Why oh Why oh why?

I sometimes feel like I’m in a parallel universe during that initial conversation with a leader or executive who asks me to work with them to develop leadership, raise performance, help build a new executive team or support a process of cultural change in their organisation. 

I always start by wanting to clarify what their purpose is, why they or their team (uniquely) exist, what their clear goals are, and why they want to raise performance. They seem like such simple questions, simplistic even, yet they rarely seem easy to answer. There is so much written and spoken around this subject – from Simon Synek’s hugely well-known ‘Why’ video (‘How great leaders inspire action’) – one of the most watched business YouTube videos ever – to talk of ‘BHAGs’ (Jim Collins) or ‘Crazy Goals’ (Ben Hunt-Davis, ‘Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?’) Yet it still doesn’t seem to be central in the language and approach of many leaders. 

When looking at the high performance sporting world, the clarity of the goal(s) sets the absolute foundation for the performance that follows. That goal might be a personal best performance, or a gold medal (though these days sports psychology has advanced to work out that having a ‘controllable’ performance-focused goal is better than an ‘uncontrollable’ outcome goal – so a personal best performance rather than a gold medal is how the goal should best be framed to get the best performance…), or maybe the goal is to set a new record or standard (measured perhaps in time, but also can be measured in other ways, quality of technique etc). Either way, there is a lot of goal clarity in the elite sporting environment, backed up by an ongoing process of reclarifying the goal as experience, external changes and other ideas come in to challenge that original clarity – and from that then flows ever greater clarity around the ‘why’, which in turn facilitates discussions around how a team works, communicates and plans the path towards that goal.

There’s nothing new about the importance of knowing the answer to basic ‘why’ questions – why does this company exist, why does this team exist, what are we here to do that no one else can do? And books, articles and research continue to reaffirm and reinforce the ever greater need with ‘millennials’ (- not a generalisation I like, so perhaps just the wider, more diverse current and future workforce -) to be clear about the purpose and meaning of our teams and organisations in order to motivate and inspire.

Yet I continue to have these uneasy conversations with incredibly senior people, chief executives, directors of large organisations. And when I interrupt their description of what they want me to do (help build a team, support a department struggling with vast change) to ask for a simple clarification of what their overarching goal is, why they exist as a team, board or company, I often get incomplete, unsubstantial answers. 

At a recent meeting with a group of directors (paid vastly more than me in a business services department of 91 people in a large financial services company), I was invited to come and motivate their staff who were not reaching their potential and needed motivating after a period of change and staff cuts. I asked about the purpose of their team, and they told me the purpose of this team of 91 was to strip out inefficiencies within the company – “Ok, I get that,” I said, “but why do you want to do this – what’s the reason you want to strip out inefficiencies in the company?” They looked at me blankly. In order to break the awkward silence, I made some suggestions, “Is it in order to improve the service to customers, is it in order to create the world-leading product, is it in order to become the market leader in your area of expertise, is it part of a restructuring to empower people working in your organisation to innovate and continue to develop and grow the company?” They looked at me in silence – they just couldn’t get beyond the fact that they were there to strip out inefficiencies in the company and make business savings. 

But that isn’t enough to motivate people. As Baroness Sue Campbell (an absolute leadership heroine of mine) said in a talk recently, ‘Noone gets out of bed for KPIs!’ Who is honestly going to get out of bed in order to ‘strip out inefficiencies’ and feel inspired to give their utmost and go the extra mile to do so? There must be greater meaning to the answer to the ‘why’ question, more of a purpose for people to connect to, if you want to help them develop and improve their performance over the long-term.

Another Chief Executive, who was clearly impressive in so many ways, asked me to support some performance work in setting a new company goal and told me the goal was to grow the company and double turnover. “Why do you want to grow?” I asked once again in the simplest of terms. Initially, the question was answered promptly in terms of justifying the figure given, a round figure that seemed ambitious enough but not overambitious. I gently questioned whether the narrative around the figures could have a more inspiring and meaningful justification, and went on to ask why growth was a good thing for the company? I have asked this on quite a few occasions before – and again it was hard to get a clear answer – there was an assumption that growth was good and that I was crazy to question it – and yet if it was so obviously good, why couldn’t the Chief Executive answer why it was so good, why it was right for this company to grow, and to grow at this particular pace and to the stated extent? Not being able to articulate an answer to that question perplexed me – why was it so hard to answer? I am only too aware that I can’t do my job of supporting performance improvement, if we can’t explain and address these ‘assumptions’ and ‘gaps’ that sit behind these fundamental ‘why’ questions.

The world needs more ‘why’ questions – not just once, but again and again, day after day. Let’s return to being like all those wonderfully pesky 4-year olds who ask wonderful ‘why’ questions all day that can make us stop and think (- and often irritate the hell out of their parents!) Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to get dressed today? Why can’t we play outside all day? Why do we have to sit down and be quiet at school? Why do people do bad things? Why can’t I go to bed later? And let’s start doing that in our ‘grown-up’ worlds: Why do you do the job you do? Why does your team exist? Why does your company need to grow?

Why can’t people ask why more? No, really, why?


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