Why Am I Doing This - Rick Williams

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A shortened version of this article was first published in the 43 Biz Journal city publications across the US.

A friend had put skydiving on his bucket list. On a clear fall afternoon, he strapped on a parachute and climbed into a small plane. When the aircraft got to 13,000 feet and his turn came to jump, he stood in the door of the plane for a moment. The cool wind rushed by. Red and yellow forests and fields of central Massachusetts in the fall were far below. His heart was racing. “Why am I doing this?” played on a loop in his mind.

Moments of “why am I doing this” come to us when another potential customer has said “No!” Or perhaps we are getting on the red eye for another San Francisco to Boston overnight, or a possible investor is asking another condescending question. But “Why Am I Doing This?” is a core question for virtually every leader. The question is about our own motivation. But the question is also about why our customers, investors and employees should care about what we are doing.

When I am asked to make an angel investment, I will ask the company founder why he founded the company. If I am not convinced that he has a burning desire to make money for himself and for me, I will not invest. Yet if the same founder is telling customers that his motivation for selling the product is to make money for himself, the customers will walk away without buying. If the company’s employees believe the primary motivation of the founder is to make money for himself, the employees will do what is needed to get their paycheck and nothing more.

Each of us has a complex set of motives for doing our job every day.  But every business, department or work team should also ask itself “Why Are WE Doing This?” When you stand in front of a customer, investor or employee, they want to know why your team shows up for work every day. They want to know why your company creates the products you are selling. Many, even most, people are more tuned to why your company exists rather than what it does

Being the leader is difficult because you need to be clear minded about your own motivation, and you are also responsible for articulating “why we do this” on behalf of your team and your organization. To be successful, you need to understand both motivations — your personal motivation and your organization’s motivation — and effectively communicate them to different audiences.

Why Am I Doing This?

In the context of founding a company, leading a large complex organization, running a department or leading a work group, start with the big motivators for you personally – what keeps you going. Examples could be:

  • You want to be in charge
  • You get satisfaction when your team accomplishes its goals
  • You want to make a lot of money
  • You believe it is your turn for this job
  • You are afraid of failing
  • You believe your product idea will dramatically improve people’s lives
  • You want to build a great company and brand
  • You believe you are an effective manager of a large organization
  • This is a stepping stone to another job
  • You like being someone who is known and visible
  • You need the paycheck
  • You are carrying on the heritage of your family
  • You like to have the power of a large organization to solve big problems

Each of us has a mix of motivations keeping us going over the rough spots. Our challenge is to understand ourselves and ask whether we are close to getting what we want from our current job.

A couple of examples can illustrate the choices. The founder of a successful startup may find she does not like running a larger company. Directly working with customers to help solve their problems is what gave her energy. When the company got larger, she no longer had time for direct customer contact. Instead, her hours were spent dealing with marketing, HR, legal, production, and investor issues. The fun had vanished.

Noam Wasserman described the Founder’s Dilemma in a classic Harvard Business Review article. Wasserman drew the distinction between company founders who want to be King and those who want to be Rich. Bill Gates and a few others are able to become both King and Rich, but very few achieve both. For most founders, the dilemma is whether they are willing to give up control to others — investors and other leaders — in order for the company to grow and become more successful. Do they want to own 5% of a $500 million company or 100% of a $4 million company?

A similar choice is expressed in an African proverb, If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Many dynamic men and women must make this core motivational choice. Do you believe your unique vision can only be realized if it is always under your full control? Or can you see your vision expressed through a larger organization which could have a big impact and perhaps survive for the long run — but also be less efficient, more cumbersome and not fully under your control?

Start with an open assessment of what truly motivates you. To be successful, your personal motivation has to come close to matching the experiences and rewards from your job. People working with you know whether you like walking in the door every day — without your telling them. Getting a good match between what motivates us and the rewards from our job greatly improves our chances of success — and satisfaction.

Why Are WE Doing This?

Ben and Jerry’s is not just selling ice cream. Vermont’s finest, non-GMO, fair trade, happy cows, and cage-free are the “Why WE Do This” for Ben and Jerry’s. When Lockheed Martin or Raytheon advertise on “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning, their message is not about What We Do (F-35 fighter jets and Patriot missiles)  but Why We Do It (engineering tomorrow, making America safe, and equipping our war fighters). Remember the Apple Super Bowl ad smashing Big Brother with a sledge hammer? When Gordon Gekko said, “Greed is good,” in the film “Wall Street” he quickly conveyed the “why we do this” for his fictional company.

