Starting With Why With Peter Docker

Today I am joined by a very special guest: Leadership and Start With WHY Culture Expert, Peter Docker! Peter is passionate about enabling others to be extraordinary. Working with individuals and organisations inspired by Simon Sinek’s theory of “The Golden Circle,” as illustrated in Simon’s bestselling book Start With WHY, Peter helps to harness the power of “WHY” to create extraordinary cultures and sustainable high performance. In this extensive interview had a chat with him to learn a little bit more about how to inspire others, what makes companies great and why this message is so important.

Hello Peter! Tell us a little bit about yourself and your story.

Hi Mitch! Well I’m a WHY guy which I’ll get to later but I’ll start with what because most people think, act and communicate with what! I’ve done lots of whats in my life which traditionally is how you tend to be defined. 

I went to university and halfway through my double degree I started to learn to fly through a Royal Air Force program, and through that the air force ended up offering me a job as a pilot. So at the first big crossroad in my life I left university and fought my way through pilot training - I wasn’t a natural pilot so it took some hard work, but by the age of 25 I was flying the British equivalent of Air Force One and flying the Prime Minister around which was a great privilege and a heck of a thrill! I got promoted quickly and ended up being the command of squadron and took several hundred people to war and back. This really makes you learn a lot about yourself and the repercussions of that are still with me in terms of how it makes you feel about life. I was a negotiator for the British government with the U.S, was the Senior military lead for a multi-billion dollar project to acquire aircrafts and also negotiated with the Russians when the Berlin Wall came down! 

All sorts of stuff, although when I was 44 I felt that there was more I could do. So I left (which surprised many!) to do a career that had nothing to do with military or aviation, and I worked with a leadership consultancy that focused on oil, gas, mining, a lot of industries where typically a lot of people get killed or injured. This was all about how to shift cultures so people look after one another. That was fantastic.

I ran that for 3 years before coming across Simon Sinek. I remember exactly where I was when I was watching his TEDx Talk in 2009 (I even remember the chair I was sitting in), and about a year later I thought… you know what, there’s still something more I can do. So at the height of the recession I left my company which was another surprise to everyone because it had all the elements of a “good” job - high salaries and great benefits, but I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. So I left, taking 6 months to take apart everything I had learned, and during that time I built a relationship with Simon and his team, and now my team is his team and his team is my team! I have the privilege of sharing the Start With Why message around the world in Simon’s name and also adding my own stuff to it.

One thing I’ve learned is that nobody has all the answers, but what is common to every sector and every business, regardless of industry, is that we are all people. We are all human beings and the simple ideas that Simon and I put forward are based on how we are all humans, and so it applies to everyone.

For anyone that doesn’t know about Start With WHY and its message, briefly explain to them what it’s about.

Everybody on the planet knows WHAT they do. 100%. Some know HOW they do it, your unique value proposition or whatever makes you different. But only the inspired leaders and organisations that seem to attract so many loyal followers know WHY it is they do what they do. We need to be very clear on what we mean by WHY, it’s not about making a profit or one choice over another, it’s about what’s our higher purpose. What is our cause? What is our belief? 

Because of the way this works, most people tend to think, act and communicate starting with what they do, because it’s tangible. People sell a television like this: “Here’s our new television, it’s got HD, 4k streaming, HDMI, wi-fi, you name it, buy our TV!”. And that is how most marketing and most messages are sent out, and how we communicate interpersonally like sitting next to someone on a plane. You’ll talk about what you do, sometimes a bit about how you do it and then it fades off. 

Inspired leaders think, act and communicate starting with WHY. They talk about their higher purpose, their belief, their cause, so if you look at all the great leaders, they are are all doing this. The magic about this is that it attracts others who believe what they believe, and you develop a great number of followers and great loyalty. 

For new businesses without a known brand name, how can they get their message across clearly but also start with WHY?

