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Simon Says

Five strategies for success from business innovator and leadership expert Simon Sinek.

Simon-SinekWidely hailed as a visionary thinker, Simon Sinek teaches leaders and companies how to inspire their people and build organizations where employees feel fulfilled and happy. This, he says, is the most effective way to create a lasting and successful business.

Sinek is an adjunct member of RAND Corporation, one of the world’s leading think tanks, and the author of two bestselling business books—Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action and Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. A popular public speaker, Sinek has shared his innovative ideas with The United Nations, the U.S. Congress, senior leaders in the U.S. military and numerous Fortune 500 companies. His “Start With Why” talk at the 2009 TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conference has become the second-most-watched talk of all time on
Ted.com. To date, it has gotten nearly 22 million views on YouTube.

In the latest installment of the Footwear Network Series, Sinek offers five actionable ways to apply his methods to footwear retailing.

1) Know what you stand for. Then tell your customers.

At the heart of Start With Why is the premise that people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. In other words, “People are drawn to organizations and brands that stand for what they stand for, that represent the same values and core beliefs they hold,” he says. Apple is the perfect example, in Sinek’s opinion. Apple never says, ‘We make great computers. They’re user friendly, beautifully designed and easy to use. Want to buy one?’ Instead, they say, ‘With everything we do, we aim to challenge the status quo. We aim to think differently. Our products are user friendly, beautifully designed and easy to use. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?’

“The thing that distinguishes you from your competitors is what you stand for,” Sinek explains. “Why do you exist? Why did you open your store or start your company in the first place? What was so important that you felt it was worthwhile to take the unbelievable risk, against overwhelming odds of failure, to start your own store? If it’s a family company, is it about upholding a legacy? Was there a problem you couldn’t find a solution to anywhere, so you had to solve it yourself by opening a store?”

Sinek says CEOs and store owners often tell him they stand for things like quality, value and good service. “Those are just things you offer,” he says. “You don’t stand for them. They’re not your core beliefs.”

Once you pinpoint your “why,” everything else stems from it—from the people you hire to the colors you paint your store walls to your advertisements to the experience you create for your customers. “Everything should convey that purpose, that cause, that sense of why you exist. It tells people who you are, draws them in and makes them loyal. Otherwise, you’re just dealing with a commodity.”

2) Set priorities: People first, profits second.

To research Leaders Eat Last, Sinek studied directors, supervisors and chiefs everywhere from the boardroom to the combat zone. He found that the best leaders—and the most successful organizations—value humans over numbers. His book’s title sprang from one inspiring example he observed: Senior U.S. Marines lined up last in the mess hall, sacrificing their own comfort until the needs of those in their care were met.

“Mass layoffs in the United States to balance the books did not exist prior to the 1980s,” says Sinek. “It’s disgusting that they’ve become normalized and that they’re so pervasive. Layoffs aren’t the only solution. They’re just the easiest. Quite frankly, they’re the cowardly one. You might make your numbers in the short term, but the long-term damage to your staff, your culture, your morale and your prospects is devastating. Great leaders never prioritize a number over a person. They prioritize people over numbers.”

Skeptics might say the human factor has no impact on the bottom line, but Sinek offers numerous examples to support the notion that businesses thrive when they create what he calls a “circle of safety” for their employees—a work environment where employees don’t fear their colleagues, bosses or for their job security, and where they’re valued as human beings, not seen as line items or money-making machines.

“As a leader, you’re not responsible for the results,” says Sinek. “You’re responsible for the people who are responsible for the results. As a store owner, you’re not responsible for the number of shoes sold. You’re responsible for the sales associates who are responsible for the number of shoes sold. Any CEO or store owner who says, ‘My priority is my customers’ doesn’t know their job. Your most important job is to look after your employees.”

Sinek’s advice: Do whatever you can to build their confidence, give them training to improve their skills and teach them how to deal with conflict. Make them feel like their work and their time are valued.

“What you’ll get is a workforce that cares so deeply about your store’s success that they’ll go out of their way to help you and your vision advance,” says Sinek.

Most businesses today penalize their people whenever profits go down, he says. “But there’s tons of research that shows the more trust you give people, the more empowered and valued you make them feel, the more responsibility they’ll take on and the more they’ll want to help you succeed,” he says.

Treat your staff like family. People don’t get rid of their children because they get a C in a math class, Sinek points out. They hire a tutor. So if a staff member is struggling, don’t get rid of them. Give them help. Ask if they’re okay. Find out what they need to improve.

