A critical piece of formulating a strategy is knowing where you are trying to get to, i.e., what is the overarching goal? In Simon Sinek’s excellent TED Talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/ simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action), he highlights the difference between the “What, How and Why”. He points out that “this little idea explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire where others aren’t.” He goes on to say that “every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do. Some know how they do it. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do.” So, he continues “what is your purpose? What is your cause, What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?” From my experience working in large companies and coaching leaders most people think they know the answers to these questions at some level, but are often not able to articulate their “why”.
Great strategic leaders and organizations need to have a clear understanding of their “why” for two reasons, first, it gives a clear focus as to what they do and second, they are able to inspire others to follow them. Let’s consider each of these points.
Knowing your “why” leads to clear focus
Let me illustrate the value of purpose and understanding the value of knowing your “why” by recounting my experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Before I joined my first pharmaceutical company I had worked in the healthcare industry and knew my purpose was to help patients. I had clearly fixed in my mind, the image of a sick child who was crying with pain in the middle of the night, maybe due to an ear infection or something more serious. I knew that the best hope to relieve this child’s suffering was medicine and more specifically drugs to relieve the pain and potentially to cure the underlying disease. It was an important mission for me to work in an environment that was researching innovative treatments for patients and I joined a drug company with that mission in mind. The reason I got up in the morning was to work for an organization to get new drugs to patients. Working in that industry strengthened my own purpose as I experienced the impact of some of the medicines we worked on. In my personal experience I witnessed friends and relatives suffering from diseases that had little chance of a cure or relief. My sense of powerlessness in those moments heightened my sense of urgency and focus on “why” I was doing the job I was doing.
Working in a large or small organization it is easy to get distracted from your mission. The constant flow of email or meetings, gossip about the next merger or any number of things can take up your day and use up your energy. A second impact for me was being sure that the decision maker(s) were in the room for a particular meeting – if they were not there then there was little point to the meeting. Both these points illustrate the need to focus your time on achieving your purpose.
Knowing your “why” inspires others to follow
The second reason that great strategic leaders and organizations have a clear understanding of their “why” is they are able to inspire others to follow them. There are several terms that are commonly used when talking about the purpose of an organization including strategic intent, mission, vision, reason for being. The reason these points are important is that they inspire others to follow that purpose. For a strategic leader to be successful they need to not only manage people to achieve goals but they also need to inspire them to be engaged and motivated. Let me illustrate this with an example;
One company I worked for took the approach of improving their R&D productivity by setting measurable targets for the organization. The leadership of that company had a clear understanding of their challenges both from an internal perspective and the factors from the external environment that were impacting their business. They recognized that the status quo had to be challenged and the organization needed to be transformed. They were not looking for minor improvements or incremental changes but quantum leaps. The targets set for R&D required dramatic change in both structure and process. The challenge for the leadership of that company was also to inspire the people in the organization to change the way they worked and to increase their effectiveness and efficiency. They also needed people to develop fresh approaches to discovering new drugs.
They started by developing a clear vision for what the R&D organization really wanted to be. In this case the most productive organization. The “why” for the organization was clear, it was about creating a healthier world. It was a clear purpose that inspired people to get involved with this mission. Increasing productivity for the company was not just about making more money, it was about the health of the world. From my personal perspective, it was absolutely in alignment with my mission. Leaders in the company communicated this vision repeatedly and consistently over many years to produce alignment across the organization and inspire people to do their best even through times of great change. The desired impact was met with the increased productivity of the company.
Take a moment to think about your ‘why’. Why do you get up in the morning and do what you do? What is your true motivation and do your actions really align to your ultimate ‘why’?
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Transformative Leadership Through Astute Insights