To build a business that everyone loves, start with why

When motivating employees or customers, businesses tend to use one of two approaches: the carrot or the stick. Simon Sinek wants to change that.

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Image credit

Carrots are lures. You use them to entice people to decide in your favor because there’s something in it for them. For employees, carrots come in the form of bonuses, Googleplex-like offices, promises of work-life balance, and benefits. For customers, it’s discounts, coupons, and freebies.

Sticks on the other hand, are “punishments” for making an undesirable choice. This is why employees get warnings, embarrassing memos, and face the looming threat of being fired or laid-off.

While carrots and sticks work in many cases, they are external. Once they’re gone, the person you’re trying to convince might make a different decision altogether. After all, their decision had nothing to do with you in the first place.

Are these really the only options?

What if there’s a way to motivate people internally?

Author and speaker Simon Sinek believes there is, which he explains in his book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. He illustrates this through a diagram called The Golden Circle.

It’s not as complicated as the diagram used by Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock, with it’s “Innovation: Upwards Revenue Stream Dynamics” and “Eficationication: Finular Analysis”¬†:

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It’s actually this simple:

Image credit: Simon Sinek
Image credit: Simon Sinek

No corporate speak here. Just “What”, “How”, and “Why.”

Motivation Through Inspiration

Unlike typical leadership tools, The Golden Circle motivates people through personal inspiration. It can help you figure out the best way to move people with your messaging, to inspire them into action and to give them a sense of belonging.

What makes it so useful is that there are many types of people you can affect just by using this framework.

  • The employees you want to show up each day, so that they are able and willing to do their best work.
  • The talented worker who is looking for a new employer to work with that shares their values and goals.
  • The customer who is so overwhelmed with choices and ads that she needs a stronger reason to buy. A reason that goes beyond paying the lowest price.

The carrot and the stick are all about answering the question “What’s in it for me?” But The Golden Circle only has one key question:


Finding Your WHY

Before we understand the WHY, we should first be clear on what the other parts of the circle represent.

WHAT: This is the easiest part to identify, since it’s just the products and services you sell. All businesses know WHAT they do.

HOW: The HOW is the point of difference. Some call this a “unique selling point” or “competitive advantage” or “proprietary process”. These are the things that allow you to carry out your WHAT and make your business different from others.

Your WHY tends to be harder to identify. In fact, it’s entirely possible that you don’t even have a WHY yet. (Money is not a WHY, as Simon points out in his book. According to him, money is just a result.)

To find your WHY, ask yourself the following:

  • What is the main cause, belief, or value behind your business? Why does it exist?
  • What is the larger impact you want your business to have in the world? (Not in terms of market share, but in terms of how you can change people’s lives or the world at large.)
  • Why do you and your employees get up in the morning? Why do you all work together? Is it just to get paid or is there a deeper, underlying reason?
  • Why should anyone (your employees, your customers, your next door neighbor) care about your business at all?

As you can see, your WHY is the deepest, most important aspect of your business, while your WHATs and your HOWs are just proof or expressions of what you believe.

People who are attracted to your WHY will follow you, regardless of any existing barriers. It doesn’t matter if your prices are more expensive or if you don’t offer six-figure salaries. It doesn’t matter if you only have a few stores or a small office space.

With a compelling WHY, your business becomes a cause for people to believe in, rather than another option on the shelf.

This explains why avid Apple fans buy iProducts even if there are cheaper alternatives out there with more features. This is why people support their favorite sports teams, regardless of consecutive losses. This is why fans of Rent or Harry Potter¬†sleep on the street just to get the best seats even if they’ve seen the show before.

Sure, you can get a few purchases with a carrot or a stick. You might even be very profitable, at first. But lasting customer and employee loyalty only comes from having a strong WHY. It’s all that will be left of your business once the carrots rot and the sticks break.

Tell us, then: what is your WHY?