Don’t start with why

Once upon a time, life didn’t change much. We all had a bit more control. We could set a goal in our lives or work, and draw a straight-line action plan to get there. This approach is a bit like making a movie: decide on the plot, write the script, hire the actors, and produce. Ta-dah! A nice linear process, like an assembly line.

Of course life no longer works like this. Maybe it never did. This linear approach helped us be a bit more efficient, but it doesn’t satisfactorily deal with the messiness of reality; the constant change; the fact that there are far more interesting opportunities than we have time to chase, with new ones are emerging all the time. How do we focus?

Instead of imposing even tighter controls, let’s play with a different analogy: improv theater. Here we choose the cast, but we don’t choose the plot and neither do the actors. The actors call out to the audience to provide constraints: Tell us a character! A place! A time period! And within these constraints provided by the audience, the show can begin. The plot emerges within the bounds of an intention.

This is the power of both/and, not either/or. It’s both intentional and emergent; top down and bottom up, planned yet agile. The path becomes clear through iteration and experimentation.

how is intent best defined?

In our default mode, we choose a “what” to aim for. What do we want to do, make, accomplish? But in an uncertain world, the what is constantly changing. Focusing on a what is a bit like the movie analogy; we’ve narrowed in a bit too much on scripting the details instead of holding space for a variety of whats to emerge.

Simon Sinek says we should start with why instead of what, because why — a sense of purpose – provides a way of orienting ourselves towards what doesn’t change. But what happens when your why and my why aren’t the same? In a business context, what if our collective why doesn’t resonate with customers and partners? Focusing on why risks being rather self-centric — what’s important to me instead of we.

While I can’t fault the logic behind why, I prefer to start with who. Who is in our unique ecosystem — including myself — and what do we all care most about? Or… back to our movie analogy, there’s not much of a plot without the who. The main characters provide the storyline; the richness and emotional depth of the actors is what makes a film (or improv) a flop or a hit.

WHO defines the WHAT and the WHY

Who defines the what and the why. It makes sense that I’d focus here given my background in human-centric strategy and transformation. But I see now one critical ingredient that I’d missed in all my heady analysis; I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s explore the power of who.

What holds it all together?

What’s the one thing that doesn’t change? Is there such a thing? Yes… it’s our human nature: Our 12 core human needs, and how we feel when those needs are met. It’s this unchanging part of who that ensures Romeo and Juliet is still relevant 5 centuries after it was penned by Shakespeare. It’s this deep, felt experience of love or safety or freedom or creativity or belonging (etc etc) that serves as the glue (the intent) for the some of the most complex businesses on the planet.. and yes, it works magically in our personal lives as well.

I dare you to name a single wildly successful brand that doesn’t tap into one core human need or emotion. They all do. Amazon, Netflix, Uber, etc. = control (I want what I want, when I want it.) Virgin = autonomy and freedom. The largest incumbent in every category = security (“no one got fired for buying IBM.”) Apple = control + creativity. AirBnB = belonging and diversity. The list goes on. The best ones pull even more meaning and purpose (why) into this emotional container, along with more who… the sense of shared identity (rebels, creators, helpers, hosts, etc.). This focus on a Who — a tribe with shared needs and values — allows brands like Apple and Virgin to extend far beyond their original what into other categories, magnetizing customers, employees and partners along the way, without losing their essence.

We’re like plants stretching towards the sunlight, seeking the emotional nourishment that we need to grow. And the reverse is true: we move away from what we don’t want to feel: unvalued, unsafe, trapped, disconnected. Research reveals that “emotions constitute powerful, pervasive, and predictable drivers of decision making,” not only in psychology but also in consumer behavior.

Who’s the most important who?

Pre-sabbatical, I assumed the most important who in a business context is the customer; they pay the bills, after all. So I’d lay out this elegant strategy on how to orchestrate a complex global enterprise around a need or emotion that was most predictive of business outcomes, and I’d hear, “but we don’t have a Steve Jobs.” I’d reply, “You don’t need one. Simply replicate what he and others did. Here’s the recipe.” As if it were that simple.

I was wrong.

The most impactful leaders in the world magnetize global ecosystems because of who they are, not what they do. They know themselves deeply and unapologetically. They’ve doubled down on their strengths. And because they listen to their own inner wisdom, they can hear and have empathy for others. They stand on what I call the “ground of power”… the source of authenticity and individuality that allows them to balance security with flow, stability with freedom. Intent + improv… both/and. As within, so without.

This type of leader also understands the power of coherence. Coherent light is a laser that can cut through steel, while diffuse light is powerless. Coherence that harnesses the power of empathy and emotion? Unstoppable. And this requires a different way of seeing the world: connections, not compartments. Similarities, not differences.

