We have lost our way. Big time. We are so focused on what we do and how we do it, that we have lost sight of why we do it. If, indeed, we ever knew. The irony is, when it comes down to it, it’s not about What or How, it’s all about Why…
What do you do?
We all know what it is to be seated at a dinner party beside a guest to whom we have only just been introduced. As the hors d’oeuvres get underway, the conversations commence and, before long, you ask your dining companion what she or he does. As in – “So, what do you do?“. This is straightforward enough and doesn’t usually present any major difficulty.
Your new dining companion: “Me? Oh, I drive for a living.”
You: “How wonderful. Do you drive for a taxi firm or is it more, like, Ocado?”
Your new dining companion: “Actually, I’m a Formula One driver for Mercedes.”
All that is about the “What”.
How do you do that?
“How” is about making the What happen. The processes and culture you deploy to work your magic. If you work in Formula One, it’s the relentless focus on split-second teamwork and mechanical efficiency allied with super-sharp racing skill and tactics. If you’re Ocado, it’s nailing your order management system, your reliability and your delivery logistics. In the pharmaceutical industry, it boils down to your attention to fine detail, careful experimentation and relentless testing underpinned by inalienable ethical principles. Nowadays, the finance industry’s “How” blends heavily regulated financial engineering with economic research, market making and risk management in order to offer investment funds.
The “How” is all about the way you get things done.
So we all know the answers to What (do you do)? and How (do you do it)? but when was the last time anyone asked you why you do what you do?
“I’m a teacher.”
“I see. Tell me, why are you a teacher?”
No so much.
And yet, as Simon Sinek, explains in Start with Why this (Why?) is the most meaningful question of all. I mean, if you’re a teacher because you want to change the world one person at a time, and you feel that happening every time you teach a small child to read a book, or when you offer words of guidance and support to a teenager who is hampered by a chronic lack of self-confidence, then I’m suddenly very interested. That’s far more inspirational than being a teacher because it means you can have three months off in the summer.
Sinek describes the “Golden Circle” which has Why? at its centre and What? on the outside.
Instead of What?, start with Why?
This Why? is a huge question for our industry – the finance industry. What’s our Why?, our collective motivation? Why do so many folk awaken in the wee small hours and trudge into the City of London or Wall Street jammed like sardines on hopelessly unreliable trains day after day? It’s not because of the wide open spaces and abundant greenery or the excellent work/life balance, and it isn’t the friendly, chatty atmosphere.
So what is it? Could it be the super-size-me cheque that lands in the bank account every month? Or the kudos that comes hand-in-hand with possession of a beautiful business card with Mega-Firm! embossed on the front?
For many, that’s exactly the Why?. No more, no less. There’s no social component, no sense of doing good or drive to change the world and no greater plan than to pay off the mortgage 20 years early.
But that particular Why? leads to trouble. Allow me to adduce the evidence. I well remember when Stan O’Neal (then CEO at Merrill Lynch) was paid US$48 million in 2006. It may be apocryphal but the story going around that year, was that he paid one of his deputies US$35m whilst, for no discernible reason, he paid the other US$33.9m. The chap who received a mere US$33.9m was incoherent with rage at the injustice of it, threatening to walk out of the firm unless a righteous balance was restored. I don’t know if that story is true but I wouldn’t be surprised.
It’s like Trump once said: I don’t really care about Money – it’s just a great way of keeping score.
And if we’re playing that game, it hurts to come second.
When your Pay Packet becomes the Why? bad things happen. Like a Global Financial Crisis; the direct result of overpaid, chest beating, alpha-male chief executives engaging in a Battle of the Banks to dominate the gigantic mortgage backed derivatives jungle, between 2005 and 2007. As the sole purpose was massive self-enrichment, everything else paled into insignificance. For more details read the Big Short. Don’t like reading? Watch the Big Short.
Back then, the banks said all the right things:
But in reality, despite all of the fine words, their Why? was no greater than putting dollars into their employees’ bank accounts.
Which is why disaster followed – on truly epic scale:
All this begs the question:
What is our “Why?” – here and now as we head swiftly into 2017? Why do we do what we do, expend the effort we expend, and reach for those ambitious heights for which we reach? What is it all about?!
When you step back from it, and stare down from our vantage point of uber-privilege on the vast deprivation stretching out in every direction as far as the eye can see, (and beyond), the Why? suddenly snaps into sharp focus. It is to play our part in creating a world in which, unlike today, Everyone can be healthy and happy in a place they call home.
Perhaps the instinctive reaction is to laugh at the utter absurdity of that goal. It’s just too big. But that’s to get prematurely sucked into the How? and the What?. Great leaders start with Why? long before they think about the other two circles of What? and How?. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, all had a vision and a purpose and a Why? way before they ever had What or How.
Some thoughts about what it means to Start With Why?:
- We work out what we actually care about; if we can write it down on a piece of paper, it’s a real thing. And vice versa if we can’t;
- We stop obsessing over those short-term goals and recognize them for what they are – short term;
- We finally understand where we fit into the Grand Scheme of Things – our personal contribution to this planet as it struggles with Finance, Health, Education, Environment, Inequality and everything else that needs fixing;
- We step out of our traditional niche and embrace Disruptive Change;
- We change jobs and do something different if our firm only ever talks the language of what and how;
- When we don’t start with Why?, we quickly become obsolete;
- When we do start with Why?, it frees us to work on great things outside our comfort zone.
Other things I have written: