I spent the afternoon with Simon Sinek yesterday at the Science Museum IMAX, at a LeadersIn event in London. It was easily one of the best events I’ve been to in a few years, based upon the quality of the content and the impressive nature of Sinek’s content. It reminded me how important it was to concentrate on simple things: putting decent people in a room together, no reliance upon glitz or glamour and not one PowerPoint slide in sight.


So, by way of processing all the information I heard yesterday, I thought I’d take the effort to write it all my notes down, and perhaps share a few insights that other people might find interesting as well. They’re quite messy but there’s some good stuff hidden in here…

27 Things I Learned From Simon Sinek

1.    It took Sinek 11 years to become an overnight success. He started out in the consulting world with a vision of helping executives find there “why”. His mission has not changed today from what it was 11 years ago, he just has a lot more content to help him spread his message.

2.    Sinek sees himself as a preacher. When asked what his own personal “why” was, he replied with just ten words: “I want to inspire others to do what inspires them”. He refuses to work on any project that isn’t linked to this mission, since he feels a responsibility to share his message and inspire the next generation of leaders.

3.    Despite the temptation to use the 60ft 4K IMAX screen in the Science Museum yesterday, Sinek didn’t use one PowerPoint slide during his presentation. I have never seen him use slides and yesterday I realized why. When people in the audience ask him a question, he illustrates his point with an illustration or a diagram (such as the law of diffusion of innovation). Not only does this give his words credibility since nothing is pre-prepared (no slides with hidden notes attached to them), but it makes his answer very personal to the person who asked it. It also shows his mindset and his process for thinking through problems, which makes the answers he gives much easier to remember. Simon also has no notes, which gives him even more credibility, because he clearly knows his stuff and believes in it deeply. All his answers are very well through through, which I can only assume is from the vast amount of time he spends practicing. I heard that he spends 10 hours practicing for each minute that he presents. Any business leader willing to going to those lengths will soon find themselves delivering much more compelling presentations.

4.    When doing a “formal” presentation with his trusty whiteboard, Sinek chooses to never speak for longer than 20 minutes. For yesterday’s event, it was a three hour event with him as the only speaker. The agenda was split according to how the audience who receive the most memorable impact and get the most out of the £500 per ticket: • 20 minute keynote presentation (with whiteboard and no slides) • 40 minute fireside chat with the content editor of the BBC to unpack some of the things he just spoke about • 15 minute comfort break • 1 hour 45 interactive Q&A, where Simon took questions from the audience. Chatham House rules. He was essentially doing a live consulting session, where he used the whiteboard to answer questions • 1 hour drinks reception with networking and book signing • And of course everyone in the audience receive a signed copy of each of his books in a goody bag, sponsored by Harvard Business Review.

5.    The whiteboard is important to answer questions because people are not persuaded by what you said, but by what they understand. Explaining things on a whiteboard is not easy, and means you must really understand your subject in order to use it effectively, but whiteboards help people to understand things faster.

6.    Sinek think’s entrepreneurship is all about “problem solving” and not, as many believe, about risk taking. He also thinks that some of the biggest opportunities for entrepreneurs lie within large companies, where they have the opportunity to build meaningful projects which can scale very quickly and impact many people. Too many people associate entrepreneurs with startups. Sinek thinks we should have more entrepreneurs in big organisations. Entrepreneurs see “gaps” that create problems or opportunities and look for ways to fix them. I love that.

7.    Sinek never says no to a customer request. It may be possible that he can not speak or attend in person, but he makes sure that there are always resources available to any company that wants to benefit from his services, even if it is only PDFs of his content to share.

8.    Sinek is famous for his “golden circle” (who/what/why) but when he described the perfect decision making process, he described a different kind of circle. Instead of starting with why instead of what (watch his TED talk if you need context), he showed how decisions need to be run through a filter of values / cause / interests. Many people make a decision based upon their business “interests”, but since interests always change, this creates problems over time. Executives who make decisions “in a vacuum” which are linked to their “interests”, without first filtering then through their values, are the reason why many companies lose their purpose, loyalty or brand value. Sinek used Walmart and GE’s as examples who lose their way when a new CEO took over and didn’t align decisions to the values of their founder. Instead, execs should make sure decisions align with their values first, then make sure that they compliment whatever “cause” (or mission) your business has, and then see if it is in your business interests. Reversing this process, like he did with the golden circle, makes sure that any decisions will always move you closer towards your purpose – the reason why you (or your company) exist.

9.    Business leaders like Sinek put pressure on people to find their purpose (or their “why”). During this session he admitted that he often placed unfair pressure on people to have a vision or a purpose, and he said something I’d never heard him say before. Some people should have a vision for themselves (something unique and world changing), but for many people – it is enough to find someone else’s vision and attach yourself to it. That could be a family, a church, a cause or a company. You don’t need to have your own vision, you just need to be attached to one that you believe in.

10. Emotional IQ is under rated. Sinek works with the US Marines, and explained how the “intangibles” were the most important asset that they focused on. Whether it was a personal attribute during the recruiting process or a mission they are about to embark upon, it is always the intangibles which separate the Marines from the army. People usually join the army because they want to serve their country. People join the Marines because they want to do something incredibly difficult. The join for the challenge and the extremes to which they will need to push themselves. No official criteria can separate one from the other, so the Marines focus more on the intangibles (the things they can’t see), than the things that they can see. More businesses should recruit this way.

