Start with why — Simon Sinek



In the beginning, Simon Sinek introduces the three circles, the innermost is why, followed by how, and what. The rest of the book is tied with the ideas of sustaining the why and working with how and what. He calls this The Golden Circle.

The Golden Circle

WHAT. The outermost ring is the What – it’s what a company does, makes, produces or sells. Everybody can clearly explain the WHAT. Many companies mistakenly focus only on the WHAT.

HOW. That is the next inner ring, which is how the company does the What. It might be a proprietary process or a different way of providing value. Having this differentiation is important, but not the reason why the company exists.

WHY is at the center of the circle. It’s the hardest to articulate – Why do you do what you do, and how do you communicate that Why to others?

The author goes deep into the examples of Walmart, Apple, Dell, General Motors, Virgin and other top companies, explaining their Golden Circle, problems and splits.

Worth the read. The book has changed how I will approach branding and communications in my business and life endeavors.

Quick takeaways

  • Communicate your why, be very clear on your why.
  • Create one sentence pitch, describing why your company exists.
  • Your how and what should reflect your why. Build your how and what based on your why.
  • Focus on the why and everything else will take care of itself.
  • Be careful not to lose your why. Don’t get stuck on the how or what once your company has grown.
  • The why is what will inspire you day after day.

Key Takeaway #1

Those who are able to inspire give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained. Those who truly lead are able to create a following of people who act not because they were swayed, but because they were inspired. For those who are inspired, the motivation to act is deeply personal.

Key Takeaway #2

People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.

Key Takeaway #3

Companies try to sell us WHAT they do, but we buy WHY they do it. This is what I mean when I say they communicate from the outside in; they lead with WHAT and HOW.

Key Takeaway #4

Great leaders are those who trust their gut. They are those who understand the art before the science. They win hearts before minds.

Key Takeaway #5

It is not logic or facts but our hopes and dreams, our hearts and our guts, that drive us to try new things.

Key Takeaway #6

It all starts with clarity. You have to know WHY you do WHAT you do. If people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it, so it follows that if you don’t know WHY you do WHAT you do, how will anyone else? If the leader of the organization can’t clearly articulate WHY the organization exists in terms beyond its products or services, then how does he expect the employees to know WHY to come to work? If a politician can’t articulate WHY she seeks public office beyond the standard “to serve the people” (the minimum rational standard for all politicians), then how will the voters know whom to follow?

Key Takeaway #7

It is a false assumption that differentiation happens in HOW and WHAT you do. Simply offering a high-quality product with more features or better service or a better price does not create difference. Doing so guarantees no success. Differentiation happens in WHY and HOW you do it.

Key Takeaway #8

When WHY, HOW, and WHAT are in balance, authenticity is achieved and the buyer feels fulfilled. When they are out of balance, stress or uncertainty exists

Key Takeaway #9

The goal of business should not be to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have. It should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe. When we are selective about doing business only with those who believe in our WHY, trust emerges.

Key Takeaway #10

We’ve succeeded as a species because of our ability to form cultures. Cultures are groups of people who come together around a common set of values and beliefs. When we share values and beliefs with others, we form trust. Trust of others allows us to rely on others to help protect our children and ensure our personal survival

Key Takeaway #11

The goal is not to hire people who simply have a skill set you need, the goal is to hire people who believe what you believe.

Key Takeaway #12

Herb Kelleher famously said, “You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.”

Key Takeaway #13

Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them. People are either motivated or they are not. Unless you give motivated people something to believe in, something bigger than their job to work toward, they will motivate themselves to find a new job and you’ll be stuck with whoever’s left.

Key Takeaway #14

Average companies give their people something to work on. In contrast, the most innovative organizations give their people something to work toward.

Key Takeaway #15

Southwest’s remarkable ability to solve problems, Apple’s remarkable knack for innovation and the Wright brothers’ ability to develop a technology with the team they had were all possible for the same reason: they believed they could and they trusted their people to do it.

Key Takeaway #16

Great organizations become great because the people inside the organization feel protected

Key Takeaway #17

Passion comes from feeling like you are a part of something that you believe in, something bigger than yourself. If people do not trust that a company is organized to advance the WHY, then the passion is diluted. Without managed trust, people will show up to do their jobs and they will worry primarily about themselves. This is the root of office politics—people acting within the system for self-gain often at the expense of others, even the company.

Key Takeaway #18

Whom do you trust more, someone you know or someone you don’t know? What do you trust more, a claim made in a piece of advertising or a recommendation from a friend? Whom do you trust more, the waiter who tells you, “Everything on the menu is great,” or the waiter who tells you to avoid the chicken casserole? Are these questions too easy? Then how about this one: why should anyone trust you?

Key Takeaway #19

The cone represents a company or an organization—an inherently hierarchical and organized system. Sitting at the top of the system, representing the WHY, is a leader; in the case of a company, that’s usually the CEO (or at least we hope it is). The next level down, the HOW level, typically includes the senior executives who are inspired by the leader’s vision and know HOW to bring it to life.

Don’t forget that a WHY is just a belief, HOWs are the actions we take to realize that belief and WHATs are the results of those actions. No matter how charismatic or inspiring the leader is, if there are not people in the organization inspired to bring that vision to reality, to build an infrastructure with systems and processes, then at best, inefficiency reigns, and at worst, failure results difference between a vision statement and a mission statement in an organization.

