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on June 20, 2011
On a recent business trip, I cut some Sherlock Holmes browsing on my Kindle to, like a addict, stroll into another bookstore. Most of what I saw was pretty blah (some very overpriced books on 'How to think like the Chinese' in business), but this thing caught my attention straight away. Putting Dr. Watson aside for a moment, I downloaded the free sample onto my Kindle, and checked it out. I know, I know. I've been burned by this in the past'a great title, a great cover. But this Why thing was gnawing at me.

I guess it was Simon Sinek's fault.

A while back a guy by the name of Simon Sinek did a TED talk on leadership, and he expressed a brilliantly simple model, which he called the Golden Circle. His 'big idea' was that great companies are great because they (meaning, their leadership team) don't focus on WHAT they do, but rather WHY they do it. The Golden Circle was actually three concentric circles, with 'WHY' in the centre, and then 'HOW' in the middle ring, and 'WHAT' on the outer ring. The thinking goes, that companies typically go from the outside in: they get a product, they make it better than the competition (eg. How is it better, Qualitatively), and then they try to encourage people to buy it (by emphasizing the value, the fair price, or attaching some intrinsic need to it through clever marketing, etc). This is what average companies do. It's a decent tactic, but a boring message, and one that we've all heard millions of times, and are kind of numb to.

'Oh look, there's Britney Spears drinking a Pepsi'.. yea yea, whatever.

The idea is that if you're running a company, or a small outfit, if you first ask yourself why the company exists, why they're in business (and 'making money' is not an acceptable answer) then the rest of the company operations are easy. Companies, according to SImon, fail when they focus on products, and then don't even bother to answer the question, 'Why does your company exist? What's its purpose? Whats the mission?'

And Simon wraps it up so beautifully when he repeats: 'People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it.'

When Steve Jobs talks about connecting the dots, he's basically saying the same thing'it's almost impossible to know the future, what the vehicle will look like, but if you know what drives you, your 'WHY', then you'll be okay, because the 'What' doesn't really matter. What difference does it make if Nike sells Golf gear, or Basketball gear, when the Why (Victory, Excellence) is the same? For Apple, its their attention to detail, in creating beautiful objects of art, so what difference does it make if it's a laptop or a portable music player?

And why does why matter anyway? Well, to a big business, it matters a great deal. Employees who's driving by a goal, or a passion, are happier, and more energetic. They're more productive. And higher levels of productivity leads to higher wages, and ultimately to higher profitability. As Ulrich astutely points out, if you've seen those 'top companies to work for' lists, and invested in a portforlio of just those companies, would have yielded 6.8% per annum, versus just 1% for S/P 500, over a ten year period. The 'fun' companies are doing something right. They're making more money too.

So if the question is Why, then what's the answer? Maybe the answer is grab on to something you love doing, and then find a range of great companies that are remotely related to that field (seems pretty obvious). They can be a service company or a product company. They can be a volunteer organization or a research facility. For a moment, forget about what sector has the most 'growth' and think about what sector will have the most growth to you. Motivated in a small market is a million times better than unmotivated in a large one. This is where it gets non-obvious and counter-intuitive, but it really is the difference between the winners and losers.

So the 'Why of Work' is really about finding fun challenges not just at the office (for many, impossible, I'll admit), but maybe finding it in another company, in another sector, or in another country! There is of course, a leap of faith involved here, that if you switch careers, or move to France, you'll still be able to feed yourself, but'don't you think you deserve to take that leap of faith?

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Dave and Wendy Ulrich organize the material in this book within a framework of seven questions. As you review the list, begin to formulate your answers.

1. What am I known for?
2. Where am I going?
3. Whom do I travel with?
4. How do I build a positive work environment?
5. What challenges interest me?
6. How do I respond to disposability and change?
7. What delights me?

They devote a separate chapter to each of these seven questions, focusing on real-world situations in which various people address the given issues each query raises. Perhaps your initial responses to the questions have begun to suggest what you would like to change. Perhaps they have evoked others. For example, which of the seven are the easiest for you to answer? Which are the most difficult? Is the answer to any one of them of greater importance to you than any others?

In the Preface, the Ulrichs explain what they hope their book will accomplish. They seem wholeheartedly committed to helping their reader to add substantial value in all areas of her or his own life (notably family, career, and community), and also to help their reader help others to do so. There are frequent references to meaning or the absence thereof. The Ulrichs share their thoughts and feelings about both the "why" and the "how" of meaning at work. "The why refers to the human search for meaning that finds its way into our offices and factories, a search that motivates, inspires, and defines us. The how gets us into the practicalities of how leaders facilitate that search personally and among their employees." Purpose gives both meaning and value to such initiatives. The Ulrichs characterize human beings as "meaning-making machines" who seek and often find inherent value in making sense of life.

Such meaning also has market value because "meaningful work solves real problems, contributes real benefits, and thus adds real value to customers and investors." In this context, the Ulrichs introduce their concept of the "abundant organization" and identify its dominant characteristics: "a work setting in which individuals coordinate their aspirations and actions to create meaning for themselves, value for stakeholders, and hope for humanity at large"; an organization that "has enough and to spare of the things that matter most": creativity, hope, resilience, determination, resourcefulness, and leadership; a profitable enterprise that concentrates on opportunities, potentialities, synergies, and fulfillment of a diversity of human needs and experiences; and especially when times are tough, a social as well as economic forces that can "bring order, integrity, and purpose out of chaos and disintegration."

An abundant organization gives meaning to everyone involved by offering a spiritual as well as physical environment within which to thrive as human beings; their contributions, in turn, create a decisive competitive advantage for the organization while increasing and enhancing its market as well as its social value.

In the final chapter and then in the Apppendix, the Ulrichs share their thoughts and feelings about the implications of the seven principles as well as actions of abundant organizations that they proposed in the first nine chapters. Once again they stress the importance of identifying and then resolving the root causes of both organizational and individual dysfunctionality and deterioration rather than merely respond to its symptoms. Once again, they reassert that the underlying cause of many (most?) problems in the workplace is a "deficit" of both meaning and purpose.

To become and then remain "abundant," an organization must help its people to leverage their strengths and serve their core values, meanwhile doing so with their career objectives in proper alignment with their organization's strategic objectives. That is the "Why" of their relationship. In this brilliant book, Dave and Wendy Ulrich also provide leaders with the "How," the information and counsel they need, to create an abundance of purpose and meaning both for themselves and for everyone else involved, at all levels and in all areas of the enterprise they share.
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