Start With Why

 In Books

It’s easy to hire people looking for a paycheck, it’s much harder to hire people who believe what you believe.

Company Culture dominates the conversation in hundreds of business books. It’s one of those things that seems like it can’t be controlled, a behemoth that looms behind conversations with safe, comfortable numbers like profitability, market share and ROI. Lots of business leaders make the mistake of believing that Culture is created by perks: a ping pong table, a “chill room” with yoga mats, and if you’re really cool, a free keg on Friday. That’s what the kids want, right?

The funny thing is, most people don’t learn much about creating company culture in business school or during their MBA. It’s one of those things that you just don’t see on many syllibi, or at least you didn’t when a lot of today’s business leaders were in school. So here we are with a bunch of leaders who have all the tools to build a successful business on paper, but not much ability to build a culture around their idea that keeps the employees they need to build their vision engaged.

Enter Simon Sinek, who you may have already heard of from his TED Talk or seen on the business book stand, and his book, Start With Why, where he takes the concept of developing a central core of what you do and then working outwards to what you sell to a new level of detail. If you want to get caught up on the idea of starting with why, check out the abbreviated version of his TED Talk:


If Company Culture matters to you, what Sinek discusses in his book is a great start. You have to have a fundamental understanding of what you actually do in order to build a culture of people who believe in the same idea. If you’re not sure of the emotional reasons why your company matters, it’s not possible to intentionally attract the right people. This can actually be a very dangerous liability to your brand; there’s no shortage of new stories out there about the toxic company culture of some firms in Silicon Valley and Wall Street. These areas get a lot of attention because of the density of companies seen there, but this is not a problem for “Elite Coastal firms'” it can happen at any company of any size.

One of the main points in Sinek’s book is that behavior must reinforce the “Why” of your company. Once you’ve worked through the Golden Circle and you feel you have a direction, Sinek explains that to get to profit you can motivate or manipulate: basically he sets up a choice for what kind of culture your organization can have right from the beginning. At a start up, it’s relatively easy to keep a small group of people engaged and on track, but this idea needs to be so central to the culture so as not to derail as the organization scales. That means from sales to operations to the front desk, each employee needs to be oriented to the “why” from the beginning so that message filters out to the consumer. Sinek mentioned Apple as an example of this, which was accomplished internally before any engaging ads ever went out to the consumer. The direction of the company was clear in the product design phase long before the famous silhouette iPod commercials ever arrived on TV screens.


So what’s next for your company? If you’re just starting out, then it’s a great time to write out a golden circle with your Why, How and What and hang it high on the wall for all your potential new hires to see from the start. Share it with your marketing team (be they in house or freelancers) to get better insights to use in ads. Share it with your development team to see if that changes their approach to your process. Be flexible, but stick to your core values.

If you’re a much larger company, it can be hard to reintroduce the why, particularly if the company culture has started to take a left turn. However, it isn’t impossible and with any large group of people the key to getting it back out there is repetition. Your why can become a consistent drum beat in internal company communications. Recognize people for their commitment to it and remind the people in your company why they should be excited to work there. Make sure the leaders in your organization are modeling the why, otherwise it might be time to look for new leaders. Measure the why if you can – any analytics about profitability, margins, costs etc can be framed with how they are furthering the organization’s why.

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