The vision is the public statement of the founder’s intent, WHY the company exists. It is literally the vision of a future that does not yet exist. The mission statement is a description of the route, the guiding principles—HOW the company intends to create that future. When both of those things are stated clearly, the WHY-type and the HOW-type are both certain about their roles in the partnership. Both are working together with clarity of purpose and a plan to get there. For it to work, however, it requires more than a set of skills, it requires trust.

Key Takeaway #20

A clear sense of WHY sets expectations. When we don’t know an organization’s WHY, we don’t know what to expect, so we expect the minimum—price, quality, service, features—the commodity stuff. But when we do have a sense for the WHY, we expect more. For those not comfortable being held to a higher standard, I strongly advise against trying to learn your WHY or keeping your Golden Circle in balance. Higher standards are hard to maintain. It requires the discipline to constantly talk about and remind everyone WHY the organization exists in the first place. It requires that everyone in the organization be held accountable to HOW you do things—to your values and guiding principles. And it takes time and effort to ensure that everything you say and do is consistent with your WHY. But for those willing to put in the effort, there are some great advantages.

Key Takeaway #21

What’s the difference between Steve Jobs the man and Apple the company? Nothing. What’s the difference between Sir Richard Branson’s personality and Virgin’s personality? Nothing. As a company grows, the CEO’s job is to personify the WHY. To ooze of it. To talk about it. To preach it. To be a symbol of what the company believes. They are the intention and WHAT the company says and does is their voice. Like Martin Luther King and his social movement, the leader’s job is no longer to close all the deals; it is to inspire. The CEO’s job, the leader’s responsibility, is not to focus on the outside market—it’s to focus on the layer directly beneath: HOW. The leader must ensure that there are people on the team who believe what they believe and know HOW to build it.

Key Takeaway #22

Understanding WHY and must come to work every day to develop the systems and hire the people who are ultimately responsible for bringing the WHY to life. The general employees are responsible for demonstrating the WHY to the outside world in whatever the company says and does. The challenge is that they are able to do it clearly.

Key Takeaway #23

The leader sitting at the top of the organization is the inspiration, the symbol of the reason we do what we do. They represent the emotional limbic brain. WHAT the company says and does represents the rational thought and language of the neocortex. Just as it is hard for people to speak their feelings, like someone trying to explain why they love their spouse, it is equally hard for an organization to explain its WHY. The part of the brain that controls feelings and the part that controls language are not the same. Given that the cone is simply a three-dimensional rendering of The Golden Circle, which is firmly grounded in the biology of human decision-making, the logic follows that organizations of any size will struggle to clearly communicate their WHY. Translated into business terms this means that trying to communicate your differentiating value proposition is really hard.

Key Takeaway #24

Absent the proper language to share our deep emotions, our purpose, cause or belief, we tell stories. We use symbols. We create tangible things for those who believe what we believe to point to and say, “That’s why I’m inspired.” If done properly, that’s what marketing, branding and products and services become; a way for organizations to communicate to the outside world. Communicate clearly and you shall be understood.

Key Takeaway #25

Don’t forget the dictators. They understand the power of symbols, except the symbols are often of them. Likewise, so many companies act like dictators—it’s all about them and what they want. They tell us what to do, they tell us what we need, they tell us they have the answers but they do not inspire us and they do not command our loyalty. And to take the analogy a step further, the way dictators maintain their power is through fear, reward and every other manipulation they can think of. People follow dictators not because they want to, but because they have to. For companies to be perceived as a great leaders and not dictators, all their symbols, including their logos, need to stand for something in which we can all believe. Something we can all support. That takes clarity, discipline and consistency.

Key Takeaway #26

Price is a highly effective manipulation. But it alone does not inspire people to root for you and give you the undying loyalty needed to create a tipping point to grow to massive proportions. Being cheap does not inspire employees to give their blood, sweat and tears. Walmart did not have a lock on cheap prices and cheap prices are not what made it so beloved and ultimately so successful.

Key Takeaway #27

The single greatest challenge any organization will face is . . . success.

Key Takeaway #28

People should not spend all their time at work, but rather they should work to spend more of their time with their families.

Key Takeaway #29

When people can point to a company and clearly articulate what the company believes and use words unrelated to price, quality, service and features, that is proof the company has successfully navigated the split. When people describe the value they perceive with visceral, excited words like “love,” that is a sure sign that a clear sense of WHY exists.

Key Takeaway #30

The Law of Diffusion says that only 2.5 percent of the population has an innovator mentality—they are a group of people willing to trust their intuition and take greater risks than others.

Key Takeaway #31

The WHY does not come from looking ahead at what you want to achieve and figuring out an appropriate strategy to get there. It is not born out of any market research. It does not come from extensive interviews with customers or even employees. It comes from looking in the completely opposite direction from where you are now. Finding WHY is a process of discovery, not invention. It is born out of the upbringing and life experience of an individual or small group. Every single person has a WHY and every single organization has one too.

Key Takeaway #32

When you compete against everyone else, no one wants to help you. But when you compete against yourself, everyone wants to help you.

Key Takeaway #33

No matter the size of the organization, no matter the industry, no matter the product or the service, if we all take some responsibility to start with WHY and inspire others to do the same, then, together, we can change the world. And that’s pretty inspiring.

Key Takeaway #34

All leaders must have two things: they must have a vision of the world that does not exist and they must have the ability to communicate it.

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