Simon Sinek: To grow your business, let go

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Photograph of Simon Sinek delivering a talk

The Simon Sinek  TED talk on purpose in business has been viewed over 29 million times. Now, in an exclusive interview, he urges entrepreneurs to surrender sole control and collaborate to achieve real growth

When your TED talk on leadership has been viewed more times than speeches by Stephen Hawking, Steve Jobs and Sheryl Sandberg combined, you know you’re on to something.

Based on his New York Times bestselling book Start With Why, the presentation by Simon Sinek advocated putting purpose, cause and belief at the heart of business. It has been viewed over 29 million times and resonated with leaders worldwide.

Now, the London-born author is focusing his attention on collaboration – specifically how the reluctance of entrepreneurs to share and delegate, to “let go”, can damage business.

“It’s perfectly understandable why you wouldn’t want to let go,” Sinek, 43, tells Director at the IoD in London. “It’s completely yours, you started it, it’s your baby. But that can only achieve a certain level of success. True scale has to involve other people.

“What great leaders are capable of doing is extracting their purpose, their cause, their belief, and finding those who believe what they believe so that those people will treat the business as if it’s their own baby.

“The greatest compliment you can ever get as an entrepreneur is someone building the business for themselves and not for you.”

But while an unwillingness to share the workload is a trait common to many business founders, Sinek says putting this right should be a gradual process rather than an overnight change. “I don’t think delegation and letting go is something you jump in the deep end with,” he says.

“It’s more like Wile E Coyote from the Road Runner cartoon with his fingernails in the sand, slowly sliding over the end of the cliff – there’s absolute fear, there’s this feeling of being dragged, the feeling that you don’t want to go but slowly you eventually completely let go.

Still of Wile E Coyote falling off a cliff holding a sign saying 'bye' to illustrate letting go

“Like any social relationship, it’s about give and take,” he continues. “It’s like dating – you don’t go on one date and get married. You certainly don’t go on a first date and tell them all your secrets, it’s a slow process.

“It’s based on human relationships – you don’t delegate to random strangers, you delegate to people who you’ve learnt to trust and who have learnt to trust you. It’s not about the work, it’s about the people to whom you are delegating.”

One way business leaders can start to build the requisite mutual trust, he says, is by resisting the temptation to pretend they have all the answers and instead asking for help: “There’s this weird confusion people have that if you’re the leader you have to know all the answers and if you don’t you have to pretend that you do,” says Sinek.

Letting go

“The challenge of pretending you know everything is quite simply you don’t, so in itself it’s inauthentic and disingenuous. Ironically, it makes you less trustworthy when you present yourself as knowing everything, because everyone knows you don’t, right?

“The best leaders are the ones who give others a feeling that they’re contributing, that they’re lending their talents – ultimately that’s what makes people feel connected to the business itself. Sir Richard Branson is famous for saying he didn’t know how to read a P&L. Here’s a guy who runs a multi-billion-pound organisation who says, ‘I’m not really very good with the numbers.’ That’s amazing.

“These leaders have a humility about their own talents, and instead of trying to prove to everybody how good they are, they genuinely have gratitude at just how talented their people are – especially when those people are more talented than them in many areas.”

Allied to this, he adds, is providing training to empower the leaders within your business to perform better: “If people are good at their job, they’ll be promoted, eventually to a position where they’re responsible for the people who do the job they used to do.

“But often nobody shows an employee how to do that. Generally a company will give tonnes of training when someone comes on board, but little to no training when they are put in a position of leadership.

“I’ll talk to CEOs and, when I ask them their priorities, they’ll put their hands on their hips and say, ‘My priority is my customer.’ But you haven’t talked to a customer in 15 years! Your responsibility is the people who are responsible for the people who are responsible for the customer!

“And so leadership training needs to be much more than an off-site – there needs to be a curriculum and most companies have negligible to bad curriculum. In other words there is no ongoing leadership training every time you get a promotion. It just doesn’t exist.”

Similarly, says Sinek, business owners should invest in their own leadership development if they’re to maximise the potential of their people: “Your personality has nothing to do with how good a leader you are – you can be charming and wonderful and you can be a little bit bare bones and hard-knuckled – so long as it’s who you truly are, it’s fine.

“But what great leaders have in common is they never consider themselves an expert on leadership, they consider themselves students. They talk about it obsessively with each other, they read books, articles and magazines – you can’t give them enough information.

“Nobody will become a world-class athlete unless they constantly practise. Leadership is the same: you’re constantly practising, constantly learning. A failure to do so is the death knell.”

Last but certainly not least, Simon Sinek – whose new book Together is Better offers leadership inspiration through an illustrated, fairy tale-like metaphorical story – urges business leaders to seek solace in their peers.

“One of the worst things about small business ownership is it’s one of the loneliest things in the world. When business owners can get together, when you create a community where you meet on a regular basis to speak openly and solve problems, when you have nothing to prove to each other, that is where business truly thrives.”

Simon Sinek CV

Born Wimbledon, England

Education Brandeis University, Massachusetts; studied law at City University in London

Earlier career Worked for ad agencies Euro RSCG (now Havas Worldwide) and Ogilvy & Mather before launching
Sinek Partners

Books Start With Why, published in 2009, inspired Sinek’s TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” which has been viewed 29 million times; Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t (2014) was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.

Today Simon Sinek has worked with organisations including Microsoft, Disney, Mars, KPMG, Pfizer and the US military. He is an adjunct member of the RAND Corporation think tank.

The new book by Simon Sinek, Together is Better: A little book of inspiration, is out now, published by Portfolio Penguin

About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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