Start With Why

In my company, there is usually a scrum of people in the kitchen just before 08:30. I find it often entertaining to listen to the short conversations taking place between boiling kettles and passing of the sugar. One would ask “how are you doing?”; the response almost always is followed by an “I am OK”, or “Thank Goodness its Friday” or Ask me at 5pm again”.

What a way to go through life!. Living from weekend to weekend and holiday to holiday. I love the quote by Seth Godin – “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don't need to escape from.”

Most people don’t even entertain the possibility of loving their work. They figure it’s a waste of time to try to find their dream job – the one project that would change everything.

Simon Sinek, the author of Start With Why; asks; can you love your work? He goes on to answer; YES, we can! But only by looking for something that excites us, something we believe in. In short, we need a WHY – a goal or purpose that gives our lives a deeper meaning and makes everything else secondary. But is it really impossible?

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. The old strategies of giving incentives to motivate employees don’t work anymore. Employees need to buy into WHY you do what you do.

  2. The more clearly you describe and communicate the WHY, the more people will like it, because people don’t buy WHAT people make; they buy WHY people make it.

  3. The hardest part isn’t finding the WHY, but staying true to it and keeping it alive.

The underlying idea is that we can all find our WHY without any special resources or a whole lot of luck: all we need to do is stick to a few easily applicable principles that anyone can learn. By applying these principles, anyone can create businesses and organisations where all the employees have a WHY – which, little by little, will help us change the world. And it all begins with the individual WHY that exists inside each and every one of us.

To motivate, don’t manipulate – captivate.

Simon notes that at some point or another, every person or organisation needs to motivate others to take action. And yet, most businesses and organisations stick to the same old strategies to motivate their employees: they give them incentives to do something and threaten the ones who don’t with negative consequences.

On the contrary, he argues that good managers who want to get the people around them to take action don’t resort to rewards or punishments: they inspire others, instilling in them the will to take action. Hence, we don’t follow others for rational reasons, but because we feel compelled to do so. This type of motivation goes much deeper than material incentives, Simon says. People who are enthusiastic are personally invested and stay that way.

Enthusiastic employees will bring personal resources to the table and sacrifice themselves to achieve the common goal without being prompted. They don’t act for the sake of rewards or incentives, but because they recognise a deeper meaning in their actions. They feel their calling.

Know the Golden Circle.

Simon’s Golden Circle consists of three concentric circles with the WHY at its, the HOW wrapped around that, and the WHAT as the outermost circle.

The WHAT describes the activities of the business or organisation. Usually, the WHAT is pretty self-explanatory – say, manufacturing a product or offering certain services. The HOW illustrates the way in which the WHAT is achieved: How do you handle everything? What is it that, for example, turns a particular manufacturing process or business culture into something special?

The WHY describes the mission of a business or organisation. Why was it founded? What is its main goal? Although all three of these factors should be well known and thought out in advance, many businesses and organisations don’t have a clear idea of their WHY. Yielding profits is, for example, not a WHY: it’s the result of the WHAT and the HOW.

The Golden Circle provides a leadership model that can serve as a basis for creating a business or organisation and for inspiring and leading others. Ultimately, leaders must make an effort to not only communicate WHAT is being done and HOW, but also the often-forgotten WHY.

Start from the inside out.

Simon goes on to say that when we make decisions, we base them more on the WHY than the WHAT – because only the WHY fosters a sense of belonging. As for the WHAT, it’s purely rational and hardly stands a chance against the emotional impact of a WHY. For that reason, people in leadership positions who want to get others to take action always begin by explaining WHY something has to be done. That way, they create a sense of belonging which makes others want to take action.

When people are emotionally invested, they join movements, buy products and brands – and even use them as symbols to show others who they are and who they support. The more clearly you describe and communicate the WHY, the more people will like it, because people don’t buy WHAT people make; they buy WHY people make it.

And so, leaders communicate by starting in the core of The Golden Circle and working their way out: they first explain WHY they do what they do, then HOW they do it and, only at the very end, WHAT their product is. Apple is a good example, says Simon, of this phenomenon. Their “Think different” slogan emphasises their philosophy of challenging the status quo – and succeeds in getting across their WHY. The HOW comes next: a user-friendly and visually appealing approach to design and interface. Finally, they translate all this into their WHAT: computers, smartphones and MP3 players.

When a WHY excites people, the product itself usually doesn’t matter as much: customers are convinced by the business itself and happy to buy whatever it sells.

Businesses with a clear WHY generally don’t have trouble distinguishing themselves from others as well; which gives them the luxury of largely ignoring the competition. As a result, they can be more authentic and imaginative than others and don’t need to depend on imitating the competition.

In addition, when businesses have a definitive personality and convey a clear WHY, they are also able to attract the best employees – which is priceless when it comes to securing the survival of a business.

Creating raving fans.

The WHY of a business or a movement has to be clear so that people who believe in the same thing have a chance to develop trust and loyalty. Once that happens, they’ll be willing to follow – not just because they feel obligated or expect rewards, but because they believe in the cause.

Followers that have a common goal and trust their leader will voluntarily work harder and longer than those who don’t, since they feel it’s worth it for them to work overtime, for example. That’s why we should always make it our mission to find supporters and employees who believe in a shared WHY, and not just people who have certain qualifications or skills.

In other words, Simon explains, businesses shouldn’t hire people purely for their qualifications and start motivating them later. Instead, they should always make a point of looking for motivated employees and then get them inspired.

Long-term survival.

In the real world, it’s no small challenge to keep all three rings of The Golden Circle in check, Simon states. Especially because when success becomes the norm and an organisation is no longer in its euphoric initial phase, the WHY often gets neglected.

It’s right at this moment that people start prioritising costs or profits over all else, and short-term thinking and quick wins become more important, even though none of it reflects the business’s actual goals. In addition, the success of an organisation leads to growth, which leads to an increasing number of people being involved. And the more people are involved, the higher the risk of watering down the original WHY, which can, in turn, have a negative impact in the long run.

That’s why it’s important to preserve the WHY established by the founders in an organisation's culture: future leaders will be able to adopt it if it’s part of the organisation's identity. An organisation runs the highest risk of letting the WHY fall by the wayside when the founder leaves.

The lesson is: the hardest part isn’t finding the WHY, but staying true to it and keeping it alive.

Maintaining your customer’s trust.

The majority of businesses rely on methods of manipulation to influence potential customers – usually to get them to buy their products. By doing this, these businesses ignore the true motivations of their customers – the WHY – rather than using them to excite the customers. They manipulate customers by applying generic sales tactics that don’t have any special connection to a product or a service.

Simon gives some examples of tactics being used. These being from alleged clearance sales, limited-time offers and two-for-one deals that trick us into believing they’re once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, to announcements that don’t quite tell the truth or that exert social pressure

These tactics are used for one simple reason: they work. For a little while. But their success is short-lived. Ultimately, a business can’t benefit from these scare tactics because they don’t generate a sense of trust or loyalty.

Because once you have truly loyal customers, you don’t need to bother with tactics like these, says Simon. Loyal customers will always prefer the product of their favourite business even if it’s not the best or cheapest in its class.

And so, customer manipulation can boost sales in the short-term, but it’s not a sustainable strategy. My MD could have written this last paragraph as well – something he feels very strongly about.


What I took from it.

Businesses, individuals and movements of all kinds should always start with WHY – their reason for doing something. This WHY should be the basis for every decision its leaders make and every message they transmit. By doing so, they will attract loyal supporters and garner long-term success.

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Click here to listen to Simon Sinek's TED Talk.