This is a good question, because we talk about thinking, acting and communicating starting with WHY, and the first two people can understand quite easily. It’s the communicating that can be quite difficult, because it works in the opposite sense to what we’re used to. All this is linked to biology, it’s the way our brains work. It’s difficult because the parts of the brain (the Limbic system, where the WHY comes from) that is responsible for the decision making has no capacity for language. 

Apple may not have to say anything about their products, everybody knows what it is but of course they weren’t always like that. Many of The Exceptions may be in that place where nobody knows about them yet, and so putting out a punchy logo is not going to have the same impact. Where it’s got to start is being very very clear on what it is you believe, why you’re doing what you’re doing, what’s the contribution and impact you’re going to make in the world. 

Quite often in startups it’s a little ironic because there’s all the passion and energy, all that possibility to do something that’s not easy! It’s not logical! It’s ‘logical’ to go and get a ‘proper job’ with a pension and a salary and all the rest of it, and so you have to be passionate about what you’re doing as a startup. The irony then comes in when people are very quick to get into the action, into the HOW and the WHAT, when actually the best service they can do for themselves is pausing for a moment and getting clear on why they’re doing this at all. Being able to articulate that is when you start to attract followers.

Now, there is a great example that occurred with a startup back in March. They haven’t made a profit, they’ve made a huge loss for many years. You may have heard of them - they’re called Tesla. Run by Elon Musk. He presented the launch of the brand new Model 3 by coming out onto an empty stage, and spent the first few minutes not talking about the car at all. He spoke about sustainability of the planet, pollution, how important it was for the future of our civilisation to have sustainable transport, about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and more. So already at that stage we were clear on WHY he was doing it which inspired us, and we were dying to hear more. He then started talking about HOW he was going to bring all this to life, talking about the history of Tesla and his grand plan. Only at the end did he talk about the what, and it was almost a throwaway comment, he said “well I suppose you want to see the car then!”. In the 20 minutes he took to do all that, he had nearly 300,000 orders of the Model 3, a car that the vast majority of people have never seen before, but because he had inspired them with his WHY, they wanted to be a part of his movement and his belief. That’s the power. 

So if any entrepreneurs want a lesson on Starting With WHY, check out that video!

--> Watch Elon Musk's Reveal of the Model 3 Here <--

So should you try to balance a well crafted message with your WHY context?

Well you’ve got to be careful with that, because it’s not just about the WHY. You’ve got to have all three, we just focus on the why because that’s the part people forget about it. You need clarity of WHY, discipline of how and consistency of what. Without all three of those things you won’t have a sustainable business.

We have to be very careful because if we start out writing marketing messages in the traditional way which is often what will ‘sound good’ or ‘grab people’s attention’ it then becomes unauthentic. Everything that’s powerful about the Golden Circle model works just as powerfully against you. So when we are starting with WHY, we need to dig deep inside ourselves and look at the times when we felt really fulfilled, the things that really fire you up. Ultimately it will always be about other people, we are biologically hard wired to serve others, that’s how we’ve survived as a species. As individuals we are pretty rubbish but together, we are remarkable. It’s working together that enables us to achieve incredible things.

I often say that everyone undervalues the skills they already have. Would you say that your WHY is already a part of you, it’s just a matter of finding it?

Absolutely, by your late teens and maybe 20, your individual WHY is set. It’s there. It comes from the highs and lows of your life up to that point, and by that stage you know what you love. Everybody has one WHY and one WHY only, it’s not something that changes over the years. The language you use to express it might vary, but there’s only one. It’s the same with a business, it starts with a reflection of the founder’s beliefs. 

My WHY is to enable people to be extraordinary in what they do, so they can harness their own why. Because everybody is extraordinary, some just haven’t discovered it yet. Your own WHY is just a simple sentence that’s easy to remember and can be put into action. That’s the starting point.

Does the success of a company and it’s message start with the Founder?

