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Several weeks ago, I saw an inspiring TED talk by Simon Simek on the power of why called “how great leaders inspire action.”  I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of the post in the event you care to watch it.  Before shutting down my browser, I navigated over to Amazon and ordered Sinek’s book “Start With Why.”

As I thought about the video and began reading the book, I started to think back on my career.  Reflecting on the various roles I’ve played in business, I realized that knowing why made me a better employee in each role.  Here’s two ways knowing  why can help you.

Employee: Master the WHY of your job

Most employees feel like a cog in a system. It’s unavoidable, really. The larger a business becomes, the greater the drive to systematize every process within that business. As systems and processes get built out, the inevitable focus is on the what, how and when to do a specific task.

This type of on-the-job training creates a number of highly desirable outcomes (from the business’ viewpoint).  It ensures the process is repeatable, which in turn guarantees customers A and Z receive identical (or at least highly similar) products or services. It means every employee that goes through the initial training has received a base-line understanding of how to perform the function in question. It also creates a tracking and exceptions process whereby breakdowns in manufacturing or service are easily identified. There can be little doubt that these are all positive outcomes for both the business and the customer.

However, this limited training also shortchanges employees and customers in a couple of ways. By not knowing why they are performing a task,  employees don’t fully understand how or when to perform the task slightly differently if the situation calls for it. By focusing solely on the what, how and when, employees are much more likely to fit square customer situations into round customer service holes, whether that hole addresses a customer need or not.  When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail!

By all means, on-boarding new employees must begin somewhere – and the logical starting point is a process-centric training to understand the basics of the job.  However, it is critical to ensure  employees become subject matter experts over time by teaching them why they are performing tasks in the proscribed manner.  If you are an employee, mastering the why of your job makes you infinitely more valuable, to both your business and to your customers.  By all means, master what you do, but know why you do it that way as well.

Manager: Ensure your teams know WHY your business exists

One of the critical functions of any leader is to set the tone for the organization.  The tone is set in a million daily interactions, but it usually begins with an assessment of the Mission, Vision and Values of the business. There are many ways to think about Mission, Vision and Values, and they are often confused and/or conflated.  I like to think about them in their simplest-to-understand form.  Mission is what you do.  Vision is what you would like to achieve in some future state.  Values are the deep rooted way in which you’ll accomplish your Mission and Vision.  Mission & Vision connects to employees through their head (logic), while Values appeals to their heart (emotion).

As leaders set the tone for the organization, one of the most important driving factors is a clear definition of why you do what you do. Defining why at this early stage greases the skids and allows for easier understanding and adoption of the organization Mission, Vision and Values.

How has knowing the why of something helped you in your position, past or present?

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Sean McGinnis

Director, Digital Marketing at Sears Parts Direct
Sean McGinnis is Director, Digital Marketing at Sears Parts Direct. He is also a (digital strategist, blogger, consultant ) and public speaker. You can find Sean on