Don’t Start with Why

Ten years ago, Simon Sinek recorded his TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” which has now been viewed over 47 million times.  In the presentation, he emphasizes that successful organizations focus on their “why” instead of “what” or “how.”

The talk has always left me feeling uneasy. It could be his emphasis on his “discovery” of what he calls the “golden circle” of “Why? What? How?” According to Sinek, this golden circle is “grounded in the tenets of biology” because it correlates to the structure of the brain.  He doesn’t provide any scientific evidence to support his idea – just a claim of “discovery.”

But his assertion that “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it” is the part that really bothers me.

As a brief aside, Sinek emphatically makes this claim six times in his 18-minute presentation.  Just because something is repeated, that doesn’t make it true. Let me say that again: just because something is repeated, that doesn’t make it true.

I’ve heard financial advisors use this line as the core of their value proposition. For example, an advisor will say, “I became an advisor because…” and then list one of several common reasons why they are a financial advisor (e.g., “I had a family member that lost everything,” “I want to help others,” etc.).

Here’s the problem with “starting with why.” People buy what they value, not the motivations of the person selling it.

In other words, your clients and prospective clients first want to know, “What’s in it for me?”

For example, I don’t pay someone to change my oil because they want to save the world through regular automotive maintenance. I pay them because I don’t want to spend the time or deal with the hassle of doing it myself. I also hire them so I don’t have to worry if I did it right.

Harvard Business Review published an article in September 2016 called, “The Elements of Value,” written by three consultants from Bain & Company. The article identified 30 elements of value that they divided into four categories: Functional, Emotional, Life Changing, and Social Impact. Then they grouped them into what they call “The Elements of Value Pyramid.”

As you may notice, the pyramid closely resembles psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” Maslow classified human needs into areas such as physiological, safety, esteem, etc.

The value of a financial advisor can be found in nearly all the elements in the Functional category. For example, clients can save time or become more organized by working with a financial advisor. A good financial advisor helps clients both reduce risk and make money. Perhaps the only exception in the functional category is “sensory appeal” (though I’ve seen some really nice offices).

Moving up the pyramid takes us to the Emotional category. An advisor recently told me that he believes we are in the “emotion business.” In this category, we see examples of “reduces anxiety” and “therapeutic value.”  As we all know, sometimes a financial advisor spends more time as a therapist than as an advisor!

Higher still are the categories of Life Changing and Social Impact.  The Financial Planning Association has a stated aim to “Elevate the profession that transforms lives through the power of financial planning” (emphasis added).  Financial advisors can change their clients’ lives by delivering hope, motivation, a means to provide for future generations (heirloom), personal accomplishment, and opportunities to help others and society at large.

I would make the case that a financial advisor can provide value in almost all 30 elements.  Depending on your strengths and your target market, you could build an incredibly compelling value proposition with a combination of the elements.

For example, if your niche market is corporate executives, you could say, “I simplify the financial lives of corporate executives to save them time and reduce their risk so they can feel confident knowing they are providing for their family.”

That simple statement includes five specific points of value. And since people buy what they value, you are letting them know that you are the person who can provide that value.

Maybe you have a great “why.” Maybe you don’t. That’s okay.

People buy what they value, rather than the motivations of the person selling it.

If you consistently focus on providing clients what they value, you’ll find that your life is changed, too!

2 Responses to Don’t Start with Why

  1. gary wulf February 5, 2020 at 10:22 am #

    I believe what you propose can work for an advisor, as long as he or she knows, and believes in why they’re doing it. I believe the secret sauce in Sinek’s “Why” is that it’s meant to be internalized, not necessarily broadcast overtly to anyone within earshot, which can come off as self-serving and disingenuous. And after all, what is a value proposition? Aren’t we taught to memorize it, repeat it to ourselves, even make it our ‘elevator speech.’ Won’t that become my Why? Finally, I know, from my experience, and client/prospect feedback, that not many people are going to buy something they value from someone they don’t trust. (“Why is he doing this?’)

    Also, when you watch a really skilled interviewer query their subject, what do they most often ask?
    “What motivated you to do what you do? Why did you decide to become a doctor, actor, preacher?” They ask when, and why.

    What must a prosecutor demonstrate in a murder case if they hope to gain a conviction?
    Means, MOTIVE and opportunity. We need to know that someone has a valid reason to behave they way they behave.

    I’ll leave you with what I think is a timely example of someone who started with his why, and has never strayed from it. Ever wonder WHY Bernie Sanders is polling so high? It’s largely because he’s really never changed his message. Not in over 50 years. Doesn’t change it for a particular audience. Doesn’t change it for his party. Not for young people, not for old people.Do we think he believes in what he’s preaching? Does anyone not know Bernie’s “WHY?”

    Good post Adam. I always enjoy your thoughts!

  2. Adam Kornegay February 5, 2020 at 11:30 am #

    Well said Gary! I agree that “Why” is incredibly important in all kinds of ways, particularly when connecting with someone emotionally and establishing trust.

    The danger comes when a person leads with “why” and doesn’t remember that perspective of client/prospective should come first. And the other person is ultimately asking, “What’s in it for me?

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