Believe it or not, the circle of safety can have a profound impact on your customers. “I was at the airport recently when a man tried to board before his number was called,” Sinek recalls. “The gate agent started yelling, ‘Sir, step aside! I haven’t called you yet!’ I asked why he would treat people this way. He said, ‘If I don’t follow the rules, I could get in trouble or lose my job.’ That told me the people who work for this airline don’t feel safe in their jobs and they fear their leaders. Guess who suffers. Both the customers and the company. Angry people make people angry. Happy people make people happy.”

3) Think camaraderie, not competition.

Not only do customers know when employees are miserable or afraid of getting fired, they can sense when employees distrust each other. And the tension poisons the buying environment.

“We’ve all been in stores where employees are incentivized based on commission and you feel like chum in the water with sharks coming at you competing for the sale,” Sinek says. When employees have an every-man-for-himself attitude, shoppers pick up on the negativity. In a well-run store, employees help each other—and that helpfulness extends to shoppers. If they’re fitting a customer, they don’t say, ‘Sorry, I’m with someone. You’ll have to wait.’ They find a colleague to help you, he says.

Beyond scrapping the commission model, Sinek offers several strategies to foster teamwork and amity. The first is public recognition in staff meetings for workers who go the extra mile. “The best is peer recognition, where each of your employees gets to choose who they consider the most valuable team member, the one they can’t live without. It’s not always the person who performs the best. It might be the one who supports them the most. And the reward doesn’t have to be a bonus. It might be extra vacation time or just being told, ‘You were fantastic.’ Knowing your peers think you’re great and that your vote counts makes everybody work to a higher standard,” Sinek contends.

Honesty is equally important. “Tell your people the truth all the time,” he advises. “Don’t hedge. If the numbers are down and you’re struggling, say so. Explain what you’re doing well and what you haven’t figured out. Maybe you haven’t got the marketing mix right. Usually it’s the store owner telling everybody what to do. Instead, say you’re open to your staff’s ideas. What do they want to try?”

When times get tough, that might not seem like enough. “The knee-jerk is to have layoffs, but it’s not the only option,” Sinek stresses. “My friend Bob Chapman [of the global capital equipment and engineering consulting firm Barry-Wehmiller Companies] lost 30 percent of his business in the 2008 slowdown. He couldn’t afford his labor pool, but he didn’t want to lose anyone. So he implemented a furlough program where everybody had to take four weeks of unpaid vacation. When he announced it, he said, ‘It’s better for all of us to suffer a little than for any one of us to suffer a lot.’” Surprisingly, morale went up. And strange things started to happen: Employees who could afford five weeks without pay took an extra week so those who could afford it less would only have to take three weeks unpaid. The support happened organically because the group’s leader fostered an environment where people took care of each other, says Sinek.

“If you’re faced with financial pressure, it’s a hard choice,” he concedes. “You have to decide whether you have the courage to be the leader you wish you had, the one who will really fix the problem or just put a Band-Aid on it for the short term.”

4) Embrace change. It’s inevitable.

“The retail world is spooked by the Internet because the new technology is affecting their numbers. But it’s just good old-fashioned competition,” says Sinek. “It’s like taxi drivers hating Uber.”

You can complain, or you can pick up your game. He cites Starbucks as an example. Sinek says research shows that whenever the chain opens a store, business picks up for nearby mom and pop coffee houses, partly because patrons make an extra effort to buy from the independent business. “I always try to support independent coffee shops. But I’m lactose-intolerant, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone into a mom and pop shop and asked if they have soy milk or almond milk only to be told no. So I walk out and go to Starbucks.”

When competition moves in, you can’t just complain about it. You must improve the quality of your product. “You don’t need a fancy store with crazy activities,” Sinek assures. You just need a well-run store that embodies your core beliefs—your “why”—and where your people are protected by the circle of safety.

5) Learn to lead.

“All the great leaders I’ve ever met consider themselves students of leadership, not experts in it,” Sinek says. “If you want to become a better leader, you have to hone your craft.”

Leadership is a skill. You can learn to be a great leader, even if it doesn’t come naturally. And leadership is not a synonym for management, he cautions. Managers simply oversee a process. Leaders oversee people.

Where should you start? Read books, take classes (Sinek offers The Why Discovery Course for small businesses, at www.startwithwhy.com) and talk to people you consider effective leaders in any industry.

Finally, find someone who shares your goal of becoming a better leader. “Everything is easier if you have someone on the journey with you. You can encourage each other and hold each other accountable,” Sinek suggests. “We’re always at our best when we’re helping someone else overcome whatever challenge we’re trying to overcome ourselves.” •

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