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"Nothing says 'Have a nice day, now get out!' like a paper cup"

Simon Sinek, author of <i>Start with Why</i>, on Starbucks, Steve Jobs and the "patron saint of misf


Tell me about the origins of the book.

I had a little crisis six years ago. I had a business of my own and completely lost my passion for what I was doing. People give silly advice like “Do what you love”; the problem was I was doing the same thing and I didn’t love it any more. And there was a confluence of events where I made this discovery [that] every single organisation on the planet – even our own careers – functions on these three levels: what you do, how you do it and why [you] do it. I realised that if one of those pieces is missing, the organisation, or your career, is out of balance. And that is when I realised that I knew what I did and how I did it but I didn’t know why. I became obsessed.

And you think the most important part is the "why"?

I don’t think the “why” is most important. I think it is as important. The problem is it’s usually forgotten or dismissed. The “what” is the things we can measure, the things we can sell, the things we can see, the things we can touch. Everything tangible. “How” is process and strategy. But the reason why we are setting out on the journey is often forgotten.

Every company has a mission statement. Isn’t that the “why”?

I would hope that their mission statement is their “why”. Sadly, it rarely is. Most company mission statements are useless: they are not actionable and they don’t give anybody clear instructions as [to] why they should show up to work that day.

Can’t you just get a great advertising copywriter to add the “why” and end up being very successful after the fact?

In the short term.

But not in the long term?

No. If you look at the average age of a company on the Dow Jones index, it’s something like 35 years or younger. In other words . . . success is no indication of longevity. Companies are young, they get big, they mature and then they decline. That is not a foregone conclusion. The only thing that changes is that the “why” goes fuzzy.

You write about TiVo, a company that you accept has some of the best technology of its kind and yet hasn’t been successful in terms of its market capitalisation, in terms of its . . .

. . . in terms of any metric you want to look at. It’s all been awful.

It has failed to market itself in the right way. But that’s a sales failure, rather than a problem with its inbuilt mission.

Don’t forget, sales is a function of the company.

But isn’t it possible to add it as a veneer on top?

That’s the difference between marketing and a true sense of purpose.

The TiVo of the UK is Sky+ and Sky’s tagline is “Believe in better”. Is that a good way of selling personal video recorders and, if so, what does it tell us about the company?

It’s about consistency – the things you do and the decisions you make must be consistent with the things you say. So the slick advertising and good taglines are just pieces of the puzzle.

We have Steve Jobs in one corner with “Think different” and Rupert Murdoch and Sky with “Believe in better” in the other. One leader is lionised; the other faces a lot of hostility. But the trouble is our interaction with these leaders is often mediated and has nothing to do with our own intimate knowledge of their leadership . . .

But for the fact that nothing happens in a vacuum. The relationship we have with an organisation, in this case companies, is the same sort of bond on a biological level that we form with each other.

The single best machine to measure trust is a human being. We haven’t figured out a metric that works better than our own sort of, like, “There’s something fishy about you.”

What happens when the leader that embodies a company retires or, in the case of Jobs, dies?

The hardest decision that these founder-leaders make is the succession. Sadly, they always choose wrong.

The mistake all these visionary CEOs make is that they choose someone who is an operator to become the visionary. So Howard Schultz picked his COO and Starbucks went into decline. Shultz had to come back. Michael Dell picked his COO. Dell went into decline and Michael Dell had to come back. Bill Gates picked his COO. Microsoft is in decline.

Steve Jobs made the same mistake. He picked Tim Cook. Tim Cook is described as a man able to look at vast amounts of information and find the problems. You don’t want a man who finds problems; you want a guy who sees opportunity.

[Cook’s] already starting to release dividends under pressure from Wall Street. Steve Jobs ignored pressure.

Give me an example of a woman who fits the bill as a great leader.

Lady Gaga. She’s remarkable. She’s sort of the patron saint of misfits. She gives people a sense of belonging, permission to be themselves.

Why is Starbucks a better company with Howard Shultz than without him?

I don’t necessarily believe it’s a better company with him [than] without him but . . . the people who took over didn’t have a sense of direction.

They now talk about the coffee, the coffee, the coffee – “Have it your way” – which sounds like marketing to me. The irony is, if you go back, even on their own website, they will talk about how it was never about the coffee and how Shultz went to Italy on holiday and found this coffee culture – not coffee drink – in Italy and wanted to bring this culture back to America.

And this is the idea around which he formed Starbucks. He forgot about that. Even though it’s on his own website, it’s become about the coffee. It was never about the coffee.

Today, you go into Starbucks and they ask for your name, only to misspell it on a paper cup – and that’s supposed to do something for the relationship between you and them. I’m not sure that’s what a bleary-eyed commuter is looking for at seven o’clock in the morning but perhaps I’m being a little cynical.

Your cynicism is well placed, because when the “why” is fuzzy – when we are unclear about the purpose of all of these things – this stuff literally functions in a vacuum.

Let me give you an example from the past. It costs a lot of money to wash ceramic cups . . . and some bright number cruncher decided it made no sense. So they got rid of the mugs, got rid of the plates. Everything was paper. And nothing says, “Thank you, have a nice day, now get out!” like a paper cup. [Starbucks brought back the ceramic plates and cups soon after.]

So this is what happens when you put “what” before “why” – the numbers before the purpose.

If you had to recommend one business or management book, which would it be?

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor but the book is not only a Holocaust account. One of his many remarkable conclusions is that we cannot control the circumstances around us: all that we can control is our attitude. And because it’s not about business, it’s very hard book to dismiss.

"Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action" is published by Penguin Books, priced £9.99


Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein.