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Why-How-What is history, the new era is Who and When

Based on a research conducted among 3.750 CEOs and executives, the February edition of the American Fortune Magazine featured the list of the ‘most admired companies of 2019’. For the 12th time in a row, Apple was ranked number one. But, as Apple is dealing with disappointing sales figures and trade tension between the U.S. and China, Fortune raises the question whether the company will be able to keep up this position next year.

For years, Apple has been used as the most famous example of a company that knows how to inspire from the ‘why’. In his famous TED Talk, management guru Simon Sinek states that an organization always has to start with the ‘why’ and then determine ‘how’ to do it and ‘what’ you will do. For Apple the ‘why’ is: “In everything we do, we try to challenge the status quo, we believe in thinking differently”. The ‘how’ is by providing easy-to-use products with a beautiful design, and the ‘what’ are Apple’s products such as MacBooks, iPhones and iPads. However, trying to explain Apple’s current struggles by looking at its ‘why, how and what’ doesn’t get us very far, as these three factors have remained the same. What has changed over recent years, is the ‘who’ and the ‘when’. With the passing of their founder and visionary Steve Jobs, the ‘who’ changed and the trade war between the U.S. and China has impacted Apple’s ‘when’. Although Sinek has shifted the mindset that starting with ‘why’ is more inspirational than the ‘what’, the thought of always starting with ‘why’ is currently outdated. The ‘who’ and the ‘when’ are namely far more important.

Sinek’s Golden Circle touches a deeper truth, but is not complete

The ‘who’ determines the ‘why’

If one voice can change a room, then it can change a state, and if it can change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world” – Barack Obama

Behind a ‘why’ is always a person, the ‘who’. This ‘who’ is much more powerful than the ‘why’, because the ‘who’ is able to start a movement.

Barack Obama’s emotional speech at the end of his campaign gives a great example of the power of the ‘who’. In his speech, Obama shares a story about the origin of his powerful famous slogan ‘Fired up, ready to go!’. During a small campaign rally, Obama was encouraged by an elderly woman who was yelling the slogan. Suddenly, the entire room started chanting ‘Fired up, ready to go!’, transforming the energy and atmosphere of the room, including Obama’s. This simple moment showed Obama the power of one person, after which he concludes with the quote mentioned above.

From who to we

When talking to leaders it is very important to get to know the person behind the leader: “Who is this leader, what drives him/her, what are his/her ambitions and dreams?”. Leaders have a major influence on the culture and direction of the organization. They have to know themselves, feel what is happening around them and connect with employees. This also has a spiritual component, as Brené Brown beautifully defines it: “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other”. This connection and interaction between people ensures that the ‘who’ becomes the ‘we’.

When we, as &samhoud, are facilitating major changes in organizations, we often see that the ‘why’ is not implemented because the ‘who’s’ are not aligned. That is why the team of people with whom a leader surrounds himself is extremely important. As Jim Collins describes in his famous book “Good to Great”, one of the most important things for successful organizations is to have the right people on board before deciding where to go: “First Who, then What”. The world is changing at an increasing pace, making it more and more difficult to foresee the future. Therefore, it is more important to have the right people with you who can adapt quickly to this uncertain environment, regardless of what changes come at them. Or in other words, a good vision without the right people is useless.

An organization can only be successful when the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ are aligned. That is why most family businesses are often successful: the ‘why’ of the founder and the organization are in many cases the same. Therefore, a risk arises in large organizations when the new leader and the ‘why’ of the organization are too far apart. The leader, their ambition, and the ‘why’ of the organization must be aligned. If that is not the case, the people that chose the new leader probably have not done their job well.

Time determines when the ‘why’ is important

Besides the ‘who’, Sinek’s model also misses the ‘when’. This encompasses an understanding of when it is the right time for something. There are four important components of ‘when’ that need to be considered to be able to understand a big change: (1) the zeitgeist we are in, (2) the phase of the organization, (3) how long a leader is in his/her position, and (4) the life stage of the leader himself. First, let’s talk about zeitgeist, the spirit of a particular period of time. The first question to ask is: “Why is this happening at this moment, or should it happen now?” A leader should always be aware of the momentum and spirit in which we find ourselves. This manifests in being curious about trends in the world and sensing the developments in society or the market. Second, it is important to clearly understand the phase of the organization. This means that as a leader you must be able to feel whether an organization needs direction and stability or acceleration and new energy. All organizations that are able to connect to the sentiment of the era have way bigger chances of growing increasingly. The organizations that continue to focus on their achieved successes in a different period are often bound to fail. A good example of this is Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg. In the Fortune 500 World’s most admired companies of 2019, Facebook dropped drastically, from place the 12th to the 44th place, mainly because they insufficiently sensed that the society has started to think more consciously about data and privacy protection, and no longer accepts the unbridled sharing of data and intransparent corporate practices.

The third element concerns the time that a leader has been in his/her position. Leaders that are still in their first year are probably focussing on building a top team and determining their ambitions, while leaders who are close to the end of their term, might be focussing mainly on the legacy they want to leave behind.

Lastly, it is important to understand the life stage of the leader himself/herself. People in their 20s, 40s, or 60s can have a very different view on life and can have completely different perceptions of time. For instance, when talking to an executive who is 60 years old you will always have to ask why they are still in their position and what they still want to achieve. The experiences of this person from the past thus determines the ‘why’ of the future. Considering change from this temporal perspective can explain a lot, since the era of an organization and a leader are fully determined by the ‘when’, rather than ‘why’.

Sensitivity for timing

Timing is crucial during times of change. Managing and implementing change has everything to do with finding the right rhythm. This involves determining when the ‘who’s’ are ready to translate the ‘why’ into a good ‘how’ and ‘what’. When an organization is facing a crisis, focusing just on the ‘why’ makes no sense. Especially at that moment, it becomes very important as a leader to figure out what needs to happen now. The key to this is to find a balance between the right ‘who’ and ‘when’ to work on the ‘why, how and what’. This requires a great sense of people, time, and context.

The timing of each intervention determines whether a change succeeds or not. To create a breakthrough in a group, the moment to place the right intervention can last just a split second before it disappears. Every marketeer can tell you that the moment you reach a customer – exactly when he/she is considering buying a product – is worth much more than the ‘why’ of your message. In his TED talk, the well-known American investor Bill Gross shares that in analysing the most important factors for success in the 200 start-ups he has invested in, timing is the most important factor which determines the success or failure of an organization. Timing was even more important than the team, the investments, and the uniqueness of the idea or the business model. In more literary terms, the French writer Victor Hugo beautifully said: “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come”.

The awareness of timing is crucial to develop the sensitivity for the right timing. You have to be aware that the past always influences the present, and that even a small change at this moment can have huge effect on the future. As a leader, it is of great importance to understand this causality, because it helps you to know when to start an event in order to achieve a certain result in the future. As a leader, if you know how to put the ‘who’ and the ‘when’ in the right order at the right time, you have developed the right sensitivity or awareness of time. The key to this ability is to connect with yourself, to others around you, and to be aware of the era you live in. In the end, time is the most precious asset we possess, so it’s important to listen deeply to what makes you happy and spend your time well on it.

To summarize: a ‘why’ alone does not create energy,
and ‘who’ at the right time does

The success of your organization mainly depends on the ‘who’ and the ‘when’. The ‘who’ – people – and the ‘when’ – time – are always present around us. The ‘why, how and what’ can always change. Even if your ‘why’ is very well crafted, you still need the right people at the right time to put your vision in motion. That is why you should not focus like Sinek’s model on the order of the ‘why, how, and what’, but on the harmony between the ‘who, when, why, how and what’. The alignment of all these elements is the key to a successful change. An over-dominance of the ‘why’ ignores the importance of people and time.

The right connection between the “who, when, why, how and what’ determines the success of a change

Apple currently experiences that foreman Tim Cook cannot inspire from the same leadership as Steve Jobs. The ‘why’ alone does not bring any movement, a ‘who’ at the right time does. When trying to break through this downward spiral, Tim Cook can better look at the ‘who’ and ‘when’, before people automatically start with why.

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