectations of the team leader, each other and ourselves?

Milestone: The team aligns around a shared purpose.

FOCUS − Do we understand and have the data on our current state, do we understand our future state and are we aligned around priorities?
Milestone: The team uses data to set a laser like focus.

MINDSET − Do we think and act with accountability and demonstrate leadership, keeping us inspired and inspiring others?
Milestone: the team cultivates a strong mindset of personal accountability.

ROLES − Do every key strategy, decision and activity have a single owner who is accountable for execution and owns driving to resolution?
Milestone: Clarified and reconfigured roles ensure that every key issue has an owner driving resolution.

INTERDEPENDENCIES − Are we clear where shared work exists; are we collaborating effectively? Do we have clear and effective rules for engagement and protocols?
Milestone: Improved key points of interdependencies and protocols (system-of-meetings, conflict resolution, decision-making) enable team to drive better strategies.

STRATEGIES − Are leaders advocating and then aligning ways forward from the perspectives of their roles but also of a business leader?
Milestone: Business, function and enterprise leaders formulate and defend strategies from the perspective of their role, and then align with the priorities.

IMPLEMENTATION − Are we communicating a compelling way-forward, taking actions, course correcting, and delivering tangible results in a way that creates confidence and trust?
Milestone: Significantly improved implementation is reflected in key metrics.

II. The Business Triangle℠

This framework is used to resolve the primary constraint to growth. All businesses are a sequence of capabilities to develop, sell and deliver a value proposition – with support capabilities like IT, HR, Finance, as the case may be.

The faster you go around the triangle, the faster you grow.

To use: List your develop, sell, deliver and support capabilities.

Ask: Which one is slowing the business down the most – where is the bottleneck? Who owns that capability and is responsible for resolving it? With which key members of your leadership do they share critical interdependencies? What is the strategy, objectives and metrics for resolving it?

That is your current primary constraint to growth.

Primary Constraint Logic Provides The Most Effective Path To Growth

Here’s the innovation that you want for your team: a business culture – language, distinctions, metrics – that enables them to constantly identify and resolve primary constraints.

For example, for an enterprise with a portfolio of business (triangles), you want each individual on the senior team to be able to always answer these questions:

  • Where was the last primary constraint in each business?
  • Who owned its resolution?
  • What investment did you make/support to resolve it?
  • What metric(s)/milestones demonstrates that it has been resolved?
  • Where is the current primary constraint in each business now?
  • Who owns its resolution?
  • What investment do you need to make/support to resolve it?
  • What metric(s) will demonstrate that it has been resolved?
  • Where do you anticipate the next primary constraint will be in each business?
  • What ahead-of-the curve investment should you or do you need to resolve it more rapidly?

There is more to this. Specifically, it’s essential that your team is able to manage natural tensions (and unnecessary conflict) to support this conversation. And without clear ownership of all key roles and interdependencies within and across businesses, the dynamic steering required for teams to execute will become imprecise and slow. Finally, it’s also critical that the foundations for competitive advantage are well-understood for both each business and for the enterprise.