Start with WHY?

I just finished Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why and I would highly recommend the book to anyone in business, particularly entrepreneurs. The premise of the book is that all great leaders and all great organisations start with WHY – a cause or belief that inspires them, and those around, them to deliver. The author shows many good examples of inspiring leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and organisations such as Apple, who have a compelling WHY. He talks about the Golden Circle, where everything starts with WHY in the centre, the next layer being HOW, translating to the senior leadership, and finally the WHAT in terms of what is delivered by those interacting with the end customer.

Golden circle 2

Companies with a strong sense of WHY they do what they do, are better able to weather the storms of change. If your business is centred around products and they become obsolete in the future, what then? With a strong cause or belief, products and services can easily morph into what the market requires. An organisation can keep innovating and still remain authentic if the WHY is at the centre of everything. These organisations start with WHY in their marketing, with the products and services being secondary.

Writing about competition, Sinek states that “(c)ompanies with a clear sense of WHY tend to ignore their competition, whereas those with a fuzzy sense of WHY are obsessed with what others are doing.” It is very difficult to mimic a company’s beliefs although many have tried to mimic the products and services of great organisations with limited success. A strong sense of WHY, that is entrenched, can make the competition irrelevant. “It is a false assumption that differentiation happens in HOW and WHAT we do” says Sinek.

Sadly, most people are not living their dream job. But imagine a world as Simon Sinek does, where everyone is living their dream and is inspired by the job they do. He writes “(p)eople who love going to work are more productive and more creative. They go home happier and have happier families. They treat their colleagues and clients and customers better. Inspired employees make for stronger companies and stronger economies.”

It made me think about my previous corporate employers and teams. I must say there was little inspiration conveyed from the top management down to the teams. But within the teams, we had some good leaders. The people I was most inspired to work for were those with strong integrity and those who invested in the people. Under some leaders I was compelled to deliver their vision of faultless software that helps people achieve their goals. But I must say the majority of my previous managers seemed more driven by the financial rewards.

Sinek also speaks about succession planning and how important it is for the leader to articulate the WHY to the successor. So often we hear stories of companies taken over by new leadership who fail to deliver as well as the original owner did. I think it is a common omission that the departing leader fails to communicate why they started the business in the first place. “Successful succession is more than selecting someone with an appropriate skill set – it’s about finding someone who is in lockstep with the original cause around which the company was founded.”

Many businesses have a great deal of success early on but as the organisation scales, the leader is no longer able to close every deal and hire every employee. Successful leaders are those who can infuse the WHY into their organisation by having strong values to guide employee behaviour. Knowing WHY we do what we do, can guide our actions in that everything is tested against the original cause or belief. An authentic organisation is one where the behaviours of staff members are aligned with the cause. This builds a brand and entrenches the ethos amongst the entire company and in so doing, lets the customers know what the company stands for. Customers only become loyal once they trust an organisation and trust is won through authenticity. “Remaining completely in balance and authentic is the most difficult part” says Sinek.

Great organisations are not built by great leaders alone. Inspiring visionaries typically partner with those who can implement the vision. “It is the partnership of a vision of the future and the talent to get it done that makes an organization great.”

I’ve been thinking about how it applied to my own business and for me, the WHY was the thing that was really missing. My father started the company as a spin off to his main passion, insurance software, on request from some of his clients to collect the premiums. My father’s WHY may have been there in the beginning, something about giving people an alternative to dealing with banks, but it got very fuzzy along the way. By the time I joined in 2010, there was no WHY at all, no cause or belief underpinning what we did. My WHY for joining the business was two-fold: a flexible lifestyle and learning how to run a business. Looking back, not too practical considering the fact that flexibility of owning a business is a bit of a fallacy because you are compelled to put in more than anyone else if you want to be successful. And once I learned how to run a business, the WHY became irrelevant.

I think this concept of Simon Sinek’s is a great guide when investing in a business. Whether you’ll be buying into it as an investment, leading the business into the future, or working there. If the current leadership cannot articulate their cause or belief in a compelling manner, I’d be concerned. I think every due diligence should include questions around the original WHY and whether or not it still stands. In evaluating a new employer or a team, it is also a valuable method of predicting success.

If you are a leader, uncover your WHY and articulate it to the team regularly in order to build a more cohesive team, drawn to a cause that is larger than everyone. In Sinek’s words “(t)hose who truly lead are able to create a following of people who act not because they were swayed, but because they were inspired.”

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I am a champion for living your passion. Writing is my passion, my destiny and my calling. I am a mother of two beautiful daughters and a wife and live in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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