Your customers, your employees and often your financial partners will attach as much importance to your company’s “Why We Do This” as they will to what you do. Organizations are constantly communicating their values — including not having any values other than just selling another snow blower. Being purposeful about the values your company communicates is the objective.

Bring the Whys Together

I am astounded at the discipline and fervor of Tom Brady. I cannot imagine stepping onto the basketball court and making the moves that Michael Jordan made every game. Great leaders may not be able to throw a Brady pass, but their job requires a rare combination of discipline, self-motivation, judgment, self-awareness and communication.

Leadership jobs are difficult and often thankless. Most people do not have the skills to be effective leaders and do not want the responsibility. Being a Monday morning quarterback or TV commentator is a much easier line of work.

How many times have we heard that someone running for President of the United States has to be a little nuts to put themselves through the grueling election process? The months of repeating the same campaign speech over and over again. A different motel room every night and personal attacks on themselves, their family and their motives. These candidates have to be asking,  “Why Am I Doing This?” But we depend on someone putting themselves through this hellish process. And then we expect mature and balanced leadership of the country.

For a presidential candidate, the first question must be “Why am I – the candidate – doing this?” Why would I put myself and my family through this? The next question for that candidate must be “Why are we – the country – doing this?” What are the values of the country that my candidacy represents? Making America Great Again certainly stands out as the clearest “Why are we doing this?” message of the 2016 campaign. Many looked past the “What” and focused on the “Why” when they voted.

Each of us starts with a vision of how we want to live our lives and how we can contribute to our family, to our community and perhaps to the world. A few of us will chose the “go fast and go alone” path and perhaps become a great writer, inventor, movie star or sports hero. Another small group will see their personal vision realized through collaboration with others. These are the individuals with a vision of themselves as leaders but also a vision for their team, their company and in some cases their country.

Ego, self-delusion, naiveté, self-centeredness, even greed can be part of the motivation for leaders particularly young leaders. For great leaders, the answer to “Why am I doing this?” must center on “Why are WE doing this?”

“Hope and Change” and “Yes We Can” and “Make America Great Again” and, yes, Ben and Jerry’s “Vermont’s Finest” convey the values of their organizations and build the connection with their constituencies and their customers.

Improve Your Chances for Success

If you are CEO of a company, executive director of a non-profit or senior leader of a government agency, your responsibility is to answer the fundamental question — “What business are we in?”. “Why are we doing this?” is the closely related next question.

These are difficult questions to answer. Part of the answer rests on the unique capabilities of the company. The values of the leadership team are important. The value proposition of your product or service to your customers is core. And part of the answer flows from the values of customers willing to buy your products or use your services. Ben and Jerry’s would not be in thousands of super markets unless there were lots of buyers who care about happy cows.

Here are steps you can take to develop clarity as to the motivation and values of your company. Thoughtful and authentic expression of these values will then improve the chances for success for yourself and your organization.

  1. Whether you use big time consultants or just talk to your customers, get clear about what business you are in – what do your customers believe they are buying from you.
  2. With this concept in hand, spell out your values and motivations as an organization – Why are we doing this? Remember that you are answering that question both for your team and for those whom you want to care about what you are doing — especially your customers.
  3. Develop the messaging for communicating these values to your community — customers, employees, investors, community, and partners. The emphasis and content will be somewhat different for each group.
  4. Incorporate the values statements into the company’s branding, advertising, direct customer outreach, PR and investor communications. Be creative. Keep it simple. If this is just a phony make up words exercise, that will be clear to everyone.
  5. If you not the CEO but are a department head or team leader, your job is to understand the overall values and motivations of the company and translate them into a “Why We Are Doing This” statement for your team and the work they do.

– You are connecting the team’s work to the overall success of the company.
– You are connecting the work of each member of your department to the “why we are doing this” concept of your team.
– Your team may develop its own values. “We work as a team to guarantee zero defects,” or “We live by our estimates” are examples.
– As a team leader, you will also portray your team’s motivations and values to others in the company – other teams and senior leadership.

In this celebrity-driven culture, your story as leader – “Why I am doing this” –  becomes the “Why we are doing this” for your team and your organization. When you tell your story, you are telling the story of everyone on your team. That is your job as a leader.