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The power of ‘Why’

Having recently navigated my second corporate merger and been talking with colleagues about company strategy, I was reminded of Simon Sinek’s insightful Ted talk, ‘Start with Why’.  It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.  His premise is that while most companies focus on WHAT they do – products, processes, competitive differentiation – the way to create a real and lasting connection with customers and employees is to focus relentlessly on WHY you do what you do.  Not surprisingly, that’s often tougher to determine.  Why do you want to make great cell phones or deliver a better MCAT course?  ‘To make money’ isn’t a terribly enduring or motivating why, – and Simon argues this is a result not a why.  But ‘to bring people close’ or ‘to make the practice of medicine accessible’ can be – and can make clear the guiding principles for the WHAT and HOW a company goes about its day to day.

This discussion was fresh in my mind as I was meeting with a woman I used to work with.  She remains at the healthcare company where we worked and you might have noticed a bit of, say, disruption in our industry recently.  Because of this and her uncertain future job prospects, she’d begun thinking about pursuing different roles.  She asked if I’d help connect her with people and I asked what she wanted to do or if she had particular companies in mind.  She instead talked about some of the people we had worked with and asked what they were doing now.  I talked about people’s comings and goings as best I knew them and with each role, she nodded with interest.

Her responses were some version of ‘That would be interesting / I think I’d like that / I could do that!’ As she asked if I’d reconnect her with these folks, I was reminded of the Dr. Seuss book ‘Are you my mother?’  When you’re not sure what your mother looks like it’s hard to tell who she might be.  Similarly, when you don’t know have a great sense of your motivation behind the type of work you want to do, it’s tough to tell what might be the right fit.

‘Why’ in action

Asking her WHAT she wanted to do so I could orient her to the right folks wasn’t getting me far.  So I shifted to an approach more akin to Simon’s – ‘WHY do you want to be in healthcare?’  She paused, then talked around it a bit, then paused again.  And then she told me that her parents had both been doctors and had impressed on her the importance of helping people.  It’s understandable then why she GOT into healthcare but not why she wants to BE in healthcare.  Ultimately, it was the part about ‘helping people’ that resonated for her.  And as we talked, she concluded that she needed to find a role with a more direct line of sight to helping people than her finance role offered.  Which of course opened up numerous possibilities – inside her current company and industry, and out.

I’m struck by the power of this question Why, particularly as jobs move overseas or are lost to technological innovation.  The expansion from WHAT we do and have experience doing to WHY we do what we do beyond the obvious financial benefits can open up an entirely different set of possibilities.  We just have to be open to asking – and perhaps more challenging, answering.

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