Absolutely. Let’s take Richard Branson, who dropped out of school at 16 but now owns hundreds of companies worldwide in such diverse what areas (airlines, hotels, railways, telephones, space travel etc.) and he’s had both failures and successes, but what links all of these diverse businesses together is that they are in the image his WHY, and that is to positively impact millions of peoples lives and have fun. This shines through in all of his businesses. Virgin Atlantic is just an airline, but when I walk on board a smile comes onto my face. Why? Because I know it’s going to be a bit of fun, and the cabin crew reinforce that belief. Realistically I am getting locked into a metal tube for 10 hours, how can that be fun? But it is! And it’s because of that message.

So if you’re just starting your own business this is so important. Branson started in a small room with a couple of friends. Steve Jobs and Wozniak started in their garage. Every business starts with one or two people who are very clear on WHY they are sacrificing so much to follow their passion. The challenge is to keep that passion and higher person alive as an organisation grows. And it’s difficult! But that’s why it’s so important to take that time to be clear on your WHY. If you as the founder aren’t clear on it, then you cannot be the megaphone for that belief as your business grows, and if you’re not there to be the megaphone then nobody else will be focusing on the higher purpose. It comes from the top, and trickles down through everything that happens. 

How can companies keep that alive?

Choose to focus on it. In some ways it’s difficult and in other ways it’s very simple. Get clear on the language and get clear on that simple sentence. It’s what will keep your team alive and focused, and when you are making decisions you can always ask “Is this in tune with our WHY?”.

Everything we do and say, adds or takes away from our WHY. Everything. So at the same time we are always either adding to or taking away the loyalty and trust people feel towards us. It’s all linked, so if you start with a clear sense of your higher purpose you’ll be able to articulate it and talk about it. When we talk about it, it helps us keep it alive and helps us hire people who believe what we believe, not just those who see an opportunity to make a fast buck. We then start to build organisations full of people that believe what we believe, and once we have those organisations we don’t have to manage them, we just have to lead them, and you do this by shouting from the rooftops every day why you’re doing what you’re doing. The culture will continue to build and you won’t get the usual problems you get down the road. 

Compare that to what often happens when two people get together to start a business, they’re clear between themselves, they can look each other in the eyes and know what feels right, but they don’t spend time putting it into words. They then start to hire people and then they hire someone else, and then that person starts hiring more simply based on competencies and experience etc and then the WHY starts to get lost. You then find that all these people come to work every day just to get a pay check, rather than being motivated by the belief that underpins the original organisation. That’s when you have problems. 

If you’re going to be sustainable a startup will eventually become a corporate company, but look at companies like Tesla, Apple, Virgin, they started small and grew into billion dollar companies but they still stick to what they believe because the founders are very clear on their message. When I worked in the military the leaders would walk around constantly, spreading their cause. Because I can tell you from first hand experience that if you’re asking people to put their lives on the line, you better be clear as to why! 

For any entrepreneur or leader you don’t just state this once, you must keep living it, talking about it and keeping it alive. 

On a more personal level, what would you tell your 20 year old self?

Be yourself. When I was 20 I had joined the Royal Air Force and as my career went on, the advice of those who went before me was often ‘be yourself’. I thought I knew what it meant, but its only in later years that I began to realise how profound that advice was. I remember one of the biggest mistakes I made - I was given the great honour to lead a squadron of 300 people, a squadron that goes back to 1916. I took over from a great guy, and I thought to myself “I’ve gotta be like him!”. That’s how I started, but of course everybody saw through that because it was inauthentic, and I wasn’t being true to who I am. It wasn’t until later that I relaxed into who I am. 

A friend of my daughter went through one of my Why Discovery sessions. She got a scholarship at Oxford and eventually was getting headhunted. She went to this interview for a position and they said to her: “We’ve got a thousand applicants , what are you going to bring to this job?”. 

She was equipped with her WHY. So she replied: “Before I launch into that let me tell you why I get out of bed every day. I get out of bed motivated by the opportunity to walk with others, to enable them to be all they can be in the world. I just happened to noticed from your website that that’s exactly the sort of thing that you believe too. So why wouldn’t I apply? I’ve also got strengths and capabilities that will help contribute to the image of the world that you imagine.”

