The Workforce Whisperer

To retain workers and customers, businesses have to inspire them. Leadership maven Simon Sinek ’95 helps employers light that spark.

Simon Sinek '95
Robert Ascroft
Simon Sinek '95

In 2005, Simon Sinek ’95 seemed to have it all: his own advertising and marketing business, high-profile clients like General Electric and ABC Sports, an upscale apartment in New York City, expensive vacations.

Yet his life felt empty. He was depressed, even paranoid, he writes in his 2009 book, “Start With Why”: “I was convinced I was going to go out of business. I was convinced I was going to be evicted from my apartment […] and that my clients knew I was a fraud.”

Sinek was hiding a secret — a well-paid job just wasn’t enough. He craved meaning. After a friend expressed concern about how he was doing, he came clean. “It was an amazing relief to admit my struggles,” he says today. “Superficially, life was good — but I was putting all my energy into acting happy. I had lost my passion and was embarrassed to admit I was struggling.”

Only four years later, Sinek delivered one of the most popular TED Talks in history, attracting more than 30 million views to date. “What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief?” he asked his audience. “Why do you get out of bed in the morning, and why should anyone care?”

He had discovered his purpose, he says. Now a best-selling author, inspirational speaker and leadership expert, he used his quest to recapture his own passion while helping others grow their businesses, manage workers and lead happier lives.

Sinek believes work without joy and fulfillment is squandered time. And the only way to achieve happiness, he says, whether you’re an employer or an employee, is by focusing on your true calling. Discover what drives you in life, and let that guide you.

“Very few people or companies can clearly articulate why they do what they do,” he writes in “Start With Why,” which has sold more than 700,000 copies in the U.S. “When I say why, I don’t mean to make money — that’s a result. […] Why does your company exist?”

Millennial blues

Sinek argues that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it, citing companies like Apple and Starbucks that, he says, focus on providing a satisfying customer experience and selling a cause, not just a product.

To some, Sinek’s advice may sound like an update of decades-old workplace maxims. In the 1970s, organizational psychologists Greg Oldham and J. Richard Hackman explored how jobs could be changed to help workers experience more motivation and satisfaction. In the 1980s, mythologist/writer Joseph Campbell offered his road map for a fulfilled life: “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”

Besides, many 21st-century workers don’t see meaning and happiness on the job as a particularly high priority. They simply yearn for consistent, dependable hours; living wages; and a return of traditional jobs, like manufacturing, that used to give hardworking semiskilled workers a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

Still, there’s evidence that employees, especially younger ones, are frustrated on the job. Last year, a Gallup Poll found only 29 percent of millennials (those born between 1980-96) felt engaged or emotionally connected at work — a lower percentage than other age groups. “They are indifferent about work and show up just to put in their hours,” wrote the Gallup analysts. The poll also found that 21 percent of millennials had changed jobs within the previous year, more than three times the number of older workers who job-hop.

Some observers blame the young employees themselves. It wasn’t so long ago, they note, that the financial world imploded and the nation struggled through a deep recession. The finger-wagging message: Pay your dues, just like we did; your time will come. There’s a reason it’s called work — you’re not meant to enjoy it.

Although Sinek does take young workers to task for their hair-trigger impatience, he is largely sympathetic to their challenges. He argues many of them aren’t “entitled” as much as they are the product of “failed parenting strategies.”

He goes on to note how they received medals in sports activities just for participating, or got into honors courses or scored top grades because their parents pleaded their case to teachers and school administrators. “[Kids] were told they were special, all the time,” he says in a recent video interview. “They were told they could have anything they want in life, just because they want it.”

Once in the working world, he says, they find out they’re not so special. And voilà: You’ve created “an entire generation with lower self-esteem.”

Simon Sinek speaking on stage at an event
Courtesy Simon Sinek

A 21st-century development?

Adding to the problem, young workers live in a world of hyper-connected technology, which breeds “a sense of impatience and instant gratification,” Sinek says.

