by Lauren Owen, Principal, Redpoint Succession and Leadership Coaching
“Men wanted: Hazardous journey; small wages, bitter cold, Long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful; Honour and recognition in case of success.”
So read Ernest Shackleton’s job listing in the London papers for crew members for his quest to be the first to cross the continent of Antarctica via the southernmost tip of the earth. He eventually hired 26 (and took on one stowaway) from the more than 5,000 who answered the call. They set off on the ship Endurance but never reached Antarctica. Ten months later, in the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea, ice closed in around the ship, eventually crushing it. The crew boarded three lifeboats and made their way to tiny Elephant Island. Shackleton and five crew members travelled on for another 800 miles to find help. Almost two years after setting out, all 27 of the crew members, along with Shackleton, were rescued.
The Endurance expedition has rightly earned a place in history for the crew’s triumph over grueling circumstances. How did they survive under conditions that would have caused many others to mutiny or simply give up and die? One answer lies in Shacketon’s leadership during the expedition, which has been studied extensively as a textbook example of how to keep team members motivated and working together in adverse conditions.
Simon Sinek, author of “Start with Why,” believes another factor in the expedition members’ survival was that, from the start, Shackleton attracted crew members who were motivated by insurmountable odds and believed in what Shackleton believed in. In other words, Shackleton’s original ad led him to people who were a good “fit” for his organization.
According to Sinek, when hiring, most organizations, unlike Shackleton, focus on the WHAT and not the WHY. For example, a typical job posting might list only the qualifications. While this might produce applicants who have the right skills, how do we identify applicants who also are the right fit for our company?
Companies that not only start out with a strong sense of WHY, but can also sustain it, are much more likely to survive multi-generational transitions and tough times. How often do we hear about a company founded by an individual with a clear vision that sputters along and eventually dies after the founder passes? Or a family business that is sold when the second or third generation members decide to cash in? If we have a family owned company, how do we keep future generations focused on and involved in the WHY?
- First, be clear about your organization’s WHY.
- Carry it through your organization’s daily decisions and actions.
- Sustain your WHY by finding team members who are a good fit. And if you are a family-owned company, be sure the family continues to be in sync with the WHY.
Be Clear About the WHY
Do you know why your company does the things it does? Do your customers and employees know? Most companies, Sinek says, try to sell us on WHAT they do or HOW they do it. WHY goes deeper. His primary example of a company that is clear about its WHY is Apple. Apple’s WHY is to challenge the status quo. A company that has a strong WHY, such as Apple, does everything to demonstrate their WHY, regardless of the products they make or the industry they are in.
Sinek suggests that the reason a company with a clear and strong WHY resonates so much with customers is that the WHY triggers our emotional decision making process. That’s why a strong WHY creates a powerful motivating force. People don’t buy WHAT you do; they buy WHY you do it. Similarly, your employees are motivated by WHY you your company exists, not WHAT you make or do or HOW you do it.
Sustain Your WHY
You can codify your company’s HOWs and WHATs in product descriptions and operation manuals. While your WHY can be put into words in a mission statement, it only comes alive when it serves as the basis for everything a company does or creates. A company’s WHY can only survive beyond the original founder if it attracts and retains employees (and future owners) with a similar passion for the WHY. These people will form the bridge from your company’s past to your company’s future.
A family owned business that loses track of the WHY will eventually be faced with family members who are likely to want to cash out the family business. The Eddy Family in the Pacific Northwest faced and conquered this challenge several years ago. The family founded Port Blakely Company, a lumber and real estate development company, more than 150 years ago. Over the years, ownership grew to more than 100 geographically dispersed family members. Some of them wanted to sell off their portion of the company. Concerned that a sell off would weaken the company, several family members initiated annual family-wide retreats. During these retreats, family members spent a lot of time discussing the company’s values of environmental stewardship and sustainability. Younger Eddy family members attended environmental education programs. A family council was established to codify the family’s values in a vision and mission statement and provide governance for the business.
As a result, a potential split was averted, and the company (and family) is stronger than ever, all during a time of falling lumber and real estate prices. “I think there were plenty of people in the company who would say if it hadn’t been for the establishment of the family council, and lines of communication, understanding and alignment, this could have broken up the company,” said Rene Ancinas, a fourth-generation family member who has been president and CEO since July.
In essence, the Eddy family members were brought into the WHY of the family business.
Attract Good Fits for Your WHY
How do you go about attracting people who are a good fit for your company? You can start like Shackleton did with his expedition’s job description and communicate your essence in the job posting. When you interview, in addition to asking about someone’s qualifications, ask questions that help give you insights into what makes them tick.
- Tell me what you are passionate about.
- Tell me about a time when you had to go above and beyond to get a job done.
- What was a major obstacle you were able to overcome in the past year?
- What type of people do you like to work with?
- What type of environment do you do your best work in?
It seems almost too obvious to state, but you also need to share your company’s WHY with each prospective employee and ask them how this fits with their own beliefs.
Once you’ve have people who are a good fit, how do you retain them? Don’t just leave your mission statement as a plaque on the wall. Remind employees WHY the company was founded and WHY it exists and what it believes. Create a company in which your employees feel that the company cares about them and the work they do makes a difference.
Sinek states, “The goal is not just to hire people who need a job, but to hire people who believe what you believe. If you hire just because they need a job, they’ll work for your money. If you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”
We believe they’ll also help ensure the future for your company.
To watch a video of Simon Sinek explaining the power of starting with WHY, click here.
To learn more about the Endurance expedition, read here.