Leaders or entrepreneurs who truly know themselves will naturally create coherence within their teams, partners and customers. A metaphorical casting call, likeminded people are drawn to their visions and identities. This doesn’t negate diversity, by the way; a mindset or emotion (what I call “motivational DNA”) serves as the golden thread that weaves through a host of differences and thinking styles.

When leaders, teams, employees, customers and partners are drawn by the same motivating force, it’s as if an ecosystem emerges from nothing. The power of attraction is activated.

How to harness WHO

Perhaps you’d like to start a business but are unsure where to begin… or you want to take your business to the next level. Or, heck, you simply want clarity in your own life… to be able to make forward progress when your what isn’t clear. My suggestion is to start with who.

  • Know thyself as a leader. Embrace your entire identity and what makes you unique. What core needs have motivated your decisions in the past? How are you wired? How do you want to feel in your life and work?
  • Know thy team. If I’m primarily motivated by freedom and you’re primarily motivated by security, we’re going to run into some fundamental sticking points: our motivational DNA isn’t complementary. That doesn’t mean we can’t work together; this is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate what freedom and security bring to the party and find the middle ground. But it could also be true that one of us is in the wrong place.
  • Know thy customer. This is the person who is responsible for paying the bills, yet too often they’re left out of the culture conversation. What will magnetize them to your brand? How do they want to feel, and how does that inform your business model, offerings, extended partnerships and, yes, internal culture?

Now it’s time to find the golden thread. In the midst of diversity, you’ll find similarity… and it’s the similarity that unifies us. That encourages to bring our whole selves to work. That breaks down silos and helps us all grow together.

The similarity provides the Intent: the stage for the improv (or to use geeky terms, the platform for the ecosystem). Now all the actors can play, experiment, and be agile without being at odds with one another. “You understand me; I belong with you” is what prospective employees and customers think as they are drawn like iron to the magnet that is our shared humanity.

Learn more

I’m a rebel with a cause who’s helping other “rebels with causes” create more freedom and impact in their lives and work (a tangible example of what I just wrote!) I’m no longer doing strategy, but I can advise, review your strategy and make suggestions, assess the motivational DNA for you and your teams, facilitate a workshop, or guide you in a 1:1 journey to gain clarity on your who, why and what (in other words, what I offer can easily evolve around the who). Learn more here.

VIDEO: The back story for Intent+Improv

I’m on my soapbox! If you’re interested in personal transformation, I talk about the transitions… how we can bring a key innovation process from the business world into our personal growth. If you’d like to jump to the most relevant spot:
:42: overview of divergence and convergence
2:14: overview of Kegan’s evolution of the self
5:19: mash-up of the two models
9:20: Intent+Improv: the dance between convergence and divergence
10:49: applied to business strategy
11:45: applied to personal growth

Does this resonate for you? As I work to crystalize my thinking, I’d really love to know what clicks and what might need clarifying. Thanks tribe!

VIDEO: Harnessing the power of emotion in life and work

In my last video, I talked about relying on Sensing Mind — our body-based wisdom — to navigate life like a bat. In this video, I build on the Whole Mind model, talking about Connecting and Feeling Minds. How did Steve Jobs use both to create the first $1T company? How did Dr. Martin Luther King embody these mind modes in an entirely different way?

What can you learn from these very different leaders? I’d love to hear from you.

If you’re interested in creating your own inner compass to figure out your next chapter of life, click here for more.

If you’d like to nurture the power of Sensing and Feeling to develop your Whole Mind potential as a leader, visit our Groundbreaking program site for more. This is an experiential group “practice space” for bringing more humanity to work.

masks at work

Authenticity at work: removing the masks

Conformity has been king for far too long. Stuffing ourselves into expectation- or fear-laden boxes creates stress, wipes out essential diversity, and kills our souls. My globe-trotting sabbatical last year gave me the opportunity to step back and pay attention to the masks I donned daily; my hope is that the coronavirus shut-down is affording you the same. 

It’s the job of leaders to model authenticity at work, but what does that really mean? And how does one go about doing it? One way might be to explore the three types of masks we tend to wear: Identity, Viewpoints and Emotions.

Identity: Who I am

The identity mask hides the fact that I feel different from other people. Given the fact that no two people are exactly alike, perhaps we all mask to a lesser or greater extent. Thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, more of us are learning about how our black colleagues code-switch, which involves “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.” 

As a gay, neurodiverse female, I certainly played the game of conformity in ways I can only see now in hindsight. I became an armor-wearing brain on a stick, unhappy and burned out, eventually not fooling anyone but myself. It took a year-long sabbatical for self-reflection and acceptance, befriending my intuition and emotions, before I healed enough to return to the business world as a whole, integrated human being. I now know myself well enough to create a career and environment that works with my strengths and natural limitations.  

Thriving workplaces are safe spaces in which we’re free to be ourselves; authenticity is the foundation of employee and customer loyalty. It starts with leaders who have the courage to slowly reveal their own truths and give permission to others to do the same, which requires self-awareness and compassion. It’s essential to notice judgments about differences, starting with our own; what we want to hide is often the source of our power. The more love we have for our own uniqueness, the more easily we can value the uniqueness and diversity of others. 