11. Businesses get too obsessed with KPI’s that focus on big numbers or growth metrics. Sinek told the story of a general at the Pentagon who said all of his staff had read his book, Leaders Eat Last. Sinek replied that his publisher would be very happy. The general stopped Sinek and apologized because all of his staff had read his copy of the book! At the conference we were at, all 320 people received a copy of Start with Why. It’s possible no one would read it. But which metric is better: the single copy read by senior leaders at the pentagon who became inspired to leader different and make better decisions, or the 320 (unread) books which were received by some important executives?

12. Sinek spoke a lot about ‘game theory’ and why some businesses are successful and some are not. There are two types of games that businesses (and people) play. A finite game and an infinite game. The finite game has an end, some point at which you have succeeded, won or hit a certain KPI metric. Others are playing an infinite game, which doesn’t have a tangible end, it just has a purpose to drive it forward. In the long term, it is always those who play an ‘infinite game’ who win. This is why Sinek suggested, “The goal in business is not to win every battle, it is to outlast your competitors”.

13. The businesses who are the most successful have three very clear priorities. In order: 1) Employees. 2) Customers. 3) Shareholders.

14. Some businesses fall over because they focus too much on their company and not enough on the changing world around them. GE is one of the biggest brands in the world but in 2008 during the economic crisis, it asked the government for a $300Bn bail out. Why? It didn’t understand the current business climate properly. It was still acting like it did during its explosive growth period two decades earlier. The only problem was everything had changed. In the 1980’s there was an economic boom, the world was at peace and the internet didn’t exist. Today the economy is completely differently, there is no boom, the world is not at peace and the internet has changed everything. GE tried to grow based upon principles it’s famous CEO Jack Welch put in place in the 1980’s, but they simply didn’t work anymore.

15. What you stand for is more important than what you sell.

16. Sinek recently asked Richard Branson how he wanted people to judge him when he was gone. How would people remember him? What element of Virgin did he most want people to remember? Without taking even a second to think about the question, Branson answered ~ “When I am gone I want the world to judge me by the quality of my children”.

17. There are three things you should never use email for: Ideas, compliments or criticism. Those things should be done face-to-face, whether in reality or virtually.

18. The goal in business is not to sell to people who need what you have, it is to work with people who believe what you believe.

19. For businesses with dispersed employees who are spread around the globe, they should take the time to hang out on video chat, even if there is no agenda or real reason for connecting. One of the best companies Sinek works with see’s employees get together each week for a random video chat, even if they only discuss books and music. Sometimes they even connect on video just to have lunch together. It sounds silly but makes a BIG difference. Many of the employees in that company were genuine friends who loved working together, even though they had never met in real life. This way of working made them feel more connected, improved morale and impacted the companies culture in a very tangible way.

20. Love is giving someone the power to destroy you and trusting that they will never use it.

21. Looking at trends may be interesting, but focusing too much on trends is also dangerous. This is because trends fail to understand or articulate whether they are positive or negative. A business might chase a new trend, but the problems begin when they don’t ask if that trend is a good thing or not. Eg. Everyone is using apps today, but very few businesses are asking themselves if this is healthy.

22. When telling a business story, make the story personal. Don’t just use big numbers or large audiences. Talk about a named individual and make the story real. More people will related to it.

23. Sinek has a process for engaging with customers in his own business. As a “preacher” who feels called to share his message, he prioritises events (and prices his time accordingly) around where he most wants to spend his time. In order to reach the most people representing the most companies, he ranks typical events in order of importance: 1) A conference of 5,000 people with 3,000 small-mid sized companies represented. 2) A seminar with 500 executives from 500 companies. 3) A private event with 1,000 employees from 1 company.

24. Never focus on the channel or the product, focus on the message. No matter what you do, you should be a preacher for your cause, and the message should be preached across every channel. Sinek’s vision is to inspire “a world where people wake up every day inspired to go to work, feel safe while they are there, and return home at the end of the day feeling fulfilled by the work they do, feeling that they have contributed to something greater than themselves”. Every piece of content that he creates, on every channel, just carries a different version of this message in a slightly different format.

25. Sinek charges a lot for his time. Anywhere from $12,500 – $80,000 depending upon the engagement. Even though he doesn’t enjoy the events as much, he charges a lot to large organisations who can afford it, in order to be able to host free events for education authorities or military academies.

26. Sinek prefers to talk about freedom than profits when referring to a P&L. Instead of looking at how much money you made, look at how much freedom you received. Freedom to invest in a new thing, build a new project, start a foundation, freedom to take more holidays, freedom that allows people to spend more time with their family etc… By thinking about profits in terms of freedom, it gives you a different perspective when making important strategic business decisions.

27. “Why” your company exists is not to “grow”. Making a profit is not the reason your business exists, that is just a result. The why is the reason why the company was founded. The reason why employees get out of bed each day. The reason why customers want to do business with them. The reason why people are loyal. Too many businesses focus on growth. Growth is just a by product of doing great things which are driven by your “why”.

As I said, this just a random list of my incoherent notes, but I encourage you to discover some of Sinek’s stuff for yourself. If you don’t know where to begin, let me get you started:

Communications Designer @IBM • Climate Reality Leader • Lover of Old Business Books, Clever Technology and the NHS • Based in London, UK.

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