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Book Review: Start With Why by Simon Sinek

By Fran Brosan, Chairman

I’ve been late to the party on Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, which was published in 2009. So apologies to aficionados and fans.

Of course Simon Sinek is now almost best known for his TED talks, the 5 minute version of this book has had nearly 1 million views on YouTube, the longer version over 3.5 million. It’s clearly a popular approach.

So the purpose of this review is two fold. Not to tell you what the book’s about, 5 minutes on YouTube can do that. But to say why the book might be worth reading. And to put a (personal) point of view of the potential applicability of the idea.

Let’s start with the latter. Like most populist approaches Start With Why promises to revolutionise the way you think about your marketing (or your company). In that sense it succeeds. It turns around the way we think about what we might say about what we are offering to our customers and asks us to start with our cause or our purpose. He asks ‘Why does your organisation exist? What makes you get out of bed in the morning? And critically, ‘why should anyone care?’. It’s not to make money – that’s a by-product of what we do. He cleverly links it to the way our brains work and how we make decisions. Sinek certainly has some good quotes which you will be able to sprinkle into your presentations and thinking once you’ve read the book. There are some good arguments about why manipulations such as promotions don’t create long term value. Interestingly, this has also been admirably demonstrated by WARCs long term study on communications effectiveness in partnership with the IPA which shows that digital in its turn is just a manipulative tactic and doesn’t build growth in the way that long term investment in the brand does. WARC: Effectiveness in the Digital Age.

Like many popular approaches, particularly ones that have been around for a while, detractors have had time to marshal their arguments too (think of the academic backlash on the HBR Net Promotor Score for instance). But the irony is,Sinek’s approach ‘feels’ right. For those who haven’t read the book, he makes the case that when we say something feels right it’s our words for the thinking that the limbic part of our brain does – it makes decisions for us (fight or flight for instance) in the blink of an eye, but we can’t articulate why we’ve made those decisions other than to say that it’s a gut instinct.

In terms of actual usefulness ‘Start with Why’ depends, I suspect however, on what you can actually control. As a company owner, I am at the heart of what this company stands for. If I think it’s drifting off course I’m in a strong position to put it back on track. If you work for Dell and you’re not in a senior position it’s debateable whether you could use this book to reimagine the bit of work you are doing. It needs to come from the top – one main plank of Sinek’s thesis is that a company takes its raison d’etre from its founders or leading visionaries and if they leave or lose their way then the rot sets in. The other downside is, like many cultish points of view, you can sometimes feel silly saying them out loud. So if you are going to use it, my recommendation is to reuse his phrases as closely as you can. He’s a clever, highly educated chap – and paraphrasing the ideas can start to make it sound a little woolly.

So is the book worth reading? Yes in the sense that it contains quite a few examples. It is occasionally a little repetitive – how many times can you talk about Apple – but admittedly, this is not an academic study. And of course you do get to feel smug about the fact that you’ve actually read the book, rather than cheating via YouTube.

Finally, if, like me, you enjoy making notes in the margin and pulling out quotes to use in future conversations or presentations, a hard copy is a wonderful thing. Here are a few of my favourites:

“Decisions have nothing to do with the company or its products; they have everything to do with the individuals themselves.”

“The goal of business should not be to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have. It should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe. The goal is not to hire people who simply have a skill set that you need, the goal is to hire people who believe what you believe.”

“Authenticy produces the relationships upon which all the best sales organisations are based.”

In short, as Edward de Bono, the father of modern thinking, said, “All good ideas are logical in hindsight.” On that basis, Sinek’s hypothesis is a good one and worth a read – or a listen.

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