The key to authenticity is knowing the difference between limitations (the natural boundaries of who I am as a human being) and weaknesses. We accept the former and seek to fix only the latter. When we become whole, without disowning parts of ourselves, we’re able to create whole, coherent organizations. The inner transformation creates the outer transformation. 

Questions: Do you fully embrace and love yourself, warts and all? Do you respect your limitations, using this as a guide for staying true to your strengths? Do you notice when you judge yourself and others, and challenge your own thinking? Do you call out others who judge? Do you actively embrace differences with curiosity, and seek to build diverse teams?

Viewpoints – what (and how) I think 

You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not experienced enough to have a valid opinion. What you’re saying doesn’t make sense to me, so I’m going to override it. If you can’t explain how you arrived at this conclusion, it must be wrong. 

Do these sound familiar? If we believe these messages are true, then we’ll either wear the masks of silence or agreement, engage in negative self-talk, or repeat these phrases to others; I know I’ve been guilty of all of these in the past. When we don’t know how to deeply listen to our own inner wisdom, it’s impossible to truly hear other people or stand up for ourselves.  It also becomes impossible to simply admit that we don’t know something, even though “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” can be one of the most empowering things we can say. 

Part of listening to ourselves is understanding how our brains are wired; if our dominant “mind mode” is different than those around us, we’re going to feel out of place. We’ll hear “you’re wrong” more often, even if it’s untrue. Either we need to choose a workplace that values how we think, or as leaders we need to recognize and encourage this diversity of thought.  

I’m a pattern-matching, bottoms-up, lateral thinker who tried way too hard to fit into top-down, analytical consulting environments. Thanks to my efforts to conform, I expanded my thinking styles and added more Analytical tools to my problem-solving toolbox… but it came at a cost. The toxic pressure to fit in, and my failed attempts to change systems that no one saw were broken, took a toll on my mental health. And my employers failed to capitalize on the fact that I saw things in a totally different and equally valid way. 

Questions: As a leader, do you disregard or judge opinions that aren’t in alignment with how you think or approach problems? Do you reward or suppress intuition? Do you create and orchestrate teams with diversity of processing styles, aka ‘mind modes’ (Analyzing, Connecting, Sensing and Feeling) in order to nourish creativity, innovation and personal growth of everyone involved? 

Emotions – how I feel 

So you’ve checked the boxes on inclusion and diversity. You have women, people of color, LGBTQ+ and neurodiversity reflected at every level of your organization. You’re discovering the innovative power of different thinking styles, and you encourage admission of limitations and not-knowing. Are you done? 

Not until you welcome what makes us truly human into the workplace: our core needs and emotions. After 3 decades of insight-based strategy work, my single biggest takeaway is that emotions, not logic, is what motivates behavior. Yet we hide behind the sterile mask of Analyzing Mind because the murky world of emotion feels too vulnerable and unsafe.

Our 34,000 human emotions fall into two camps: 

Mutable

This is the ebb and flow of pleasant and unpleasant emotions based on circumstance; emotionally aware leaders are able to work with discomfort, dropping into their bodies to name, embrace and release what they’re feeling so they can move forward in a healthy way. An emotionally aware organization is able to acknowledge, discuss and resolve the root issues of what’s keeping them stuck. 

Questions: As a leader, can you reveal that you too are human, and that you feel the common emotions of fear, shame, anxiety? Work empathetically with an employee to unpack why they’re feeling frustrated or unheard? Encourage others to verbalize what they’re feeling in order to address the real root of why your organization is stuck?

Motivating

A small set of motivating emotions connected to our 12 core human needs can serve as unchanging North Stars for organizations. Every great brand takes this approach, from Apple (creativity) to Nike (achievement) to Allstate (safety) to Virgin (freedom). The emotional outcome that is predictive of business outcomes serves as the central organizing principle of effective organizations.

What I have come to learn recently is that it’s one thing to objectively talk about the critical role of needs and emotions in business. It’s quite another to embody them as leaders… and it’s only when the latter happens can we fully harness the power of emotion. When cultures are built to help both employees AND customers to feel more (free, safe, creative, connected, etc.) — and when the leadership team are motivated by the same emotions — now we’re talking rocket fuel. The entire ecosystem wallows in exactly how they all want to feel. This is the root of customer-centricity and authenticity.

Questions: Do you know how you want to feel in your life and work, and use these in your decision making? Do you know how your customers want to feel when working with your business, and to what extent this emotion predicts top-line business results? Are you aware of the core needs and emotions that motivate the behavior of your peers or leadership team, and identified conflicting needs?

Which of the three types of masks are worn in your organization? Are diverse identities, viewpoints and emotions welcome and celebrated in your workplace?