The Golden Circle and purpose in business

My work means I often have to write vision and mission statements for brands or work with those produced by other people. Over the years, perhaps because of my ambivalence about writing for business, I’ve become determined to try and write as truthfully as possible. At the same time I’ve grown more and more fascinated by the question of whether it’s possible for a business to exist without the bottom line being its ultimate driver.

Which has led me to wonder how a business can put purpose before profit?

Simon Sinek and human biology at work

I was introduced to the work of Simon Sinek by a guy I work with who has a scientific background.  Simon has been described as “a visionary thinker with a rare intellect”. His goal is to “help build a world in which the vast majority of people wake up inspired to go to work, feel safe while they’re there, and go home at the end of the day feeling fulfilled by their work...leading a movement to inspire people to do the things that inspire them.”

Simon’s work interested me because I’d started to wonder whether it made most sense to forget what business says about itself - all that vision and mission blah. Perhaps the way to make business better might be to look at actual human beings at work. How might taking our biology into account enable us to create businesses which are fundamentally good for people? Simon seems to be the only person who’s looking at business in terms of human biology and it’s this perspective that informs his Golden Circle concept.

What is the Golden Circle?

The Golden Circle looks at business in terms ofwhat companies do, how they do it and why. The ultimate goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.

According to David Mead, who works closely with Simon, “The three components of the Golden Circle correspond to areas of the brain. ‘What’ relates to our neocortex, which is responsible for rational and analytical thought and language. ‘How’ and ‘Why’ tap into to our limbic brain which has no capacity for language, is all about feeling and emotion and is the ultimate influence on our behaviour and decision-making.”

Applying the Golden Circle principle, success for a business comes down to why it does what it does: to belief and a sense of purpose.  This isn’t that different from what marketing people have known for years – brands and products succeed when they engage emotion. Simon’s genius is to place the onus on the business itself,  ground what he says in biological fact and appear to be on a genuine mission.

Apparently, as David explains, “Simon will tell you that he never intended this to be a business. He used the Golden Circle to get himself out of a dark place and he told his friends about it. Consultancy is great because our aim is to get a Golden Circle on every desk but we didn’t set out to build a consultancy.”

Does the Golden Circle work?

David gives the example of a “little accounting firm in the Napa Valley that focuses mainly on helping wineries with their accounting. Their method of growing their business was simply to sell more. But then the owner, a guy called Craig Underhill read Simon’s book Start With Why and was inspired to figure out why his firm existed.”

The Napa Valley accounting firm decided that the real reason was to make their community a better place to work, live and visit. The firm decided they only wanted to work with companies that felt like they did and actually went so far as to fire a couple of clients who they thought were in business purely for profit.

Today, Craig’s firm asks employees to do a set number of hours of work in the community every month.  Craig hosts a Why night every Thursday and he’s become a kind of culture consultant for other companies and the Napa Valley. After a few months of doing business in this way, the company’s close rate on sales leapt from 30% to 90%.

Is the Golden Circle approach amoral?

So the Golden Circle approach to starting with ‘why’, finding a corporate sense of purpose if you’d like to call it that, appears to work. As does engaging with people on an emotional level. Which is all well and good but the Golden Circle process allows businesses to choose their own 'why' so it's always going to be nice and positive, like the of the Napa Valley accounting firm. I couldn’t help asking David if it could apply to any kind of business, a tobacco company for instance.

“It’s a tough question. My sense with a tobacco company,” David says, is that “The product is harmful to people but the people in the organisation need to be taken care of. Our test for organisations who ask to work with us is ‘Are your people your number one priority?’ If they say yes and we can feel they’re telling the truth we work with them. Ultimately, though, I have to say that I can’t in good conscience help anyone run a business that hurts people so I wouldn’t work with a tobacco company.”

OK, but Simon works for the military.  “That’s a question for him. The reason he does so much work for them is that the experience he’s had has to do with the fact that those in the military are ready to put their lives on the line for the person next to them. It’s the ultimate display of leadership.” 

Also, thinking about it, even if I don’t agree with killing in the name of anything, I expect whatever country I’m living in to be kept safe and we need armies to do this. It’s when they become agents of dubious politics or corporate interests that the problem arises.

(I have to say that I did start to wonder how a tobacco company, or a weapons manufacturer, would go about arriving at a “why” for their business that they could live with. Wouldn’t that be a fantastic marketing challenge?)

My take on the Golden Circle

The principle of the Golden Circle makes sense to me. I believe that it really did arise out of Simon’s personal necessity. And I accept that Simon and his people are careful with who they work with.  Because the Golden Circle principle taps into what David calls our “naturally hardwired desire to take care of each other” and aims to bring this fundamental fellow-feeling back into the corporate world, it’s pretty much impossible to argue with.

And this might be where I have a problem with it. (There are a number of interesting pieces online which are critical of Simon's Golden Circle principle.)

Simon’s presentation is very slick – he trained as a cultural anthropologist but also worked in advertising - and giving presentations on the Golden Circle and related stuff has turned into a very lucrative business. So, I can’t help but wonder where the personal crusade ends and the business begins. (Although, of course, I assume that Simon applies the Golden Circle principle to himself and what he does and sleeps well at night.) 

Also, more and more I begin to think that if we can mobilise people to believe something, the fact that they believe becomes more important than what they believe.

Someone like David who comes from a faith background, finds belief natural. I come from a kind of “include me out” scepticism so it’s much harder for me to actually give in, as I see it, to a belief. But we both agree that people are fundamentally decent and, as we all know, any kind of business comes down to its people.

So, and sorry if this sounds like a cop-out but blogs are meant to be useful, I would suggest that, if you're interested in business, how it works and how it could be made better, you read Start With Why and watch some Simon Sinek. Given that there doesn’t seem to be any workable alternative to capitalism, taking business back to human beings has to be a good idea, doesn’t it?

Purpose-meister Brandon Peele's second question

What areas of your life are aligned with your life's purpose today? (Love, health, career, family, community, spirituality, finance, for example.) 

Learn more about purpose or register for the free 21-Day Purpose Challenge starting on January 31, 2016.