This is part 2 of my blog post that highlights some of the key points in Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why”. Part 1 covered what we observe in our business culture today. Manipulation, a short-term focus that is prevalent and more often the norm. Not always bad and often an effective short term strategy but not sustainable or healthy for the long-term success of any organization.
Those who start with why and focus on inspiring others with something bigger than the whole are companies that have stood the test of time and are winning big in their industries and often times disrupting other industries. Think Apple and Southwest Airlines. These companies are disruptive and leaders in their industry because they know their why, their employees and customers clearly understand it. It’s a palpable feeling.
Sinek shares the Golden Circle concept which is essentially three circular rings one inside each other, the core being Why, the middle ring is the How followed by the outer ring of What. Most companies know their What, and How they do things, but very few know their Why. What’s are usually very clear, we make widgets and the How, here’s how we do it. Why we do it? That gets a bit fuzzy. That is no small mistake. Companies that clearly know there Why are much more successful over the longer term. Employees love to work for companies when they go to work and there is a bigger cause than their own. When employees are happy, it flows through to the customer and hence, everyone wins in big way!
Southwest did not invent the concept of a low-cost airline. Pacific Southwest Airlines was the early pioneer. Southwest had no first mover advantage but Southwest was not built to be an airline but to be a champion of a cause. They just happened to use an airline to do it. In the early 1970s, air travel was quite expensive and only about 15% of the population was flying. That left 85% of us out in the cold and that is what Southwest cared about. To Southwest, they felt their competition was the car and the bus, not other airlines. They got it! Southwest wanted air travel to be fun, simple and cheap. They were championing the cause for common folks. But it started with a cause. What they did from hiring flight attendants with cheer-leading backgrounds and great attitudes first that could relate to Southwest’s culture to learning how to turn planes on the ground faster than anyone thought possible which kept their plane inventory costs lower, Southwest was a vanguard. What’s even more interesting is that other airlines have tried to copy them but have not succeeded. You can copy what and how but if the leader and culture of the employees does not start with a clear Why, it won’t work long term.
Leaders inspire. They think, act, communicate differently. Human behavior like nature has a lot more order and predictability to it. Great leaders inspire from the inside out, focusing on why first. Another example is Apple. They stay innovative year after year, and have a “cult like” following. I was in a mall this past week and the Apple store was absolutely buzzing, there must have been 30+ employees in this store w/green shirts helping folks select the best model for them. It looked like one employee per customer almost.
Sinek has a great example of how Apple communicates and there is a subtle but powerful difference. It’s a completely different message.
Here are how most PC companies advertise:
We make great computers
They are beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly, want to buy one?
Here is how Apple communicates:
Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.
The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.
And we happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?
The point is people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The what is just tangible evidence of the why. But what do most companies do, they try to sell us on what they do, but we buy on why they do it. When I worked for Dell, talent would migrate back and forth to Apple. There was essentially no difference in talent across the board from design engineers to product managers. We all made similar products but why did Apple have such disproportionate success. After reading Simon’s book, it dawned on me that Apple knew their why, their employees and customers clearly knew why Apple existed and it wasn’t because of what they made, it was why they existed! Apple challenges the status quo, they “think” differently. Apple empowers the individual and it’s a repeating pattern in all they Do and Say.
From iPod to iTunes, they challenged the status quo in the music industry distribution model. Their model was better suited to how individuals consume music. iPod offered 1,000 songs in your pocket. It wasn’t about Apple, it was about us cites Sinek! Ironically, the mp3 players was not invented by Apple but by Creative Technology. It calls into question the strategy of first mover advantage. After almost 2 years, Apple then entered the space and its message was simple, “1,000 songs in your pocket”. Creative Technology pitched, “5GB mp3 player”. Apple clearly messaged the “why” we would want it and only then did we realize we had to have it.
In contrast, at Dell, we came out with PDAs in 2002 and mp3 players in 2003 but lasted only a few years. Smartphones came out much later, but to the same lack of success. Why? Consumers couldn’t see Dell as anything more than a PC company. We were stuck in our core business without a clear sense of why. Apple on the other hand defined itself on why, it’s not a PC company, but a company that challenges the status quo and offers individuals simpler alternatives. It has the ability to enter and dominate so many industries, regardless of what it does. We know why Apple exists. Most of its competition focused on “what” such as design options, features, service, quality and promotions which complicated the buying decision. The product becomes commoditized and therefore garners little loyalty. Costs go up and so does the organizational stress.
The railroad industry is another great example of losing focus on why. In the late 1800s, railroad companies were the biggest companies in America. Over time remembering why became less important to them. They missed the big picture. Had they had leaders with a deeper understanding that they were really in the mass transportation business they would not have missed out as the airplane took over in the 20th century. They internally focused on improving track quality, features, etc. and the masses passed them by.
According to Sinek, this is all rooted in Biology. There is a deep human need to belong, we want to be with folks that share our same values and beliefs. We feel connected and safe. We have our primal (limbic brain) which is very powerful, smart, knows the right thing to do but has no capacity for language. The feeling of love for instance is strongly felt but often hard to express in words. Going with your gut feeling not only helps us make quick decisions but also tends to be right. We have another part of the brain called the neo cortex which is the thinking, rational brain. Most companies focus on the latter however buying decisions come from the limbic brain. When we say winning their hearts and minds, we are talking to both brains but the limbic brain is more powerful knowing.
The art of leading is about following your heart! Our brain tells us “why” first. Without a why, decisions are harder to make. Too many choices. Henry Ford summed it up best “if I asked people what they wanted it would have been faster horses”. Great leaders are good at seeing what most of us can’t see.