This gets in the way of true satisfaction, he says: “Some things that really, really matter, like love, or job fulfillment, or joy […] take time.”

Much as recovering alcoholics make sure alcohol isn’t within reach, people can kick their technology addictions by removing the temptation of phones and other technology, Sinek says. Each email he sends includes this request: “If you’re reading this while in a meeting or while eating a meal with someone, please put it away and read it later. The people you’re with are more important than anything in this email.”

Young workers are also facing significant market challenges. Jobs are going abroad. Industries are slashing their head counts by adopting new technologies. The nation’s fastest-growing employers, including Facebook and Alphabet (Google’s parent company), hire far fewer workers than comparable companies of past generations, reducing the number of prime jobs available. Job security has become illusory: American workers today have an organizational life expectancy of just 3.5 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Given all these workplace pressures, says Andy Molinsky, professor of international management and organizational behavior at Brandeis International Business School, we have limited evidence that today’s young workers are very different than their parents and grandparents were at their age.

“You could simply conclude from the data that young people have always been frustrated and disengaged” on the job, says Molinsky, author of the book “Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence.” He argues, moreover, that “all generations care about meaningful work,” not just the younger ones.

Sinek agrees with this analysis. “We all need to feel valued and valuable,” he says. “God bless [young workers], because they speak out and demand this thing that everyone wants.”

He isn’t the only one arguing that employers can do more to keep young workers happy. Last year’s Gallup Poll on worker satisfaction said as much. “It’s possible that many millennials actually don’t want to switch jobs, but their companies aren’t giving them compelling reasons to stay,” the Gallup analysts said. “While millennials can come across as wanting more and more, the reality is that they just want a job that feels worthwhile — and they will keep looking until they find it.”

Obsessed with ‘why’

A New Jersey native, Sinek studied cultural anthropology at Brandeis. “I loved the small classes, and the teachers were pretty remarkable,” he says, adding that he learned critical thinking and the power of formulating solid arguments from his adviser, anthropology professor David Jacobson.

After graduating, Sinek enrolled in law school but quickly decided the law wasn’t for him and left. “Try telling Jewish parents you’re dropping out of law school,” he quips.

He went on to found his advertising and marketing company. When professional disillusionment derailed him in 2005, he called on his anthropology background to find a solution. He began doing research on human behavior. He asked why companies like Apple, Harley-Davidson and Southwest Airlines were able to build fierce brand loyalty while others attracted few fans.

Sinek determined there’s “a very basic human need — the need to belong,” he writes in “Start With Why.” “Our desire to feel like we belong is so powerful that we will go to great lengths, do irrational things and often spend money to get that feeling.”

To try to understand the underpinnings of this common need, Sinek began reading about the brain’s structure. He also spoke with experts, including UCLA’s Peter Whybrow, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist. Sinek learned that the outer neocortex layer is responsible for rational and analytical thought, and language. Two layers of the inner limbic brain, which govern emotional connections, determine our feelings, including trust, loyalty and love.

It was something of an aha moment for Sinek, who concluded that these brain structures help explain why we do what we do and like what we like.

The limbic brain “is where gut decisions come from,” he argues. “They just feel right. Our limbic brain is powerful enough to drive behavior that sometimes contradicts our rational and analytical understanding of a situation.”

Some academics and scientists say that the brain is more complex than Sinek believes, and that emotions and cognition are not as neatly compartmentalized as the limbic system theory (an idea first proposed in the early 1950s) suggests. Researchers, including neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux at New York University, argue that fear, like other emotions, depends on neocortical circuits that give rise to awareness that one is in harm’s way.

Nevertheless, Sinek believes consumers are drawn to products produced by Apple and Harley-Davidson, for instance, because these companies have figured out how to appeal to the limbic, feeling areas in our brain by successfully communicating their “why.” Companies that make rational pitches that appeal only to the neocortex will never win consumers’ loyalty, he says.

