Do you know why your company exists?
No, really, why are you in business?
At first glance, it’s easy to say “to make money” or “to ensure stakeholder profits.” But the question of WHY is really asking an entirely different question. The question gets to the heart and guts. The stuff that matters. It’s about purpose and belief.
Enter the mind of Start With Why author Simon Sinek.
Whether by dumb luck or providence, I managed to find Simon’s TED Talk “Start With Why” towards the tail end of 2014 and it changed my life (Yes, really).
Several months prior I’d broken up with my corporate job. While there, I remember sitting through mindless meetings listening to “leaders” proudly pound their chest about how we were there for the sole purpose of “making money.”
The place was a boiler room and trust was a rare commodity. Adorning the office walls were endless platitudes proclaiming the virtue of “teamwork.” Nevermind the constant fear of teammates one-upping each other or stealing each other’s sales leads.
Looking back, it was probably the best job I have ever had because of what it taught me. It made me think deeply about what leadership is and why so few companies do it well. It’s the central question Simon Sinek explores in Start With Why.
How Great Leaders Inspire Action: Introduction to the Golden Circle
Martin Luther King Jr. once proclaimed, “I have a dream.” What if instead, he said, “I have a plan?” Simon Sinek ventures to say no one would remember his speech. But strangely enough, this is exactly what we get in most companies.
Companies say “This is our strategic plan” or “This is our plan to increase our quarterly earnings,” and then expect employees to take the helm and make magic happen. Even worse, you might get the “We are here to make money” ra-ra-ra speech.
What then, was it about Kings’s speech that makes it timeless? Why did his message take off and inspire a movement?
Enter Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle.”
Sinek says there are three levels of communication: why, how, and what. According to Sinek, these three levels correspond with how people process information in the limbic and neocortex regions of the brain.
Great leaders and innovative companies all start and communicate with their WHY, starting inside the circle and working their way out–the complete opposite way most companies communicate and do business.
“People don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it.” – Simon Sinek
Examples of WHY companies include Apple and Harley Davidson, who, despite providing products that other companies are perhaps equally qualified to make, communicate their value in ways others can’t.
Apple, for example, isn’t so much about gizmos and gadgets as it is about a belief in the role technology plays in disrupting the status quo.
Why would anybody get a corporate logo such as Harley Davidson permanently tattooed onto their arm? Is it because they really really like the quality of Harley’s motorcycle parts?
No, of course not. Harley is a symbol.
Harley symbolizes the belief in American freedom. It’s about being a rebel.
The fact that Harley Davidson makes motorcycles (their what) simply acts to reinforce this belief. Starting with WHY provides a clear vision that inspires, and also helps us connect and form tribes in the process.
Applying WHY at work
How do we create an environment for people where personal fulfillment is the norm and not the exception? How can leaders go about inspiring their people to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves?
Sinek says, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.”
Companies can use carrots and sticks, or, they can create a compelling vision for the future that keeps employees up at night figuring out ways to bring it to life. The difference is stark.
Are employees working at a company for the paycheck, or are they working for a cause?
Sinek explores the question and provides a road map. It’s up to leaders and organizations to answer it by focusing on what matters–by starting with WHY.