The power of answering “Why?”

November 24th, 2010
Walk in snowy woods on flickr/bealetherese

Do you know why you do what you do?

The power of purpose gets lots of bandwidth on the talk show circuit, in book titles, with motivational bloggers on the web. Perhaps it’s because “why” is an easy question to pose. Anyone with young children certainly has heard it often. But answering “why” at the office is not so easy unless you’ve done some good hard thinking about why you show up for work everyday.

That brings up a story on the issue of answering  “why” a business exists:

A few years ago a group of us interviewed Sally Jewell, CEO of REI, as part of a leadership project. Sally recalled a management exercise in which groups of executives were asked the reason for REI’s existence.  The input was distilled into a purpose statement you’ll see REI share on the web: “To inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.” But Sally recalled that statement grew from a singular passion: To help people get outside and play. “Get Outside” is an anthem in REI’s advertising, store signage and even in an email I recently received:  “Get outdoors with REI …”

Sally’s words came back to me recently when a colleague in Oregon told me a story about a family road trip through the Northwest. The vacation took an abrupt turn after a stop at the REI flagship store in Seattle, a building as widely known for its spectacular architecture as for its offerings of gear and apparel. After a shopping binge, the family loaded up the car and returned to Oregon. They decided to go camping with their new purchases for the rest of their vacation.

Determining the “why” of your business need not be a tiring existential exercise. There’s power in distilling the answer into a simple memorable phrase. It becomes an anthem for why you do what you do — a simple idea that attaches itself to everyone you meet, every person who works on your behalf.

The “why” keeps working long after you’ve put it into words. That photo above? It was taken on our walk in the woods this week. We welcomed the first snow of season with an inclination to grab our gear and “get outside!”

Posted November 24th, 2010

  1. November 24th, 2010 at 08:23 | #1

    YES! You are hitting the nail directly and soundly on the head Therese. I’ve been talking about this a lot lately. I’ve heard and read a number of thought leaders who talk about the importance of really understanding the “WHY” behind your “WHAT and HOW”. In fact, if a business can only speak to their what and how they do, they have probably found the root cause of most of their problems.

    Thanks for sharing the insights from yet another perspective. I’m going to add a link here that I think brings additional clarity to the subject.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    Rod Brooks
    VP & CMO
    PEMCO Mutual Insurance Co

  2. Therese Beale
    November 24th, 2010 at 08:51 | #2

    Rod, No surprise to hear you’re on top of this! I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek. His Why-How-What model is a powerful construct for messaging.

    Thanks for helping spread the word. A happy Thanksgiving to you!
    — sometimes known as “First Snowflake Freakout Lady” 😉

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