She got the job. Because it was totally authentic and came from the heart. That’s what builds trust. Instead of looking at her resume and experience, they hired her because she was one of them, and they would find something she can do because she believes what they believe. 

So if I was 20 again I would say to be yourself and learn how to articulate it.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from Simon?

I spend a lot of time on stage sharing our message. Simon once said to me that when you get onto stage you can feel nervous, but at a chemical level, nervousness is the same chemical going around your body as when you feel excited. So he said to me instead of interpreting that feeling as nervousness, interpret it as excitement. Excitement to share these ideas with people. Then when you’re up on stage, be in service. That lends you to giving whatever you can, rather than just focusing on yourself and giving a ‘good performance’. Being in service is a key aspect of being a leader.

In sales and business if you’re doing it just to hit targets and you’re not making a difference you will grow tired of it. People can make good money but it won’t be fulfilling. A lot of businesses will also try to attract talent based mainly on the metric of money, salaries and bonuses. They will therefore get people who are attracted by salaries and bonuses, that’s how they measure themselves. However if you are very clear on your WHY and you articulate it, then you will attract people who believe what you believe. Yes you’ll pay them, but that is less prominent. Those people will move heaven and earth to achieve that vision and those are the people you want.

Starting with WHY is a very personal thing. Can you instil it into others not actively looking for it?

The only way to change anybody is when an individual chooses to change themselves. You cannot change other’s views by direct action in a sustainable way. You can change people in the short term with threats and incentives, but as soon as those are removed they’re going to revert back to how they were. People have to choose to do this, but the best way of creating a space into which people can step, is to be passionate about what you believe. Share that passion, and then others will start to notice! That will open people’s eyes to fresh possibility.

If you listen to someone who is charismatic, you leave the room thinking about them. If you listen to someone inspirational, you leave the room thinking about yourself and the possibility it ignites in you. If you want to shift the dynamic of a relationship it starts with you as an individual. 

Who inspires you?

There is inspiration everywhere you look. The list grows everyday often with people I meet. Anybody that is following their passion. If you look at athletics for example and the person who crosses the finish line first and seeing the joy they feel, that’s inspiring. That’s why we watch sports, it’s inspiring. The Queen recently celebrated her 90th birthday, and whether you support the Royals or not, the amount of service she gives to people is remarkable. She is still working harder than most people work and she’s 90 years old, supporting charities, supporting people in the UK and abroad and sacrificing every day. People like Elon Musk who despite criticism continue to pursue what he believes in right. People like Malala, the Pakistani woman who was shot because she believed everyone is entitled to an education. People who do phenomenal courageous acts in tragic situations. 

There is inspiration everywhere because everyone is extraordinary. 

What’s your favourite book?

There are a whole range of books out there which are great, but when I think about this what I really love are individual stories. We all write our own stories, and whilst we can read formal books, some of the most powerful and inspiring things I come across are through just talking to ordinary people. There is always something to learn.

Do you think everyone should write a book?

Absolutely! If we go back 50,000 years we came together as tribes which made us feel safe. Stories were passed on verbally and that’s how we learn and how we kept alive. Everybody has a great story, some people choose to put it down in writing and some don’t. You’ve got a fantastic story Mitch you were telling me at the start of this interview. We all have these extraordinary stories so go and read all those great books but don’t forget the person next to you. 

. . .


Wow, what an inspiring and though provoking interview. Thank you so much to Peter for taking over an hour and a half of his time to grace us with this awesome conversation! For more on Peter you can check out his website at Why Not Unlimited and visit him on Twitter at @peterdocker. To read more about Starting With Why, visit the website here. 

We've also been given a special 15% off discount to the Learn Your Why discovery course! Visit the Learn Your Why website here and enter discount code TENPDWhy16. Valid until October 2016. Enjoy!

Mitch Hills

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