Great Companies Start With Why
If you're the head of your company, you have to be able to define not just what your company does, but why it does it.
Having difficulty? That's normal. You can blame it on the way your brain works. The part of the brain that contains decision-making and behavior doesn't control language, so when you're asked questions about why you do what you do, it's natural to get tongue-tied.
That's where great leadership comes in. Leaders are required to put in to words what a group does; they're required to cross over between the decision-making and behavior sphere and the language sphere. Leaders are great because they're good at putting feelings into words that we can act upon.
So it's up to you, as company leader, to define your "why." Here are four reasons you should, if you want to survive as a company.
1. Your company's "why" generates loyalty.
Apple can sell phones not simply because they have the smarts to make phones; every single one of their competitors can make phones too. What gives Apple permission to sell products beyond computers is the fact that it doesn't define themselves as a computer company; rather, it is a company that stands for something. It represents an ideal: Down with "the man"; attack the status quo; champion the individual.
As long as Apple's products are consistent with its cause, the company has the freedom to do things other companies cannot. Those who identify with Apple's cause, in turn, will say they "love" Apple--even if they think it's because of the products.
2. Organizational success (or failure) often dates from inception.
Most great companies were founded by a person or small group of people who personally suffered a problem, went through an difficult experience, or had someone close to them face a tricky challenge--and then came up with a solution or alternative. That original solution to that original problem is what they formed their company around; it's why they do what they do.
Organizations that just look to capture some market opportunity, or are born out of some market research, often fail (or else need endless pools of money to keep going). No one has passion for a problem revealed in market research. People have passion to solve their own problems or to help those they care about.
3. Companies get wobbly as their "why" goes fuzzy.
Microsoft used to be a company that believed in helping people be more productive so they could achieve their greatest potential. It's Microsoft's origin story. Look at Windows: Windows was a tool that allowed people to take advantage of this new technology called a personal computer so that each of us could be more productive and achieve our greatest potential. When Microsoft keeps this cause front and center, it is at its best.
Sadly, these days its founding purpose seems to have gone fuzzy; as a result, Microsoft has become just a software company. One iteration defined a cause and a movement; the other is just about products and unique selling propositions and product differentiators. We cared about the former; we just want the best deal from the latter. That's not where you want to be as a company.
4. Customers can't tell you what is most important.
As I've mentioned, the part of the brain that controls behavior and decision-making does not control language. So seemingly simple questions like "What's important to you?" or "What do you need so that you'll buy from us?" are actually hard to answer. Everybody says the same things: I want high quality, I want good service, and I want a lot of features all at a competitive price.
So how come when one product truly is the best, people don't necessarily flock toward it? And why do substandard products sell at all? It's because there are other factors in the decision-making process.
It's not that people are lying; it's just that they tend to answer with what can be easily seen and measured: price, quality, service, features. Riding a Harley just feels good--but a customer will probably tell you he loves his Harley because of the design, the engineering, and so on. To those that buy into Harley-Davidson's cause, the motorcycles are simply better.
So ask yourself: Can you define your "why"? If you don't know why you do what you do, odds are your customers won't either.
Oh, and by the way: Any company that can only compete on those things that can be measured (price, quality, service and features) ... is called a commodity.
This blog is based off on an interview I recently had with Ted.com video sensation and author, Simon Sinek. His book "Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action" is not just a commentary on leadership; it extends to brand, culture and customer loyalty. I encourage you to listen to the full 30 minute audio and view Simon's video on Ted.com.
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