By John Rosling: CEO Shirlaws Business Coaching UK

The “why” in your business is the power in your business. When I took over as CEO of Shirlaws the first thing I focused on wasn’t revenues or internal cost structures — the content. My first priority was to refocus everyone in the business on their core belief in the business — the context. I reasoned that if this core belief was strong and shared by all, the commercial success of the business would follow. It would also be a fun place to be. Belief is context because belief in the why makes sense of the what.

All business understand “how” they do what they do (their manufacture, sales, delivery, service, admin. etc.), and most (but not all) truly understand “what” they do (the fundamental intellectual property and rocket juice that sits at the heart of the business, what makes them famous and what customers “buy” (rather than what they sell). But very few businesses really understand the “why”.

Which is a pity because the “why” is where the power is.

“Knowing the why can inform your actions as a brand, your brand voice, its character, and everything else that helps build it into something people want to have a relationship with.” Simon Sinek

If you think about all the most successful businesses, the ones people would most like to work for, they all have a strong and well understood “why” in their business. It’s this “why” that staff buy into figuratively - and customers buy into literally.

Simon Sinek explains this brilliantly using Apple as an example. Apple understands why it exists in its bones and has invested huge amounts of time in instilling this belief in its staff. This “why” is distinct from “what” it does. Apple believes that everything they do challenges the status quo. It believes in solving problems for people through great design. Making and selling computers is just “what” it does. This fundamental belief in a “why” drives everything the business does — it creates the context for all the decisions the business makes. Go into any Apple store and you’ll see the outcome in a powerfully motivated staff who love working there and believe passionately in the product they sell and communicate that passionate belief to customers.

Sinek draws the comparison with Dell, a company with a clear understanding of “what” it does but not “why” and shows how this limits Dell. Since Dell has a clear “what” (make and sell computers) and Apple has a clear why (solve problems through great design) customers will only buy computers from Dell whilst they’ll buy computers, music and telecommunications from Apple. And they’ll make every purchase decision when buying Dell partly on price (since it’s a rational “what” choice) but price hardly features when buying Apple, which gives Apple a very healthy margin and a massive valuation. This is the power of position which we covered in our September Articles.

The key reason behind Apple’s success is that people buy values and beliefs over benefits. That applies to the customers you want to attract and the talent you want to employ and it is as true in the corporate and B2B market as it is in the SME and B2C markets. I’m sometimes asked why I joined Shirlaws when I already had a reasonably successful business and a comfortable life. I had had the experience of applying Shirlaws coaching in my own business and had seen the tremendous commercial return. But what attracted me was the strong “why” I saw in the organisation — the clear intent to help change the lives of business owners through coaching and the transfer of skills and knowledge.

It doesn’t of course mean the “what” isn’t important. The quality, effectiveness, and value of what we supply and how we do it is vital - we all make rational (what) purchase decisions every day. It’s just that the “why” is often forgotten in the content-driven, busy world of the SME. And by forgetting it we are missing a major trick.

So if you want powerfully motivated staff who will take your business to where you want it to go, allowing you to stop “running” your business, you need to create fundamental belief in the “why” in your business.

The “why” is about vision and dreams and possibility — not about logical strategies. When Martin Luther King stood in front of a quarter of a million people on Washington Mall in August 1963 he didn’t say “I have a Plan”.

So how do you create a “why” in your business? We’ll look at that in more detail in the next Article.


“When Brian Armstrong and I started APS (www.aps-advance.com) in 1998 in Australia & the UK it appeared to most that it was just another software company to provide practice software around the individual business requirements of accounting and consulting firms.

We had both worked in, and left, a more established organisation that was a toxic environment for employees and clients. We were clear that APS needed to prove that it was possible to build an ongoing and sustainable business in our chosen market place that was truly successful from both a cultural and commercial perspective.

That was and is our “why”; the question we asked of ourselves and one which continues to govern our business model today. To us, life is a journey not a destination so we continue to focus on the ‘why’ — as do our teams in the 3 countries in which we now operate — No one is perfect and to say that we have attained a 100% score and maintain it would not be truthful. It does however remain our Intent to never lose sight of this purpose.

But for us it was not just the “why” part of the conversation — we also had to get clear about “what” we were going to do to achieve that and “how” we were going to execute it — both culturally and commercially.

Culturally our strategy is quite simple — FAMILY — a context that binds core values, we recruit people who are aligned with these and want to be part of this structure. Similarly we form relationships with clients who want the same thing — to be a client not just a customer as is so often the case.

Commercially our strategy is also simple — what we do is implement systems that give professional service firms the Information they need to serve their clients and to run their own business. Key to this outcome is developing and maintaining a sustainable Relationship.

How we do that is through the provision of Software, its Implementation, ongoing Consulting, Support and regular software Upgrades. Fundamental to this provision of software and client service is the shared and agreed values that are part of our every day language & behaviour — internally and externally — to be Caring, Flexible, Open, Passionate, Safe, Honest — To have the 100% conversation within our team and with our clients.

But, for us, understanding the “why” set the whole context and purpose for our business and enabled us to agree the “what” and “how” easily and with focus. These haven’t changed”.

Find the fundamental “why” in your business - and create a strong sense of belief around it.

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