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Uncovering my "why"

More than a decade ago, I was out with a couple friends for happy hour. The conversation turned to a new job I had and sharing how much I was enjoying it. After listening for a bit, a friend chimed in about her work and outlook toward work in general. “I just see work as work. I’m not all that excited about having to do it and don’t feel a desire to be excited.” This writing is not about one of us being right or wrong in our belief but rather a hope I find myself seeking to fulfill in my life.

As I have made my way through the world, a quote that has always managed to inspire me comes from France’s Supreme Allied Commander during World War I, Ferdinand Foch. I have even gone as far to say I’d like to have it as my epitaph, “The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire”. I can’t imagine a reason to desire something less.

I recently finished the book Start With Why. Simon Sinek’s premise is built around what he calls "the golden circle” and at its center is “why”. A person or organization’s “why”, is a belief, purpose or cause they stand behind. Most cannot articulate it or are not clear around it but when they find it, they feel it in their gut. The next outer ring of the circle is the “how”. This describes values or principles they stand for. The third and most outer ring is the “what”. Here lie the things they do and products and services they produce.

The question of “why” has lead me to ponder if the French general’s quote is indeed my “why”. I have no doubt that when people are inspired and clear on their direction forward, wonderful things can happen.

A passage from the The Third Plate by chef Dan Barber lead me to read Start With Why in the first place. In the author’s quest to better understand the future of food, he dives into various culinary, farming and ranching practices. His journey takes him to a part of Spain known as the dehesa. While meeting with a swineherd (the title of a person who raises pigs) named Miguel, he says to Barber regarding the practices for raising animals and crops in the region,

“It’s very much a question of values not just value. That’s what explains how the traditional farmers and producers have behaved for generations, and why still today they put tradition, nature, or instinct before technology, choosing to produce better, not just more.”

So we have a book illustrating the central importance of uncovering our “why” and a second book that touches on farming practices in Spain. The reason I have brought these up together is both deal in different ways with the emotions and beliefs that run deep within us. The tension that exists between the words value and values interests me. Unlike Miguel’s statement above, so many businesses I encounter or read about seem to be fixated on driving value for the sake of profits rather than operating from their values.

When an organization focuses on how to create value driven by its values, it’s soul is on fire. Its customers are its advocates and their loyalty serves as insulation from competitors. Such an organization sparks a fire in its staff, driving performance, pride and loyalty. Values-driven value is an underutilized success strategy. Does your organization create value reflecting its stand for certain values and principles or does it stand for profits and growth? Are people at your company measured and rewarded based on carrying out the company’s values or by hitting revenue targets? It’s always revealing to remember, "What gets measured is what gets done."

Sinek argues that in the absence of core beliefs and values that the domain of competition almost always falls to price, service and quality. He reminds us at the end of the day that computers by Mac and HP both allow you to create various documents and get on the internet. Southwest Airlines or United flights both get you to your destination. But what each stands for and how their values makes us feel is a significant product differentiator.

Having just come from banking, I know that many banks look at USAA, which serves military members and their families, with envy of its customer loyalty and yet I have rarely, if ever, seen another bank so relentless in its focus and calling as USAA. Too often growing it’s loans and deposits are made the priority rather than making the service of a specific customer base the priority. A quote I fall back to often comes from restaurateur Danny Meyer, “The number one reason guests cite for wanting to return to a restaurant is that when they go there, they feel seen and recognized.” People feel seen and recognized when they believe what you believe. Having the best price at the moment is simply a tool for bringing in business.

Companies often can avoid promoting their values even attempting to identify them for fear of alienating customers. This fear of “standing out” leads them to “fitting in”. “Fitting in” feels good in the moment, no one is rocking the boat but ultimately means the client can’t distinguish you from the competition and so back to the hampster wheel of price, service and quality we go.

Sinek defines repeat business as a client sticking with you because price, service and quality are better or more convenient than the competition. He defines loyalty as a customer being provided a competitive offer but choosing to remain your customer because the competitor’s brand does not align with how the customer sees themselves. He says the same thing regarding employees. How many flight attendants would leave Southwest if United promised them more pay? How many of your employees might leave if they were offered more by a competitor?

Researcher Brené Brown has stated, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”. I believe it is time for businesses to courageously identify and work from their values to create value. This is not a call to write-off profit or scale, but it is one asking us to be mindful of whether business profits are driving our behavior or if our beliefs are informing how we run our business. Are you looking to build your path forward? I’m ready to help.

Go Forth Boldly

“Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive”

Howard Thurman

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