“The power of why is not opinion,” says Sinek. “It’s biology.”

‘I have a dream,’ not ‘I have a plan’

Once Sinek had figured out what was missing in his life — “I was struggling because I knew what I did and how I did it, but not why I did it,” he says — he realized this discovery might help others, too.

He started asking probing questions of people he met: Why do your friends like you? What are your earliest happy childhood memories? Why do you get up in the morning? “I became obsessed with the concept of why,” he says. “When we know why we do what we do, we can find joy.”

At first, Sinek worked with friends and other individuals, helping them find their own inspiration. “I didn’t know what to do with my passion at first,” he says. “I didn’t think it was any kind of business. But I knew it inspired me.”

One day, while having breakfast with an old client in Vancouver, Sinek began explaining his new focus, scribbling circles on a napkin to illustrate his emerging view that every successful company has “why” at its core.

“This is amazing — can you show it to my CEO?” the client asked. Sinek ended up leading a session with the company’s executives, making $5,000 for his time. “I realized I can make a living helping other companies and entrepreneurs discover their own why,” he says.

His message spread. Soon, he was being booked for consulting and speaking gigs at big companies, at the Pentagon, and elsewhere. He realized he’d found his why — he enjoyed inspiring people. He liked helping them make lifestyle changes that allowed them to find happiness and maybe even change the world.

In addition to “Start With Why,” Sinek is the author of three more books, including “Find Your Why: A Practical Guide to Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team,” which will be released in September. “My ideas are thousands of years old,” he acknowledges. “But I’ve found a simple language that gets those who need to listen to listen.”

Sinek bristles when asked if he sees himself as a self-help guru.

“I don’t make anyone walk on hot coals,” he says. The most he will say is that he’s “a preacher for a cause.”

“I’m an optimist. I speak; I write; I teach; I advise,” Sinek says. “I’m trying to spread a message, but there are others doing it as well — I’m more interested in the ideas than the royalties.”

His clients see a direct connection between his ideas and their bottom line. “Simon’s work has made a profound impact in our talent attraction, retention and development, and ultimately in accelerating revenues and profits,” says Charlie Kim, founder of Next Jump, a company that creates technology for employee-discount programs.

Those reluctant to make life changes, even in the face of unhappiness, elicit a blunt response from Sinek. “Life has choices,” he says. “It’s irresponsible not to focus on joy in your work. All I’m after is a little bit of awareness and self-improvement.”

Sinek teaches corporate executives and others to be better leaders by focusing on their organization’s key mission or purpose — the why. “Martin Luther King had an ‘I have a dream’ speech, not an ‘I have a plan’ speech,” he notes.

Companies and organizations succeed only if they determine their core mission, then use it to inspire both their customers and their employees. “We follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to,” he writes in “Start With Why.” “We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves.”

Some of the companies Sinek cites as worth emulating because of their capacity to inspire a rabid following have run into trouble recently, raising questions about whether he cherry-picked his examples and was influenced by hindsight bias.

Harley-Davidson, for example, has loyal fans willing to tattoo the company’s logo on their bodies. Yet the motorcycle maker has seen its sales and share price drop as it struggles to reach young riders.

And Amazon has seen its sales soar, even though the company has been criticized for not focusing on employee satisfaction, undercutting another Sinek precept. He counters that Amazon could be headed for a downturn, noting that Walmart was also a high-flying company once but now is facing financial challenges amid its workers’ complaints.

Here is Sinek’s larger point: An edge in quality, price or service can dissipate. But a company that defines itself as an organization on a mission breeds loyal customers and employees. “Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them,” he writes. “They hire already motivated people and inspire them.”  

Gregory Zuckerman is a special writer for The Wall Street Journal and the author of “Rising Above: How 11 Athletes Overcame Challenges in Their Youth to Become Stars” (Penguin, 2016).